Off the Beaten Path? The Challenge of Understanding Portsmouth’s Past
In 1957, North Carolina journalist Carl Goerch, founding publisher of the boosterish magazine The State and a frequent writer about the Outer Banks, profiled the little village of Portsmouth for the Raleigh News and Observer. Roadless and perched at the north end of Core Banks on the south side of Ocracoke Inlet, the town, Goerch wrote, was “so inaccessible, so isolated, and so far off the beaten path that very few people have ever set foot there.” Thirteen mostly elderly permanent residents somehow persisted on the island, despite having no electricity, no running water, and only one telephone among them. Each day, one of them, an African American man named Henry Pigott, rowed or poled his small craft out into the Pamlico Sound to collect residents’ mail and other supplies brought by the daily mail boat running from Atlantic to nearby Ocracoke.1
Fourteen years later, Pigott and the little town were both dead, and the ghost village was being engulfed by the developing Cape Lookout National Seashore.2 The town today is little different from what Goerch described; indeed one is hard pressed to imagine a part of North Carolina that is more remote. At least two ferry rides and many hours are required to get there from anywhere on the North Carolina mainland. Portsmouth is no longer on the way to anywhere.
It wasn’t always so. The town’s decline was long and slow, but its slide started in the mid-nineteenth century, when changing physio-geography and transportation and trade patterns began to render this formerly bustling community obsolete. But that came after nearly a century when it had reigned as the most significant early settlement on the entire Outer Banks. At its height in 1860, the town had approximately 469 white and about 117 African American slave inhabitants, but by 1940, the population had dwindled to 42.3
Comprehending Portsmouth’s history requires us to martial all of our powers of historical imagination, especially since the physical remains of the village date mostly from the period well after its zenith. Indeed, only two of the 109 dwellings that may have stood at Portsmouth in 1860 are there today: the Washington Roberts House and the Wallace-Grace House.4 Most of the rest of what the Park Service now preserves there dates from the period after 1890; as a 2007 Cultural Landscape Report noted, “[t]he site lacks integrity . . . for the eighteenth and nineteenth century period of significance. Only a handful of buildings and structures survive from the nineteenth century, and none from the eighteenth century.”5
Additionally, current land ownership (and conceptual) boundaries hinder understanding of Portsmouth as a part of a larger community surrounding Ocracoke Inlet. Most of Portsmouth is now owned by the Federal government, of course, and is administratively part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. But the village’s history is intimately tied up with that of Ocracoke Village across the inlet, as well as with Shell Castle Island, a former commercial center in the inlet that now appears to be no more than an inconsequential pile of rubble owned by the National Audubon Society as a bird sanctuary.6 An understanding of the town’s history and significance, then, must place the village in its larger context, and cannot rest simply in a literal reading of its physical remains, which are best only suggestive of what once was an intensively developed area.
Yet, the fragmentary remains, administrative boundaries, and the site’s present isolation, it seems, have hindered understanding of the village’s eighteenth and nineteenth century history. Additionally, thinking about the area’s history from a point of view that has defined historical frames of reference based almost entirely upon a modern idea of the “state of North Carolina,” has also produced many accounts that have rendered Portsmouth as insignificant and isolated as it now appears.
The 2007 entry on the Outer Banks in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, for instance, noted that in the nineteenth century, “the Outer Banks remained remote, physically and culturally isolated from mainland North Carolina.”7 Portsmouth plays only a bit part in most conventional histories of the state, which focus on the Outer Banks mainly in their geophysical capacity as “barrier islands”: barriers to a state’s settlement, trade, commerce, travel, development.
There is no doubt that in some senses the Outer Banks were, from North Carolina’s standpoint, barriers. Forming a transportation bottleneck, they played a key role in keeping the state’s citizens comparatively poor and backward in the colonial and pre-Civil War periods. Waterborne transportation and commerce between the Atlantic and the inner coast of the colony or state were always difficult, although the fact that the Delaware River often froze over for several weeks each winter, excluding ocean commerce from Philadelphia, reminds us that eighteenth-century travel and commerce in other regions of the country were also plagued with problems.8
At any rate, from the vantage point of a narrative of North Carolina history that emphasizes how the state overcame the problems the Outer Banks caused seems mostly to cast the area as “distant” and (as hoped-for progress took place – using new railroads, for example) increasingly irrelevant. In this telling, the important events of early nineteenth-century history are those that improved trade and transportation and shifted the storyline away from the islands where the state’s post-European contact story – paradoxically – began.
