Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

CHAPTER 4 An Eye for the Possible: Maritime (and Other) Economic Activities on the Southern Banks

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An Eye for the Possible: Maritime (and Other) Economic Activities on the Southern Banks

Perhaps as early as the 1760s, a windmill for grinding corn may have stood at Portsmouth– maybe the earliest on the Outer Banks, and a small salt works was set up in Carteret County in 1776.1 In other areas of the country, such an image might have promised the coming of industrial development. But that kind of development never happened – either at Portsmouth or anywhere else on the Outer Banks north of Beaufort. Indeed, this lonely early windmill was not even grinding corn grown locally, but rather corn grown on inland farms and gotten in exchange for fish harvested off the coast and out of the sounds.

From the early years of settlement on the Banks, however, there clearly was some hope for commercial development, and a sense of the need for a reliable source of power to support it. Local wind patterns made windmills seem a likely option. Windmills had been known in Europe since at least the twelfth century. The earliest one in the American colonies was built on a Virginia plantation in 1621, but it was more than another century before one appeared in North Carolina. The General Assembly passed an act to give one-half acre of land to anyone who would build a windmill to grind wheat and corn. A 1748 deed locates one in Pasquotank County, and by 1786 the mill in Portsmouth was joined by another in Marshallberg. A decade later one was built in Beaufort, and there were eventually more than sixty-five in the county. [ILLUSTRATION: Nineteenth century windmills map Barfield Seasoned by Salt Map 4, p78. CAPTION: Location of nineteenth century windmills. Barfield, Seasoned By Salt: A Historical Album of the Outer Banks, Map 4, 78] They proliferated especially in the mid-nineteenth century, but declined in use toward the end of the century as central station power and steam-, kerosene-, gasoline- or diesel-driven engines or generators appeared.2 [ILLUSTRATION: Windmill on Harkers Island ca 1904 NCC Series P1 ref image fp1-16.4. CAPTION: Windmill on Harkers Island, ca. 1904. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]

The rise and decline of windmills on the southern Outer Banks – picturesque and widespread as they came to be – betokened what turned out to be a disappointing fact: the area has never been a site of major, organized, large-scale economic activity that sustained itself over a long period of time. It did not offer the large and stable parcels of land, the labor supply or the developable natural resources (soils, mineable mineral deposits or damable rivers, for example) upon which such activity is characteristically built.

Consequently, the economic activity that has been in evidence has tended to be episodic and opportunistic – dependent upon the availability at some historical moment of an exploitable resource (whales, for example, or a certain species of fish) together with an attractive external market (for whale oil or waterfowl or bird feathers, say). On occasions when those two crucial conditions have come into alignment, an industry has arisen and flourished. But when one or the other of the conditions wanes or fails, it has declined or disappeared. Indeed, as early as 1771, a concern about sustainable supply was already being expressed in a bill submitted to the North Carolina General Assembly “to prevent the untimely destruction of fish in Core sound.”3

To understand the history of maritime and other economic activity on the southern Banks and their adjacent waters is thus a very different task from understanding the textile, furniture or tobacco industries of the North Carolina piedmont – all of which were both larger and more stable over a longer time, however vulnerable they ultimately proved to be. For the Outer Banks, therefore, one must instead map a historical sequence of activities that have appeared and disappeared, each of them marshalling an essentially time-limited resource, adaptively reorganizing and redeploying the skills and energies of a limited labor pool, and linked to an essentially fickle or fragile market.

This chapter offers a chronicle of these activities.4 Since they usually did not follow each other in a neat sequence, our accounts necessarily overlap chronologically, though we highlight connections where they existed.

Stock Raising and Agriculture

Virtually all commentators on the history of the Outer Banks agree that early settlers migrated down from the Chesapeake area in search of marsh and island areas for raising stock. When they arrived is unclear; almost certainly they were there by 1700, and probably earlier in the Currituck area south of the Virginia line.5 As economic enterprises tend to go on the southern Banks, stock raising continued for decades. David Stick quotes an “unidentified reporter” from the turn of the nineteenth century who noted that “the Banks are justly valued for their advantages in raising stock . . . in considerable numbers without the least expense or trouble . . . more than that of marketing.” Indeed a major object of the British invasion of Ocracoke and Portsmouth during the War of 1812 was to confiscate hundreds of easily available cattle and sheep.6

As the decades passed, however, stock raising seems to have declined markedly in importance. In his study of barrier island ecology, Paul Godfrey notes that the area around Portsmouth was denuded by overgrazing as early as 1810, and at length became overgrazed beyond its ability to repair itself.7

A keen early observer of agriculture and stock raising around Portsmouth was Edmund Ruffin, who published his often-cited Agricultural, Geological, and Descriptive Sketches of Lower North Carolina in 1861. Ruffin noted that the lands between Ocracoke and Beaufort harbor, though owned privately, were “held in common use,” offering vast open grazing lands, but that the cattle, horses and sheep that were to be seen were “obtaining a poor subsistence indeed.” Nevertheless, he observed, “the rearing of horses is a very profitable investment for the small amount of capital required,” so that there were hundreds of horses “of the dwarfish native breed” on the Banks south of Portsmouth. Twice a year, he reported, there was a festival-like general penning and branding of the young colts.8

With regard to agriculture – which some residents hoped would offer other modest economic possibilities, the news was not good from the town’s earliest years. A traveler passing through in 1783 reported seeing only “small gardens,” and about twenty-five years later another traveler commented that livestock seemed overabundant, while “the soil is not used for agricultural purposes, more than in Gardens & the raising of a few sweet potatoes.” All fresh fruit had to be imported because overwashing salt water prevented the growing of fruit trees.9

A half-century later, Ruffin observed dismissively that the landscape offered only “moderate accumulations of sand . . . [which]make a wretchedly poor and very sandy soil, on which . . . some worthless loblolly pines . . . can grow, and where the inhabitants, (if any) may improve for, and cultivate some few garden vegetables. No grain, or other field culture is attempted south of Ocracoke inlet.”10

Thus during the early years of settlement on the southern Banks, two of what appeared to be the small array of economic options for residents – agriculture and stock raising – mirrored each other disappointingly. A question many a resident no doubt asked was, which will pan out? Which might we be able to depend on? The disappointing answer was – neither. Ruffin’s “wretchedly poor” soil wouldn’t grow much of consequence, and the livestock quickly overgrazed what vegetation managed to grow at all.

From a longer historical perspective, the latter-day romanticizing of the “wild horses” of the southern Banks confuses and obscures this history. “The Outer Banks of North Carolina is one of very few places in America,” one tourism web site informs,

where wild horses still roam free, stubbornly surviving in this once remote coastal environment. Descended from Spanish stock which arrived over 400 years ago, these hardy, tenacious horses have lived here since the earliest explorers and shipwrecks. In previous centuries there were thousands of these horses roaming the full length of the Outer Banks . . . . With the protected status now afforded to them, they should remain free to live as their ancestors have for centuries.11

The wild horses, we are encouraged to believe, are at once emblematic of the forever wild landscape, and perhaps somehow analogous to the “remote” Bankers, enduring in symbiotic harmony with the wild and untamed landscape.

On the contrary, however – as Edmund Ruffin understood more than a century and a half ago – they are the stunted surviving remnant of an environmentally ill-advised enterprise, as are some of the structures that dot the landscape of Cape Lookout Village.12 More appropriate as an emblem, one might consider, would be the ghostly trace of the whaling center of Diamond City, whose scores of houses were wiped summarily from the landscape by the great San Ciriaco hurricane of 1899.

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