The sound side of the coastal waters of the Outer Banks offered, in addition to fish, a compelling array of waterfowl used since aboriginal times as a source of food and decorative and ceremonial feathers. [ILLUSTRATION: John White drawing – Indians with feathers. CAPTION: Fig. 4-24: John White, Indians Dancing Around a Circle of Posts (1585-86). British Museum.] Commercial hunting of waterfowl did not arrive until the mid-nineteenth century, however.
Ducks for Food and Feathers for Hats
Between 1795 and 1830, Currituck Sound had “freshened” by the introduction of fresh water, and new grasses favored by wildfowl began to grow. The area quickly became a renowned center for hunting.
As early as 1861, Edmund Ruffin provided an account of commercial waterfowl (duck) hunting on the upper Currituck Sound. It was, he said, “a branch of industry of considerable importance for its amount of profit." Detailing one property owner’s operation, Ruffin said that
The shooting (as a business) on his shores is done only by gunners hired by himself, and for his own profit, and who are paid a fixed price for every fowl delivered to him according to its kind, from the smallest or least prized species of ducks, to the rare and highly valued swan. Mr. B. has employed thirty gunners through a winter. He provides and charges for the ammunition they require, which they pay out of their wages.101
Prices for fowl in the 1880s ranged from $0.25 to $1.00 per pair, depending upon the species.
In 1884, H. H. Brimley, a North Carolina state museum zoologist searching for specimens, provided a graphic account of the widespread practice of gunning from “sink boxes.” Coffin-like boxes loaded with ballast to sink them to water level were surrounded with 150 or so decoys. One or two hunters armed with 10-gauge guns with 32-inch barrels could bring down as many as 125 birds in a single day of shooting. [ILLUSTRATION: Carteret Waterfowl Heritage p10 sink box. CAPTION: Fig. 4-25: Carteret County waterfowl hunters in sink box. Dudley, Carteret Waterfowl Heritage, 10] “[A] majority of the inhabitants of the shores of the sound,” Brimley reported, “made most of their winter’s income directly or indirectly from the commercial hunting of wildfowl.”102
By 1880, coastal historian David Cecelski writes, the wholesale slaughter of waterfowl and birds had become “commonplace and relentless.” [ILLUSTRATION: Carteret Waterfowl Heritage p50 gunners in blind.JPG. CAPTION: Fig. 4-26: Gunners in blind, Carteret County. Dudley, Carteret Waterfowl Heritage, 50.] The new post-Civil War style of decorating ladies’ hats with bird feathers had added a new market sector to the by then long established one focused on waterfowl (mainly ducks) as food. Some 82,000 workers were employed in the millinery trade. Hunters first concentrated on the more colorful birds, but when those became scarce they turned to drabber species. Still another new sector opened with the activities of “eggers” who peddled coastal bird eggs. Within a decade, local families were alarmed by the excess.103
To bring some restraint and responsibility into the system, the North Carolina Audubon Society was formed in 1902. Some new laws put North Carolina at the forefront of efforts to develop an effective regulatory system, but Audubon wardens, Cecelski says, met “stiff opposition,” and a black market soon emerged. The Gunners and Fishermen’s League, organized in Currituck County, managed by 1909 to strip the legislation of enforcement authority. It was not restored until Federal migratory bird legislation was passed in 1918 and the North Carolina Game Commission was established in 1927.104
The new laws restricted hunting, but did not eliminate it. A wayside sign in the now totally depopulated village of Portsmouth advises visitors that as late as 1928,
Brothers-in-law Jody Styron and Tom Bragg built their house using materials salvaged from at least two older buildings. Tom, Jody, and Jody’s wife, Hub, ran a hunting service out of their new home. While Tom and Jody guided hunters out into the marshes, Hub cooked the meals and kept house.
Extra-legal Maritime Activities
The legitimate maritime work of the Outer Banks – whaling, piloting, lightering, commercial fishing, keeping lighthouses, dragging Life-Saving Service rescue boats down the beach and into the surf, manning Coast Guard craft in every kind of weather – was (and remains) arduous, physically exhausting, frequently dangerous, and on the whole neither highly nor reliably paid. People do it because it is, when all is said and done, honest and interesting work, and above all work that is available to be done to support oneself and one’s family.
Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that – alongside this legitimate maritime economy – there has long been an illegitimate, underground economy that seemed (to some, at least) to promise quicker, easier money.
We begin, however, with an often commented upon borderline-illicit activity that offered, not to make anyone rich quickly, but perhaps to ease the burden of subsistence in a challenging economic and physical environment.
The legendarily treacherous waters off the Outer Banks have been the site of countless shipwrecks from the time of early exploration and settlement. Even in the absence of hurricanes, the Graveyard of the Atlantic turned countless ships into wrecks that were either close enough to shore to access once the storm passed, or (better) left stranded on the beaches.
Numerous writers have reported that Outer Banks residents took advantage of such oft-repeated tragic events (even luring ships onto dangerous shoals by tying a lantern to a pony’s neck and leading it along the shore) to engage in “wrecking”: scavenging the shipwrecks for salvageable cargo, or the passengers’ and crews’ personal effects, or timbers and planking that might be put to other uses. [ILLUSTRATION: Stripping the Wreck from Merryman p 13. CAPTION: Fig. 4-27: “Stripping the Wreck” [before 1902]. Merryman, The United States Life-saving Service – 1880, 13. Reprinted from Scribner’s Monthly Magazine.] During the Civil War a Union colonel observed that Bankers were “a class of people who subsist from fishing and hunting as well as from cargoes stranded upon the stormy coast,” and other outsiders voiced similar views.105
More than a half-century ago, however, Dunbar countered that “there are only a few recorded cases” of such activity – one on the northern Banks in 1696, the retaliatory plunder of marauding Spanish ships in 1750, and a couple of instances during the Revolution. The rarity of such cases, Dunbar concluded, made Bankers “undeserving of their reputation.”106
Indeed, had Outer Banks residents engaged in such activity with abandon, they would have done so at their legal as well as physical peril – at least from the late eighteenth century onward. Somewhat belatedly, the North Carolina legislature in that year established wreck districts, administered by Commissioners of Wrecks appointed by coastal counties. Citizens aware of wrecks were obliged to report them to the Commissioner; appropriating goods without doing so was subject to fine. The Commissioner’s duty when a shipwreck occurred was to collect a group of men, go to its aid, and take custody of both the vessel and its goods and cargo until proper compensation was paid by the vessel’s owners or the owner of the goods. Goods unclaimed for a year were disposed of at a public sale (or vendue) and the money held by the clerk of court.
Such a process could benefit local residents, who could receive modest payment as “salvers,” help to remove and guard goods from the ships, or purchase desirable goods at bargain prices.107 Such episodic activity could hardly have provided sufficient, or sufficiently reliable, income to have made it a substantial part of the Banks economy, however.
Contraband and Smuggling
Moving contraband and smuggling in North Carolina were in evidence at least by the late seventeenth century, and they could at that time properly be considered politically motivated activities. To promote British mercantilism, Parliament had passed the Navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660, and later the Plantation Duty Act of 1673. Taken together, those laws limited trade between Great Britain and its colonies to British, Irish and colonial vessels, and prohibited some products (including tobacco) from being shipped anywhere but to England. For economic and political reasons (tobacco was a major crop, after all), these laws were widely violated.108
More than thirty years ago, Ehrenhard pointed out that the very nature of the North Carolina coast “invited smuggling throughout the colonial period.” Masters of vessels soon realized, he observed, “the ease of breaking cargo at the inlets and of loading goods onto small boats to be taken to any one of the numerous small settlements or landings, thereby avoiding payment of customs.”109
In the early eighteenth century, especially in the Albemarle, New Englanders were given to passing through Roanoke and Currituck inlets and offloading their goods without paying duties. Noleen McIlvenna’s recent history of the Albemarle (1660-1713) explores the widespread and systematic smuggling that took place in the wake of the British empire’s passage of the Navigation Acts. “[A]lmost all of the colonies on the American seaboard ignored [the Acts],” she says, “and set up elaborate smuggling operations.” And it happened most, and best, McIlvenna points out, in North Carolina, where the geography of the coast was most favorable. Those who in hope of personal gain tried to set themselves up as customs collectors “became among the most hated men in the colonies.”110
Smuggling also took place at Ocracoke in the early eighteenth century, and for twenty years, governors urged that a customs house be established there. Finally in 1753, the legislature created the town of Portsmouth partly for that purpose.111 [ILLUSTRATION: Smugglers 1867 NCC. CAPTION: Fig. 4-28: Attack upon Smugglers by United States Revenue Officers at Masonborough, North Carolina, 1867. Harper’s Weekly, 16 November 1867, 729. Item 83-618, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]
