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A “History without Borders” for the Ocracoke Inlet Communities

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A “History without Borders” for the Ocracoke Inlet Communities

What would a “history without borders” that “puts the ocean at the center” and focuses on the movement of people and goods, look like for eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Core Banks, for Ocracoke Inlet, Ocracoke village, and for Portsmouth? What if Portsmouth and the Inlet were placed at the center of the story, rather than being viewed from a twentieth-century vantage point as off-center and out of the way?

For one thing, a new perspective requires simultaneous attention to at least three contexts: the North Carolina context, the intercolonial and interstate context of North America, and the wider Atlantic context. Extending April Lee Hatfield’s argument about Virginia, it is clear that boundaries of the world the residents of Portsmouth inhabited encompassed and was affected by developments in North Carolina’s key inland port cities, especially Edenton, New Bern, and Washington; the state’s developing deepwater port at Wilmington on the Cape Fear River; other American ports, especially in Philadelphia, New York, and New England; and the West Indian and British ports that were the destination of much of the colony and state’s further-flung international trade.28

Despite the fact that it was anemic compared with either Virginia’s or South Carolina’s robust ocean-borne trade, seaborne commerce played a crucial role in North Carolina’s late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century economy. North Carolinians were hardly, as Lefler and Newsome posited, “all but isolated . . . from the seaways of the world.”29 Instead, North Carolina experienced an economic and population boom beginning in the early eighteenth century that brought into clear focus the need to better manage the colony’s waterborne commerce, which was growing briskly by century’s end, especially after American independence.30 The northern Core Banks, Ocracoke Inlet, and the town of Portsmouth played a key role in this unfolding drama.

The “lost colony” notwithstanding, North Carolina’s earliest successful European settlers migrated south overland from Virginia into the Albermarle region of what after 1663 became the separate Carolina colony, control of which King Charles II bestowed upon eight Lords Proprietors. For years, the Lords Proprietors mostly ignored Albemarle and focused their development efforts on growing the more promising deepwater port of “Charles Town” (now Charleston, South Carolina). In the late 1680s, the Proprietors separated Carolina administratively into two parts, “North Carolina” based in Albemarle, and “South Carolina” based in Charles Town. By the early eighteenth century, after period of profound instability and conflict – both within the North Carolina colony and between colonists and the weak and ineffective Proprietors and the native peoples who still occupied much of the coastal land – European settlement was spreading southward and new towns were founded at Bath (1705) and New Bern (1710).31 But Albemarle, centered around its growing commercial and political center in Edenton, remained the political and economic power center for the colony until well into the nineteenth century, when 1830s constitutional reform finally shifted political power west.32

With the native peoples decimated, rapid population growth (both white and black) and economic growth marked North Carolina’s eighteenth century history. A white population of 4000 in the colony in 1675 exploded to 40,000 by 1730, and by 1770, to perhaps 185,000.33 Migrants from Virginia continued to populate North Carolina’s coastal plain, where settlement spread south and west from Albermarle. Tobacco culture expanded through this region. Meanwhile, rice and indigo plantations grew up in the southern coastal Cape Fear valley region, where South Carolinians moved north. Slavery grew entrenched as well, especially as the naval stores industry began to thrive in the Cape Fear valley region, and the slave population of the colony increased from about 1000 in 1705 to about 15,000 by 1754 and 40,000 by 1767. By 1790, the slave population stood at 100,000, compared to a white population of 288,000.34

A dramatic part of the colony’s eighteenth century growth was concentrated in the “backcountry” or piedmont region, where land was inexpensive and easy to get. Thousands of Scotch-Irish and German immigrants rushed southward from Pennsylvania along the Great Wagon Road, and North Carolina’s backcountry population spiked after the 1740s.35

Towns, of which there had been none in the colony’s early years, grew in tandem with population. On the coast, after Bath and New Bern came Beaufort (1715), Edenton (in the Albermarle region, 1722), and Wilmington (1739-40). New counties and backcountry towns soon followed, as the piedmont land boom peaked.36

