Chapter 8: Down East, Far West, and Hoi Toide: Thinking About Culture and the Outer Banks
In recent years, popular discourse about the Outer Banks has been unrelievedly positive and romantic. But it has not always been so – especially with regard to culture. At various times, bankers have been disparaged as unkempt and uncouth pre-moderns, reviled as unprincipled “wreckers” who steal the clothing and valuables of shipwreck victims, honored and decorated as life-saving surfmen and Coast Guardsmen, romanticized as whalers and fearless fishermen.
This chapter maps some long-wave changes in such views, tests them (when available evidence permits) against historical fact, and examines in some detail the most central current in nearly universal current view: hoi toide speech. In the process, we will examine a regional linguistic and cultural analogy (to Appalachia) featured in the work of hoi toide’s most skillful analyst.
In North Carolina, the locales most often represented as offering the spiritual and cultural boons of travel and exploration are the western mountains and the coastal counties, especially the Outer Banks. Oddly, as we will shortly suggest, those two regions are associated more deeply and frequently than one might suppose.
Consider an eloquent statement distributed by the Core Banks Waterfowl Museum on Harkers Island:
It is not an easy place to get to, Core Sound. The region begins where most folks' geographic knowledge of North Carolina ends . . . . It is wild country over there on the Banks. Not a soul lives there. It was not always so.
These are the two ways to get here: … Either way, it's a trip through time and space, into the heart of North Carolina's true Down East. This is a place fashioned by the sea and sand and wind, and the people who call it home. Here, history is a patchwork quilt of ancient whaling stories and round-stern workboats, crabpots and clam rakes, and waters where fishermen and hunters navigate their boats by the church steeples rising over the mainland. And waterfowl, always waterfowl. . . .
There is no other place like Core Sound. There are no other stories like these … [told by] unforgettable folks . . . [rooted] in a necklace of working communities with one foot in the water and the other on land. . . . Knowing where you are Down East means knowing that the beam from the Cape Lookout lighthouse flashes every 15 seconds . . . . To the sons and daughters of the Bankers, it means home. . . . [T]here is no way of drawing a line between who you are and the world of marsh and beach and tangled piney woods …. [H]istory and lore cling to this sliver of coastal North Carolina like barnacles to a skiff bottom.1
The themes are beguiling: a wild and remote place, mysterious and appealing, inhabited still by people who know and love it deeply, reachable only by magical space-time travel. Compelling history infused with irresistible lore. A fusion of nature and culture that brings uncommon happiness, commitment, and knowledge. A sphere of meaningful work. Families that endure. A home one belongs in, returns to perennially, and never tires of telling engrossing stories about.
This wholly positive construction of the Banks has become so normalized in popular discourse that it is rarely challenged. But that has not always been the case. Indeed it appears that almost the only widely agreed upon “fact” is that the Outer Banks were “remote” and “isolated,” and therefore to be understood as “different.” As such, they were comprehensible only in terms not applicable to mainstream society. Whether those terms should be negative or positive was not a completely settled issue, but in the early years, they were frequently negative.
As early as 1728, Virginian William Byrd, a member of the commission to survey the disputed Virginia-North Carolina boundary, described a “marooner” couple living in a “rude bark habitation” near Currituck Inlet. The man “neither sowed nor plowed,” and she stole milk from a neighbor’s cow. He had only his long beard for clothing, and she her long hair “like one of Herodotus’s East Indian pygmies.” Thus, Byrd said, “did these wretches live in a dirty state of nature, and were mere Adamites, innocence only excepted.” On Knott’s Island, by contrast, William Harding’s plantation had plentiful healthy stock, including large sheep.
Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston (1734-1752) shared Byrd’s view of Outer Banks residents, referring to them as a "set of people who live on certain sandy Islands lying between the Sound and the Ocean, and who are Wild and ungovernable, so that it is seldom possible to Execute any Civil or Criminal Writs among them." Those people, Johnston claimed, "would come in a body and pillage [wrecked] ships.”2
Such negative characterizations of Outer Banks residents remained durable for many years, though the image of stalwart Banks fishermen and boatsmen was emerging as well in the mid-nineteenth century. [ILLUSTRATION: An Eminent Banker Harper's New Monthly Mag May 1860 p733.bmp. CAPTION: Fig. 8-1: An Eminent Banker. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, May 1860, 733] A hundred and fifty or so years after Gov. Johnston castigated them for pillaging wrecked ships, however, the northern press again took up the theme. Following the wreck of the Metropolis off Currituck in January 1878, the press railed against the local people who it said (groundlessly, as it turned out) robbed victims of their valuables.3
Twenty years later, as the bitter electoral battle between old-line Democrats and their Republican challengers raged, Democratic stalwart A. W. Simpson dismissed Hatteras Island Republican voters as “Yeopon choppers, Mullet-Gillers, and Beach-Combers” – all sharply derogatory terms.4 As many commentators have noted, the Democrats of the period were not highly selective in their use of epithets, but their choice in this case nevertheless bespoke confidence that “Yeopon Choppers” (a local variant of “white trash,” in use since the 1820s) would resonate sufficiently to have the desired effect.
Thus somewhere on a spectrum reaching from William Byrd’s naked and depraved Adamites to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum’s “unforgettable folks . . . with one foot in the water and the other on land,” watching the nearest lighthouse flash “Home” every fifteen seconds, lie the multiple (and tangled) truths about life and culture on the Outer Banks.