Analyzing 1820 census records for Portsmouth, Kenneth Burke found that the majority of the men there at that time were engaged in commercial activities focused on lightering, fishing, and navigation, though six worked in manufacturing. At that time, as well, most of the ships that called Portsmouth their home port were smaller schooners – not appropriate for seagoing travel and probably used as lighters. The size of ships based at Portsmouth increased from 1816 to 1839. Still, in 1850, with a population of 346 whites and 117 slaves included a majority of the adult white men employed as pilots, mariners, and boatmen.141
Occupations_Listed_in_Federal_Census__Portsmouth_Island_142'>Table 2-2: Workers in Specified Occupations Listed in Federal Census
Thus during the century when thousands of ships from going “to and from the most remarkable places” passed in and out through Ocracoke Inlet, these black and white residents of Portsmouth were not fundamentally isolated or particularly provincial, but were instead deeply entangled with state, national, and international politics, and with the social and cultural worlds of other American ports north and south, the multi-national ports of the West Indies, and the inland towns that dotted the shores of North Carolina’s huge sounds.
On a large scale, the shifting sands and winds of political and economic change in the volatile late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the British North American colonies – and other European outposts throughout in the Americas – gained their independence – radically and repeatedly altered policies controlling trade and international shipping in the Atlantic. Policies emanating from England, other European powers retaining colonies in the West Indies, the new United States Congress, or the North Carolina colonial or state legislatures (e.g., levying tariffs or fees, regulating piloting, appropriating money – or not – for internal improvements, locating or closing customs houses or ports of entry, locating lighthouses) shaped life at the Inlet. Wars – the American Revolution, the European wars of the Napoleonic era, the War of 1812 – altered trade routes, changed trade policies, created or broke up trading zones, and produced shipping dangers that had previously not existed.
While they shaped life for everyone in the Ocracoke Inlet communities, these Atlantic world connections also had specific meanings for various sub-groups within what were not, after all, completely homogenous worlds. For white pilots like John Wallace and various members of his family – already in the late eighteenth century dominating the local economy – the connections meant a route to upward mobility through ties to inland tidewater elites like John Gray Blount. Wallace traveled back and forth to the mainland – visiting with his partner Blount – moved into positions of local and statewide political leadership, and manipulated political systems (via his and Blount’s connections through Blount’s brothers) to the benefit of Shell Castle. He furnished his “fine house” with material goods brought in from northern ports and Europe.
The local ties with Blount, furthermore, shaped the lives of all of the pilots and lightering workers associated with Shell Castle, connecting them all to trade networks up and down the east coast and to the West Indies as Blount ships ferried a wide array of cargo back and forth. Piloting, lightering, and the resultant delays while ships waiting for these activities to be concluded offered exceptional opportunities for locals to handle goods and interact with mariners who had traveled to distant places.
These ties were especially significant for the African American slave watermen, upon whose backs much of the work at Ocracoke Inlet fell: the slave pilots and other seamen who manned all types of vessels traveling through the inlet and back and forth between the inlet and inland ports and the stevedores who unloaded and reloaded cargo. As Cecelski demonstrated in his groundbreaking The Waterman’s Song (2001), the local African American maritime culture in North Carolina was “entangled with the distant shores of the Atlantic.”143
For the large enslaved population at Portsmouth, Ocracoke, and Shell Castle, living at an international crossroads meant a measure of freedom, access to antislavery information, and a real chance at escape. Black watermen, Cecelski found, were “key agents of antislavery thought and militant resistance to slavery.”144
Looking at newspaper advertisements for runaways, Cecelski found that, especially during the years between the American Revolution and the War of 1812 – perhaps not coincidentally, the years when Shell Castle flourished – North Carolina coastal slaves led “highly cosmopolitan lives” as “sailors, pilots, boatmen, fishermen, stevedores, and maritime tradesmen” who by virtue of their work or their travels were intimately bound up with ports up and down the eastern seaboard and to the West Indies.145
In 1810, 115 slaves, one free black, and 225 whites lived at Portsmouth, while 10 slaves and 18 whites lived at Shell Castle. The slaves at Ocracoke consisted mostly of skilled watermen like bar pilots (who lived on site and guided vessels across the Swash and bar); river pilots (who navigated seagoing vessels to inland ports from Ocracoke); lighter crews (who sailed in and out of ports such as New Bern and Edenton); and fishermen who ranged up and down Core Banks from their base at Shell Castle hunting mullet and bottlenosed dolphins.146
The Ocracoke Inlet communities, as we have seen, were heavily invested in the booming post-1790s West Indian trade – a key destination for many of John Gray Blount’s ships. Cecelski points out that blacks made up a “large majority” of the deckhands on the vessels traveling from Albemarle to and from the West Indies. And free blacks undoubtedly sailed in and out of Ocracoke, as they made up a sizeable percentage of the hands on merchant ships sailing from ports like New York and Philadelphia after the turn of the nineteenth century.147 Thus, the slaves who made up a large proportion of the population at Ocracoke Inlet had plenty of opportunities for communion with other African Americans who could bring radical ideas of freedom.
In the 1790s, news of the slave rebellion in Haiti arrived on every West Indian ship, frightening North Carolina slaveowners into trying to prohibit vessels from Saint-Domingue (the French name for Haiti) from entering the state’s ports. In 1800 and 1802, fear again spread through North Carolina when it appeared that plans were spreading (via North Carolina’s waterways) for slave uprisings in the Albermarle. Soon after black abolitionist David Walker’s revolutionary treatise Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World appeared in 1830, black sailors were circulating copies to Wilmington and New Bern.148 The next year, Nat Turner’s revolt in Southampton County, Virginia inspired hysteria in North Carolina and led directly to new legal restrictions on slave and free black watermen in the state.149
In addition to being a conduit for radical ideas, Cecelski found, North Carolina’s coastal roads and waterways conveyed a steady current of escapees from slavery to freedom. With a measure of autonomy, a hand on the wheel of a vessel, access to cargo areas where ships were loading and unloading, and opportunities to build relationships with sympathetic seamen, black watermen had unparalleled opportunities to flee or help others aboard a ship out of slavery.
Such opportunities, Cecelski argued, may have been especially frequent on the Outer Banks, where “slaves associated with their white counterparts . . . on far more equal terms than on the mainland.” The high proportion of slaves in the populace, the distance from the enforcing slave patrols, the high value placed upon black watermen’s skills, and the fact of confusing mixed-race heritage (itself a product of those Atlantic world connections) among many may indeed have produced a more fluid system of race relations than what pertained on the mainland. Whites and blacks in these island communities, Cecelski concluded, “seemed to have deeper commercial and cultural ties to the ports of New England than to mainland North Carolina. They crewed, piloted, provisioned, and lightered Yankee ships, and drank with, hunted with, and married `jack tars’ from the Northeast.”150
While there is no record that any of the slaves in Wallace’s Shell Castle “family” ever attempted escape, there are other documented escape attempts from and through Ocracoke Inlet between 1793 and the 1830s. The John Gray Blount papers contain other accounts of runaways, including several who cleared the Ocracoke bar and made it to Philadelphia in 1803.151
Clearly illustrating the ties between black watermen and a wider world of antislavery activism, the Boston anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator in 1831 carried the story (dateline New Bern) of nineteen slaves at Portsmouth who “crossed the bar in a lighter, with a view of making their escape to the North.” When their departure was discovered, “several pilots” pursued them in a sloop, finding the lighter wrecked and leaking in “squally” weather. The escapees, the paper noted, might have perished but for the “timely rescue afforded by the sloop,” whose appearance must have been met with mixed emotions among the refugees.152