The village of Portsmouth came into being as part of this growth spurt in the colony, and in some respects its fortunes waxed and waned with both the geophysical changes along the Outer Banks and the evolving demographics and trade patterns of the rest of North Carolina. It was part of a developing system of managing the colony’s (and then the state’s) expanding networks of waterborne commerce.37 As long as the northeastern (Albemarle) region of North Carolina still held power and economic position, Portsmouth played a crucial role as a main point of connection from North Carolina through the Outer Banks to the world beyond. But when other canals and inlets opened up, the port of Wilmington became predominant, and population and trade shifted south and west, Portsmouth declined. Its fortunes tell us much about the changes in North Carolina as a whole.

Oceangoing commerce throughout most of the colonial era was organized through North Carolina’s five “ports of entry,” outposts of the British colonial customs service where government inspectors regulated colonial commerce through enforcement of the British Navigation Acts – checking ships’ cargo and collecting appropriate import fees: Port Brunswick in the town of Brunswick (serving the Cape Fear area; the only port with direct ocean access), Port Beaufort in Beaufort, Port Bath in the town of Bath (established in 1715 and handling what was already becoming extensive traffic through Ocracoke Inlet), Port Roanoke in Edenton (serving the Albemarle region), and Port Currituck (serving traffic through the Currituck Inlet, but in fact a “port in little more than name” because the inlet was so shoaled by the time the port opened that only small vessels could navigate it).38 [ILLUSTRATION: Combs Lubberland ports map NCHR Jan2003 p3.jpg CAPTION: North Carolina’s colonial ports of entry, from Combs, “Trading in Lubberland,” 3.]

Regardless of the presence of the two far northern ports, as early as the 1730s, royal Governor Burrington wrote his superiors in Great Britain that “Curratuck Inlett is shut up and Roanock [Inlet] is so dangerous that few people care to use it but go round to Ocacock.”39 Thus, from the mid-eighteenth century through mid-nineteenth (when the hurricane of 1846 opened Hatteras and Oregon inlets to the north), most of the oceangoing traffic bound for parts of coastal North Carolina north of Beaufort entered through Ocracoke Inlet.40 What this meant in practical terms, according to David Stick, was that as of the early eighteenth century, “four-fifths of the inhabitants of North Carolina were settled in the area served by Ocracoke Inlet.”41 And Ocracoke Inlet’s importance initially grew as population and power shifted south and west in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.42

In the late eighteenth century, additional inland port towns developed that relied upon traffic through Ocracoke Inlet. Washington, on the Pamlico River, was chartered in 1782 and eventually took over most Pamlico Sound trade from the older town of Bath. Plymouth and Camden, meanwhile, became important ports of entry for the Albemarle region and Elizabeth City became a trading center. Further south, Wilmington (which emerged under that name in 1739/40) had already grown to a center of interior trade, becoming North Carolina’s main deep-water port and eclipsing Brunswick Town by the Revolutionary era.43

With the development of new towns and the political reorganization that followed the creation of the United States after the American Revolution, port districts included Wilmington (formerly Brunswick), New Bern, Ocracoke, Washington (formerly Bath), Edenton (formerly Roanoke), Camden, Plymouth, and, for a brief time, Swansborough. Wilmington dominated, handling 80 percent of North Carolina’s exports in 1815.44

Although its importance ultimately declined with the rise of Wilmington and the opening of other inlets to the north, Ocracoke Inlet reigned for over one hundred years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the central point of connection between North Carolina and the Atlantic world. [ILLUSTRATION: Price 1795 map Ocracoke from NCHR III (1936) 633.jpg. CAPTION: Map of Ocracoke, 1795, by Jonathan Price, from North Carolina Historical Review 3 (1936): 633.] This fact, of course, explains the founding, growth, and development of the villages of Portsmouth and Ocracoke and the surrounding facilities for managing shipping traffic in and out of this very problematic passageway to and from the Pamlico Sound. Ocracoke Inlet, a [Corps of Engineers?] engineer wrote from Portsmouth in 1835, “partakes of the character of the mouth of a river; and connecting the vast waters of the Albemarle, Croatan, Roanoke, and Pamlico sounds, with the ocean, its character is also that of straits connecting two seas.”45

