The Battle for Hatteras Island

A Cultural and Historical Overview

The historical overview of Hatteras Island, presented in this section, is intended to provide a general historical context in which the Fort Clark survey project may be assessed. Neither the pre-Civil War nor the post-Civil War period presentations, except where site specific information is presented, are intended to be thorough expositions on such a complex subject and the reader should refer to the sources cited herein for further details. While we are specifically interested in the Civil War period, Hatteras island has a long and rich prehistory and history.

Prehistory Period (300 B.C. - A.D. 1650)

Based on current archaeological evidence, humans first occupied the presently exposed portions of Hatteras Island south of Buxton sometime after 300 B.C. Intact shell midden deposits and other material culture evidence from the Middle Woodland period (300 B.C. - A.D. 800) have been identified on the southern portion of the island. The first visitors to the islands of the Outer Banks likely came to hunt and forage on the islands and to establish seasonal fishing and shellfishing camps (Phelps 1982, 1983, 1984). By A.D. 800, the Middle Woodland period culture was assimilated or displaced by an intrusive culture from the north. The new culture, as compared to the preceding, was more horticulturally oriented and more sedentary. Permanent settlements were erected on the island and the newcomers produced distinctive, crushed shell-tempered ceramics, the Colington series, attributed to the Late Woodland period (A.D. 800 - 1650) (Haag 1956; Phelps 1982, 1983, 1984). Ethnohistoric records indicate that Algonkian speaking peoples inhabited Hatteras Island when English explorers first landed on the Outer Banks in 1584. The archaeological manifestations (e.g., material culture, settlement patterns, etc.) of the historically known Algonkian groups in North Carolina are identical to those dating back to A.D. 800. As such, the Colington phase was the prehistoric antecedent to the Protohistoric Period (A.D. 1650 - 1715) Carolina Algonkian culture. The capital town of the Algonkian chieftom known historically as Croatan or Croatoan (31DRI) was located at Buxton and at least five other Colington phase habitations have been recorded in the vicinity of Hatteras Village and Frisco (Haag 1956; Phelps 1982, 1983, 1984).

Colonial and Antebellum Period (A.D. 1650 - 1860)

By 1650, European settlers began filtering down from Virginia settlements into North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound region (Dunbar 1958; Powell 1989). As colonial warfare and exposure to European diseases (e.g., pneumonia, smallpox, etc.) began to take their toll upon native peoples (Lee 1963), the Carolina Algonkian population dwindled and Native-American groups were gradually displaced by incoming European settlers. Many native communities from the coastal area were forced to move to inland reservation lands by the Colonial government (Lee 1963; Phelps 1983). Torres (1985) and Dunbar (1958) have suggested that the most of the surviving Hatteras Island natives were eventually assimilated by the English settlers in the eighteenth century. By 1664, European settlers, primarily those involved with livestock production, occupied portions of the Outer banks (Dunbar 1958; Thompson 1977; Torres 1985). Deed research by Stick (1958) indicated that English settlements existed on Hatteras Island as early as 1711. In his 1709 publication, John Lawson (1967[1709]:242) noted that an Indian town on the Island, "Sand Banks," with 16 "Fighting Men" was inhabited by the "Hatteras Indians." Based on Lawson’s estimates, at least 90 or more Hatteras Indians still lived on Hatteras island in 1709 (Lawson 1967[1709]:242; Swanson 1979:137). Lawson never actually visited Hatteras Island and his source for the population information, however, is unknown. Remnants of the once powerful Croatan chiefdom continued to maintain a foothold on Hatteras Island as late as 1733 (Edward Moseley 1733) and perhaps well into the 1750s. The 1733 Edward Moseley map of eastern North Carolina noted the presence of an Indian town and at least two English habitation sites on the island. The English settlements were apparently occupied by individuals or families simply noted on the map as "Gibb" and "Neal." By the mid-eighteenth century, a small Algonkian population apparently still remained on Hatteras Island. Recently unveiled documentary evidence suggests the Governor Dobbs granted a small reservation of 100 acres to the Indians who still remained on Hatteras Island in 1759 (David S. Phelps, personal communication 1998).

In his publication, John Lawson, briefly described the Outer banks, but did not elaborate upon European settlement of the Island. Lawson (1967[1709]:68-69) wrote:

Throughout the Colonial period, settlers continued to slowly populate Hatteras and other islands of the "Sand Banks." Although not formerly established until the later nineteenth century, small communities, in the vicinity of present day Buxton (a.k.a. Cape), Hatteras, Avon (a.k.a. Big and Little Kinnakeet), Rodanthe (a.k.a Chicamacomico) and Frisco (a.k.a. Trent), sprang up down the length of Hatteras Island (MacNeill 1958). Many inhabitants continued to raise livestock, while others built boats, fished or whaled commercially, piloted incoming vessels through treacherous inlets, salvaged the numerous shipwrecks, or became smugglers and pirates (Dunbar 1958; Margolin 1995; Thompson 1977; Torres 1985). During the Colonial era, the original, or at least the first historically known, Hatteras Inlet filled with sand sometime between 1755 (Mallison 1998) and 1770 (Corbit 1950). After the inlet closed and the area became stable, a number of families apparently settled in the vicinity of the old inlet (Welch 1886). As an aid to safe navigation around the dangerous cape, Congress appropriated funds in 1798 to erect a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras which was completed in 1803. The original sandstone tower and associated facilities were later renovated and improved upon in 1834 (Carr 1991).

