The history of the Outer Banks has always been integral to that of mainland North Carolina. Yet these barrier islands, and their historical memory, are moving. A continual process of erosion and deposition, exacerbated by high seas and heavy winds, pushes and pulls the transgressive (landward migrating) Banks towards the mainland. One day, the Banks themselves will cease to exist. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States has topography played a more dynamic role in a region’s development. It is said that it takes a river to build a city, but what if that river moved? Such a prospect was of constant concern to the residents of the Outer Banks, known as Bankers.
Navigating ships through the inlets, which constantly shifted with the sands, was a task suited only for the local pilots, around whom all activity centered. As new inlets formed and old ones closed with each major storm, so too did the communities that formed around them. In 1795, Jonathan Price described the villagers of Ocracoke quite simply: “They are all pilots; and their number of head of families is about thirty.”
During the American Revolution only Ocracoke Inlet, with its depth of thirteen to fourteen feet, was suitable for the safe passage of large ships along the Banks’ coastline. With the larger ports to the north blockaded by the British, Ocracoke Inlet became the vital passageway for supplying the Continental Army with provisions. General Washington’s frostbitten troops, for instance, awaited supplies at Valley Forge that would pass through Ocracoke Inlet. The prevalence of storms in the region and the lack of nearby supply bases prevented the British from blockading Ocracoke at any point during the war. The local pilots accordingly found themselves saddled with unprecedented responsibility for the infant nation. Their unique skill set, of paramount importance in the capricious shoals, helped them shepherd ships through the main access point for American supplies. Yet, their fellow Americans did not always view them in a favorable light.
Accused of luring ships ashore for plundering, the Bankers, or “wreckers,” experienced an often hostile relationship with those on the mainland. What is worse, the pilots did not always cooperate with American forces during the war. After refusing to pilot a French brig through the brackish waters, Captain Willis Wilson of the Caswell described the “rascality of those men,” who “wish every vessel cast away, as they may plunder them.” In the eyes of the mainlanders, the Bankers valued their own insulated community more than the greater cause of American Independence.
What many of their contemporaries failed to understand, though, were the incredible challenges encountered by these small communities on the fringe of habitable society. Faced with the fury of Mother Nature, the Bankers were accustomed to hardship. The addition of unnatural hardships—courtesy of constant British raids on sheep and cattle along the shoreline—forced the Bankers to take drastic measures. They were not just fighting for independence, but for survival.
Piloting ships through the dangerous shoals of the inlet was a primary source of income for Bankers. Local residents looked to the pilots, upon whose livelihood they regularly depended, to remedy the situation. When the North Carolina Legislature had “rated their pilotage two [sic] low a price,” they resorted to forming an unofficial union and refused the passage of all ships.
A dearth of resources also played a part in the Bankers’ suffering. In dire need of salt, without which, “themselves, Families, and Stocks must perish,” the North Carolina Council looked to their delegates in Philadelphia on behalf of the Bankers. These delegates in turn called upon the scientific ingenuity of Benjamin Franklin, whose pamphlets on “making salt by Sun Evaporation or Culinary Fire” provided innovative instructions in a time of need.
Contrary to Captain Wilson’s view, the Bankers did all they could to support the revolutionary cause. In April of 1776, the friendly schooner Polly and the small armed sloop Lilly, captained by a well-known John Goodrich of Portsmouth, Virginia, laid anchor in the inlet. Unbeknownst to the locals, however, was the fact that Goodrich had cast his lot with the Redcoats and operated with the express purpose of “annoying the sea coast and seizing ships to and from America.” After Goodrich deceptively forced the Polly’s surrender, the Ocracoke pilots quietly rowed five small boats towards the Tory ship under cover of night. Without a single shot fired, they captured the Lilly, Goodrich and his crew, and recaptured the Polly. Afterwards, the pilots received a share of money from the Polly’s goods.
The decision to turn away all ships from Ocracoke Inlet for a time, then, was a product of war—a result of extreme economic hardship—not a desire to gain loot and money. British “sheep stealers,” insufficient piloting wages (on top of an assumed decrease in business), and a lack of salt all contributed to this amplified hardship. Although already providing ample military aid and exempting Bankers from the draft, provincial leaders still did not recognize the extent of destruction wrought by these combined factors. By turning away friendly ships, the Ocracoke pilots sought the attention of government officials through the only means at their disposal. The extent of their success is still up for debate. Historian Norman C. Delaney admits that “it is difficult to understand why [Captain] Wilson received no co-operation from the Bankers.” Perhaps the difficulty lies in understanding to what extremes humanity will resort in the face of great turmoil. Like a violent hurricane, the American Revolution took its toll.
Upon a visit to Ocracoke Inlet today, one would not immediately recognize its geographic importance. On September 7, 1846, a slow-moving storm opened up two new inlets—Oregon and Hatteras—the latter developing approximately fifteen miles north of Ocracoke and thus forming an island that today has become a vacation paradise. By the Civil War, it was Hatteras Inlet, not Ocracoke that boasted the only waters deep enough for ocean-going vessels. Memories may fade as the Atlantic shifts the sands on which the Bankers make their home, but their contribution to and sacrifice for American independence stands firm in the region’s history.
D. Mallinson, S. Culver, S. Riggs, J.P. Walsh, D. Ames, and C. Smith, “Past, Present and Future Inlets of the Outer Banks Barrier Islands, North Carolina,” [White Paper] Greenville, NC: East Carolina University, 2008.
Norman C. Delaney, “The Outer Banks of North Carolina During the Revolutionary War,” in The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 36, no. 1 (January 1956): 1-16.
David Stick, The Outer Banks of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958.
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