Portsmouth was founded in 1753, when North Carolina’s colonial Assembly passed the act chartering and laying out a “Town on Core Banks, near Ocacock Inlet, in Carteret County, and for appointing Commissioners for completing the Fort at or near the same place.” The town and fort grew up slowly, mirrored on the other side of the inlet by the little village of Ocracoke, at which pilots had first been stationed in 1734 and where a small community, originally known as “Pilot Town” was growing by the 1770s and where perhaps seventy-five people may have resided by 1790.46

Portsmouth and Ocracoke were never great ports of entry. They were too far from population centers and didn’t have the requisite deep water harbors. Rather, these villages served as transit points from which knowledgeable people assisted ships in navigating the treacherous inlet and sailing back and forth to their inland destinations. This assistance took two main forms during Portsmouth’s heyday from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century: piloting – or taking the helm of ships in order to guide them across Ocracoke’s sand bar and Swash and navigate them to their inland destinations – and lightering, temporarily unloading cargo to lighten ships enough so they could cross the inlet’s shoals, be reloaded, and proceed into the sound or the ocean. Kenneth Burke argued in his still-useful study of Portsmouth that lightering was the “one word which can explain the development of Portsmouth.” In a similar vein, it might have been said the piloting was the word for Ocracoke.47

Piloting and lightering were crucial because of the special difficulties ships faced in approaching and navigating Ocracoke Inlet during its eighteenth and nineteenth century heyday. Two key physical features were the “bar,” a sandbar that stood between the inlet and the ocean, and the “Swash,” a sandy shoal that stretched across the inlet’s channels at the point where the inlet joined Pamlico Sound. Ships entering the inlet from the ocean would pass over the bar and be directed through one of three possible channels (Teache’s Hole, which allowed approach to Ocracoke but was, in this period, only passable by smaller vessels, or the deeper Old Ship or Wallace’s channels leading into Pamlico Sound). From the 1790s to the 1820s, most vessels entering the inlet used Old Ship or Wallace’s Channel. After passing through these channels, ships headed inland would have to navigate over the Swash, where the water was considerably shallower than it had been at the bar. Vessels with a draft greater than seven to nine feet would have to be lightered in order to clear the Swash; Olson’s 1982 study noted that larger ships that were able to clear the bar often did not even attempt to negotiate the Swash. Instead, their cargo would be transferred to smaller craft for its journey inland.48

The configuration and depths of the various channels and sandbars changed over time, but did not alter the fact that getting cargo through such a challenging inlet was expensive and time consuming. An 1819 report for state government noted that the voyage from the head of the Albemarle Sound (Roanoke River) to Ocracoke was “thought to be equal to a voyage from Ocracoke to New York or to the West-Indies.”49 Once they arrived at the Inlet, ships sometimes had to wait at anchor (at times for as long as five to ten days) at the Swash for their cargoes to be unloaded and reloaded. This extra work and delay, which an 1827 report estimated at an average of five days, added considerably to the cost of doing business as lightering and piloting fees; wages, food and care for sailors; and insurance to cover the increased risk of spoilage or storm damage to ships and cargo mounted. Before a customs officer was stationed there in 1806, the process also opened the door for illegal trade as commodities could be unloaded at the bar and never reloaded for transit to the designated port of entry and customs collection.50

Despite the troubles, a tremendous amount of shipping passed through Ocracoke Inlet during its heyday. Two reliable estimates give a sense of the magnitude of the traffic: In 1787, nearly 700 vessels “entered and cleared through the Inlet,” compared with 218 that cleared Port Brunswick on the Cape Fear. By 1836-37 (according to an 1842 Congressional report), approximately 1400 ships passed through Ocracoke Inlet in a year “bound to various ports.”51

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