Data are scarce on the prevalence of smuggling for the next nearly two centuries, but in the mid-1930s, coastal journalist Aycock Brown wrote a revealing series on the topic. The first focuses on an account of smuggling a million dollars’ worth of opium into the state. Brown also detailed the story of a boat captain who waxed nostalgic about the money he had made during Prohibition, running rum through the inlets from offshore vessels. “There are also true accounts,” he continues, about “Civil War blockade runners, alien smugglers, [and] Cape Verde Islanders” who tried to enter without passports.112
In the 1970s, North Carolina’s coast again became attractive for Latin American smugglers of marijuana. The Associated Press reported in December 1977 it was “becoming the same haven for marijuana smugglers . . . that it was for rum runners in the 1920s,” according to the U.S. attorney for eastern North Carolina. A recent seizure of a vessel several miles up the Cape Fear near Wilmington had netted 17.5 tons of marijuana – only one of three such recent seizures. The year before, 23 tons were seized on Pamlico Sound. State Bureau of Investigation director Haywood Starling estimated that for every vessel captured, two or three escaped detection.113 A May 1981 U. S. Supreme Court case (451 US 997 Trapper v. North Carolina) noted that Hyde County “is regularly used by smugglers of marihuana [sic].”114
Legends about pirates (Blackbeard preeminent among them) and the Outer Banks have flourished and persisted, perhaps even beyond what the historical evidence warrants, but their depredations were serious, and deserve attention.
Historian of pirates and privateers Lindley Butler has observed that the two occupations were “so closely intertwined as to be inseparable.” The temptation for the captain of an armed privateer to veer into piracy was great. In the western hemisphere, he says, English pirates were to a degree tolerated by Great Britain because “they could be counted on to defend the British West Indian colonies.” Eventually pirates in the Caribbean became a menace to the British state, however, and were given clemency and pushed out. In search of fresh prey, pirates moved to the North and South American coasts. As early as 1665, Virginia Governor William Berkeley reported that the waters were “so full of pirates that it is impossible for any ships to go home safely.” and a number of them turned up off the North Carolina coast.115
The “golden age” of piracy, North Carolina historians Lefler and Newsome conclude, lasted roughly thirty years – from 1689 to 1718. As early as 1683, they observe, the Lords of Trade complained of the “harboring and encouraging of Pirates in Carolina,” and asserted that several governors had rewarded and sheltered pirates and shared their booty.116 Ehrenhard argued that since North Carolina’s commerce was not as great as Virginia’s or South Carolina’s, the state was not as hostile to pirates as her neighbors. Additionally, as McIlvenna has observed, the passage of the widely hated and ignored Navigation Acts in the 1680s made piracy more attractive both in the Albemarle and in the Charles Town region.117
At the end of the seventeenth century, the Cape Fear area – still relatively unsettled and conveniently close to Charles Town, a favorite source of plunder for the pirates – was regarded as an excellent base: proximate to the Cape Fear and Pamlico rivers and to Bath, where they could sell directly to consumers rather than to the middlemen of New Providence in the Bahamas. Even after paying off colonial officials in North Carolina, an expected cost, they came out ahead.118
The illicit enterprise received a boost, David Stick points out, from the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, which ended Queen Anne’s War (or the War of Spanish Succession) among France, Spain, the Dutch and the British. Great Britain agreed not to attack Spanish ships, and in return Spain recognized British right to colonies in the New World. These agreements disestablished many privateers. Not illogically, many of them became pirates –as many as 2,500 of them operating in the Caribbean and on the Carolina coast.119
Except for the coastal hazards that plagued all vessels (of whatever nature) off North Carolina, conditions were favorable for piracy, Butler points out: isolated backwaters, the weak authority of proprietary officials, sparse settlement, the relative poverty of the colony, and lax customs regulation. Chesapeake Bay pirate Roger Makeele, pursued by Virginia Governor Francis Howard, moved south to North Carolina.120 Fortunately, the most intense North Carolina interval of pirate activity actually lasted only about a year (1718).121
Among those who operated on the North Carolina coast (Captain Pain, Christopher Moody, John Cole, Robert Deal, Charles Vane, Richard Worley, "Calico Jack" Rackam, Francis Farrington, and perhaps Anne Bonny), the most infamous were Edward Teach (Blackbeard), and Stede Bonnet.122 Blackbeard (a former privateer) moved up from his depredations on the South Carolina coast to the Outer Banks in the spring of 1718 with four vessels and some 400 crewmen.
