Outer Banks History: Shipwrecks, Swashbucklers, and Swizzlers

Written on by Mindy Haas

For the past four years, my husband and I have taken an annual summer trip to the Outer Banks NC to visit his father.   The white beaches, warm aquamarine waters, and sunsets over the Pamlico Sound always leave an indelible mark in our memories. Before my visits, I’d never thought of it more than just a beautiful beach destination. Over the past few years, however, I’ve learned something new about the rich and interesting history each time I go. So, as summer winds down, and I wistfully remember my time away, I want to share with you some of the fun facts I’ve picked up about the Outer Banks.

Graveyard of the Atlantic

Dangerous weather patterns and shifting sandbars off the coast of North Carolina make navigating the waters extremely treacherous, earning it the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. The first shipwreck was recorded in 1526 and since then 5,000 more ships have sunk off the shores of the Outer Banks. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Caribbean trading ships would make their way north filled with goods. “Wreckers” would place false lights on the beach to lure trade ships to their demise. Then, they would collect the valuable goods that washed up on shore. In 1862, a Union ironclad ship called the USS Monitor sunk in a storm off the coast of Hatteras Island. Months earlier, the ship had helped defeat the Confederates in the Battle of Hampton Road. During World War II German u-boats lurked underwater waiting to torpedo passing tankers and freight ships. Because of this, the coast of Outer Banks is also known as Torpedo Alley. The most recent shipwreck occurred in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy.   A museum called The Graveyard of the Atlantic sits at the southern point of the Outer Banks and commemorates its maritime history.

Kill Devil

The Outer Banks has a town called Kill Devil Hills and I’ve often wondered where the name came from. This year, the mystery was solved. Here it goes: In the 1700’s, the sugar cane industry was booming. To extract the sugar crystals from the sugar cane plant, the plantations would boil it in water, and then let the water evaporate, which would leave behind sugar crystals and a byproduct called molasses. The sugar would be shipped up north to sell, but no one knew what do with the molasses. So they left it in the fields.   Low and behold, it began to ferment in the hot sun. By accident, someone tried the fermented molasses and realized it was a great cure for ailments. Now, they did not have modern medicine during that time, so they believed that the devil inside is what caused sickness. They used “spirits” (alcohol) to “kill the devil”. This particular “spirit” was very effective in killing the devil, so it was called “Kill Devil”. Today we know it as rum! So, once word spread that Kill Devil was a great medicine, it also came up north through the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks on the trade ships along with the sugar crystals. Many trade ships were wrecked off the coast of modern day Kill Devil Hills. As people became aware of it, they’d rush to the beach at the first report of a wreck. They would dig holes in the side of the dunes, roll the barrels of Kill Devil inside, cover it back up with sand, and retrieve when the coast was clear. And there you have it: Kill Devil Hills!

The Lost Colony

In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I wanted to establish the first permanent English settlement in North America. Sir Walter Raleigh led a group of 115 people in starting the colony on Roanoke Island. (One of their claims to fame is that they are the birth place of the first English settler).   The settlers experienced hardships and set-backs and by 1587 they were in desperate need of supplies. They convinced their Governor White to return to England to request assistance. England was in the throes of the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) and was reluctant to send precious resources or ships to a remote colony. Governor White experienced many obstacles in returning to the colony with supplies, so it wasn’t until 1590 that he returned. When he did, he found them all gone. There was no sign of struggle and the house and fortifications had been dismantled. The only clue was the word CROATOAN etched into the wood fencepost.   White’s crew refused to take him further to Croatoan Island because of a storm brewing.   The next day, he was forced to return to England. No one has ever found the lost colonists, but many theories exist. My guess is that they integrated into the local American Indian population.

Black Beard

One of my favorite spots in the Outer Banks is Springer’s Point on the Island of Ocracoke. The path winding through the natural maritime forest, shaded by live oak trees with branches that stretch in all directions, leads you onto a white sandy beach along the calm waters of the Pamlico Sound. Legend tells us that this was one of Black Beard pirate’s favorite hideout spots and some even insist it is where his hidden treasure lies. The cove provided great shelter for his ships and the trees offered a strategic lookout. It was there in the channel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ocracoke inlet (called Teach’s Hole) that Black Beard met his fate on November 22, 1718. On that night, the royal navy attacked Black Beard’s fleet and one of the officers chopped off his head in battle. Then, the crew tied it to the bow of the ship and dumped his body in the water.   Supposedly, his body swam around the ship seven times afterwards. Even today, people report strange lights over the sound and noises from the forest at night.   The tales of Black Beard’s Ghost lives on even today.

So, you see, Outer Banks is definitely much more than sun and fun. Its history is rich and full of excitement. I hoped you enjoyed learning about it as much as I do!

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