Part of the key to this familiar narrative was the growth of the port at Wilmington, already North Carolina’s leading port by the time of the Revolution, whose huge traffic in naval stores peaked in the 1840s. Wilmington was more than 150 miles south of Portsmouth and more than thirty miles inland from the ocean, but it was located on the Cape Fear River, the state’s only river emptying directly into the ocean.9 The famous Wilmington & Weldon Railroad (completed in 1840) further marginalized the Outer Banks, as it ran from Wilmington to Weldon (near the Virginia border) by way of Goldsboro and Rocky Mount, reinforcing early transportation patterns in North Carolina that tended to run north-south rather than east-west.10
Perhaps the best port near Core Banks, meanwhile, was Beaufort, established in 1715 and one of five official colonial “ports of entry” for customs collection during the eighteenth century. Its easy access to the ocean made it, according to Cecelski, “the most sea oriented port on the North Carolina coast” in the antebellum period, but its lack of river or railroad connections to the interior meant that its overall importance to North Carolina trade dwindled over the eighteenth century and did not recover in the nineteenth.11
These elements form the core of what is by now the customary narrative of the history of North Carolina, neatly summarized in the 1963 edition of Hugh Talmage Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome’s venerable North Carolina: The History of a Southern State. North Carolina in the early nineteenth century, the authors posited, “was so undeveloped, backward, and indifferent to its condition that it was often called . . . the ‘Rip Van Winkle’ state.”12 The lack of adequate ports to accommodate oceangoing travel and trade was largely to blame for this state of affairs. “A pitiless nature,” Lefler and Newsome lamented, “had all but isolated North Carolina from the seaways of the world.” The coast was “the playground of tempests and the graveyard of ships. Sand bars, penetrated only by inlets too shallow for ocean-borne trade, made commerce hazardous, inconvenient, and expensive. On the entire coast, there was not a good natural port or harbor.”13 William S. Powell, the dean of North Carolina historians and author or editor of numerous basic reference books about the state, followed the same line of argument in his 1989 overview, North Carolina through Four Centuries. The book featured an aerial photograph of the Outer Banks on its cover, signaling perhaps, that it would place the Outer Banks at the center of at least parts of the story. But the book’s index contains only four references to the Outer Banks (plus three additional references to Ocracoke or its inlet). Powell, too, characterized the coast’s role in history mainly as a geographic “barrier” to North Carolina’s development.14
A more recent comprehensive history of the state, Milton Ready’s The Tar Heel State (2005), does not index the terms “Outer Banks” at all, but includes discussion of the “barrier islands” in the usual opening chapter on geography’s role in state history. After making a cameo appearance as the site of early exploration and the lost colony, the banks largely disappear until the discussion of early nineteenth century efforts at “internal improvements” aimed at facilitating transportation and commerce.15
Similarly, in his recently-published North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State (2008), William A. Link presses the same narrative: the Outer Banks, were a place of failure and a hindrance to North Carolina’s development. Site of the lost colony and the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” foothold for Union control of the coast in the Civil War, the Banks had to await the dawn of the twentieth century for their one moment of triumph, the successful flight of the Wright Brothers’ fragile craft at Kitty Hawk in 1903.16
Part of the problem with all of these accounts, of course, is that they view North Carolina in a comparative perspective, duly noting North Carolina’s inability to develop a busy and successful Atlantic port on the scale of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, or Charleston. Unfortunately, it is clear that as of the late colonial period, North Carolina’s export and import tonnage through her own ports paled in comparison to these other ports. In 1768-69, for instance, nearly 34,000 tons of exports cleared the port of Boston, 26,000 tons at the port of Norfolk, and 31,500 tons the port of Charleston. All of North Carolina’s ports together, meanwhile, exported only 23,000 tons. As much as one-half North Carolina’s own exports in this period, in fact, left the colony overland, and most of that was eventually shipped from ports in Virginia or South Carolina. A similar pattern prevailed with imports as well.17