Blackbeard’s demise was directed not from North Carolina, where his association with Governor Eden allowed space to operate, but by Virginia’s Governor Spottswood, a fierce opponent of piracy. Assembling pilots familiar with the hazards of the Outer Banks and outfitting two ships at his own expense, Spottswood mounted an expedition against Blackbeard. By the time he was killed at Ocracoke Inlet on 22 November 1718 and his head dangled from the bowsprit of British Lt. Robert Maynard’s vessel, he had captured more than two-dozen ships.123 [ILLUSTRATION: Blackbeard fights Royal Navy Lt Robert Maynard at Ocracok Inlet 22 Nov 1718. CAPTION: Fig. 4-29: Blackbeard fights Royal Navy Lt Robert Maynard at Ocracoke Inlet 22 November 1718. Hughson, Blackbeard & The Carolina Pirates (1894), facing 5] Stede Bonnet, for a brief time in league with Blackbeard off the Carolina coast, soon moved to Virginia and then back to the Cape Fear, where he was also captured in the fall of 1718. He was hanged in Charles Town soon thereafter.124
Despite the demise of the demonic demigods of piracy, piratical depredations continued for decades to be a cause for public concern in North Carolina. In 1736, the General Assembly agreed upon a schedule of fees payable to the Register of the Court of Admiralty for the trial of pirates: issuing warrants for their apprehension, examining informers, attending court, summoning witnesses, drawing up the sentence, and preparing the Warrant of Execution.125
The best efforts of mid-Atlantic opponents of piracy notwithstanding, the practice continued at some level throughout the eighteenth century. An 18 July 1792 article in The Pennsylvania Gazette describes an incident in Portsmouth six weeks earlier. “We have 7 pirates,” said the observer,
brought here by Mr. J. Wallace, who were sent from . . . [Richmond] to Newbern two days ago. . . . Wallace was informed that a crew of men had landed from two boats . . . , and had given away their boats, and told that the captain of [their] vessel . . . would not leave her, altho' she was then sinking. … Wallace . . . immediately went to examine, and as he was going on shore he met two of the pilots in a boat carrying 7 of the crew of the Washington . . . . [He] learnt that there were two Frenchmen at Portsmouth, who would not come with them, and could not speak English. He . . . was just able to understand . . . that the crew had killed the captain and mate. He then man[n]ed his pilot boat, and [captured] the others . . . . We put them in jail, and in a short time after, a lad amongst them called out that they were going to murder him. [O]n examination he informed that the vessel was a French brig from Savannah . . . bound to Bordeaux, laden with tobacco and rice, [and] that on Monday last the six men now sent to Newbern . . . did murder the captain and mate, and threw them over-board, then got drunk and plundered the captain's and mate's chests. They stayed on board rioting and quarrelling . . . [until] they saw a schooner coming towards them. . . . [They] then attempted to scuttle the vessel, but could not do it . . . .126
There appears to be no evidence that, however lucrative piracy was for the likes of Teach and Bonnet, Banks residents ever shared in the booty. Blackbeard did, however, pass a portion of the loot from a captured French ship to Governor Eden (who had already pardoned him) and the governor’s secretary Tobias Knight.127 More broadly, however, one must take care not to assume impermeable boundaries between purely evil pirates and ethically upright North or South Carolinians. More than a century ago, Hughson (an early and careful student of piracy) observed that the privateers (licensed freebooters) who sailed into the Carolinas, ships laden with recently seized valuables,
would scatter their gold and silver about with so generous a hand that their appearance soon came to be welcomed by the trading classes; and by means of their money they ingratiated themselves not only with the people, but with the highest officials of the government. For many years after the founding of Carolina most of the currency in circulation was the gold and silver pieces brought in by the pirates and privateers from their cruises in the West Indian waters.128
An economic activity related in various ways to some of those treated here, and in any case central to the early economic development of all of eastern North Carolina, was slavery. We turn to that topic in the next chapter.