Through the Antebellum period, lifeways and economic livelihood, with the exception of piracy which was eradicated in the early 1700s, changed very little for the inhabitants of the Outer Banks. Commercial and subsistence fishing, livestock raising, subsistence farming and boat building continued to be the primary occupations of most island residents (Dunbar 1958; Hennigar 1977a; Torres 1985). Commercial fishing became more important by mid-century as market demanded for salt-cured North Carolina fish increased in northern urban and southern plantation markets (Heath 1997b). Although records are limited, the roots of the present summer tourist industry on the Outer Banks evolved in the 1850s. Nags Head and Ocracoke developed into popular resort locations by the eve of the Civil War (Johnson 1937; Mallison 1998). Torres (1985) noted that at least one resort hotel existed at Nags Head as early as 1838. In the early-to-mid nineteenth century, the population on the island continued to expand as old communities grew and new communities were founded. By 1850, approximately 1,185 whites, 84 black slaves and 4 black freedmen (205 families) lived on Hatteras Island south of Oregon Inlet (Stick 1958:89).

By the mid-nineteenth century, many of the outer Banks’ islands had been largely denuded of sizable trees as the largest live-oak and cedar trees of the maritime forests were cut down for terrestrial and marine architectural use and firewood. During the same period, the transition from fenced livestock to free-range livestock grazing was made. Livestock overgrazing further contributed in the general deforestation of many areas of the island (Hennigar 1977a). It has been suggested that the general deforestation of the Outer Banks in the mid-to-late nineteenth century stimulated major aeolian erosion which led to significant decreases in the elevations of some islands. The decrease in landform elevation further led to increased incidents of ocean and sound overwash during comparatively minor storm events (Stratton 1943). Some deforested areas evolved into extensive dune fields that migrated with the winds and consumed existing vegetated areas as well as habitation sites. As one later observer colorfully noted: "The white death is a naked, gleaming, shifting flood of sand moving ever inland…inexorable as fate… swallowing and destroying everything that lies before it in its way." (Pyle 1890; quoted in Hennigar 1977a:3-1).

In 1846, a powerful storm breached Hatteras Island just west of Hatteras Village and reopened Hatteras Inlet (Welch 1886). To date, the inlet remains open, albeit much further south and west of its 1846 location. The same storm reopened Oregon Inlet north of the Cape (Ruffin 1861). Houses in the vicinity of Hatteras Inlet apparently existed before the inlet was suddenly and violently formed in 1846 (Denny 1879; Welch 1886). During the Civil War, Denny (1879:58) noted of Hatteras Inlet: "Years ago, a farm house with its grapery and garden, stood on the spot where our vessels anchored, all washed away by angry waves in one night of fearful storm." Settlement activities in the area between 1846 and the outbreak of the Civil War are unknown. An 1853 Coast and Geodetic Survey chart of Hatteras Inlet indicates a solitary structure of unknown function approximately 400 m northeast of Fort Clark’s future location (United States Coast Survey [USCS] 1853)(Figure 7). Perhaps one of the island’s 35 pilots listed in the 1850 census (Dunbar 1958) lived in the house near the inlet. A heavily vegetated landform, referred to as "Round Hommock," is shown approximately 200 m southwest of the structure. The 1857 US Coast and Geodetic Survey topographic map of Hatteras Inlet refers to the landform as "Quidley’s Hammock" (USCS 1857) (Figure 8). According to the pre-1860 maps and charts, this landform was apparently the only distinctive topographic feature near Hatteras Inlet (USCS 1853, 1857). By 1850, Ocracoke Inlet had partially filled to the degree that only the smallest coastal traders could pass through to the Pamlico Sound (Mallison 1998; Ruffin 1861). Hatteras Inlet, on the other hand, developed a deeper channel and assumed "…the position of supremacy among the inlets" of the Outer Banks by the late-1850s (Mallison 1998:15).

Denny (1879) briefly described Hatteras Island and the life of its people shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. As a northern soldier with apparent predisposed antipathy for Southerners, Denny disdainfully observed:

Bosbyshell (1895) provides a somewhat less critical description of the islanders at the time of the war. He provided the following colorful "snapshot" of island lifeways:

Copyright 2000

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