John W. Rollinson's Journal:
A Look At Life A Century Ago
(originally written for The Island Breeze in April 1993 by Daniel C. Couch and appears here with his permission)

(January 5, 1827 - July 5, 1906)

Few resources exist that provide insight to the early history of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. This fact is frustrating for families tracing their roots, but equally discouraging for people who enjoy looking into the past. For many years their efforts often stopped cold simply because no authoriatative record was available. Fortunately, such a document surfaced in 1954 in the form of John W. Rollinson's journal from the years 1845 - 1906. It passed to Rollinson's granddaughter, who lent it to author Ben Dixon MacNeill. He covered the journal's contents in his book The Hatterasman and also in a feature article in the Raleigh News & Observer on November 21, 1954.

John Rollinson's journal is still in the hands of his family. The pages are 19th century rag paper, which was a prized shipwreck salvage item during his day. The covers are heavy canvas sail cloth preserved and stiffened with a hardened coating that gives it the toughness and flexibility of leather. It is bound with sail stitching.

The author was not consciously writing a history of Hatteras Village. He knew, however, that the events of his life were worth preserving, and he left this message for the future readers of his journal:

John W. Rollinson was born in Trent (now Frisco) on January 5, 1827. He was one of several sons born to Christopher and Lidia Rollinson, and he grew up in the soundside area now called Sunset Strip with brothers Sylvester, Josiah, Benjamin F., Christopher and William Rollinson. He was named after John Wallace, a late 1700's Ocracoke entrepreneur who built the wharves at Shell Castle in Ocracoke Inlet and also Ocracoke's first lighthouse. His father, Christopher, was an Ocracoke Inlet pilot (Ocracoke and Hatteras were one island from 1760-1846). The Rollinsons are descended from William Rollinson, an Irishman, who is documented on the island as early as 1716.

In 1842, 15 year-old John began his schooling. He showed a talent for mathematics and his schoolmaster, George Stowe, helped him put together a math textbook, which became the journal. Three quarters of Rollinson's journal is actually the textbook. On a page entitled Rudiments of Navigation and Vulgar Fractions, John Rollinson wrote his first entry:

A year later, Rollinson relocated to Hatteras Village, where he continued tutelage as a schoolmaster under James R. Credle of Edenton. Rollinson worked faithfully on his journal, writing down occurrences in open spaces and margins next to math problems, including his contract to teach school at Hatteras schoolhouse for the years 1849-1851:

Meanwhile, as Rollinson laid down the lessons at the schoohouse, Hatteras Village began to prosper. Ocracoke Inlet shoaled up and commercial shipping shifted to the newly-formed Hatteras Inlet. "Hatteras Inlet," he writes, "was cut out by a Norwest gale of wind on the 7th of September 1846."

Ocean-going sailing ships bound to the Caribbean from New Bern, Washington and Edenton were required to take on a pilot to navigate the inlet. Rollinson, along with Redding R. Quidley, became prominent as pilots. He writes fondly of his pilot boat, which he towed behind piloted schooners:

He married Achsah "Achsie" Quidley, daughter of Redding Quidley, Sr., in 1853 and built a house, the jump and a half style prevalent in eastern North Carolina prior to the Civil War, on a small hill behind what is now the old Hatteras weather station, next to Burrus Red & White Supermarket. In 1857 his neighbors elected him magistrate.

In 1859, he was appointed Collector of the Port of Hatteras by the state legislature, which taxed shipping traffic through the inlet. Through August 1861 Rollinson kept a record in his journal of "all ships from the West and East." The list occupies several pages. A typical example is:

Near the end of his list of ships, Rollinson recorded events about to have a tremendous impact on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and his own life:

Nearly 1,000 Confederate soldiers and slave laborers from eastern North Carolina began construction of Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark and finished in mid-July. His next entry reads:

However, the next entry records in just 13 words what is one of the most influential (yet unrecognized) events of the Civil War:

At dawn Aug. 28, Union warships began the most intense naval bombardment yet known to mankind on Fort Hatteras. It is estimated a 100-lb. shell exploded on the fort every 6 seconds for nearly 4 hours, and the overwhelmed Confederate force abandoned it, escaping along the soundside.

The importance of Fort Hatteras' capture was underscored after the Civil War by the comments of Admiral David D. Porter, an advisor to President Lincoln and a member along with Grant and Sherman of Lincoln's infamous War Council. "The Bombardment of Fort Hatteras," Porter said, "was our first victory of any kind, and ultimately proved one of the most important events of the war, giving us a foothold on southern soil."

Meanwhile, John W. Rollinson was far from enthused about the surrender. The government of North Carolina had seceded from the Union and was therefore an outlaw government. As magistrate, Collector of the Port and Hatteras' representative to the state legislature, he was subject to immediate arrest and ill treatment. His sympathies at that time lay with the South, not so much over slavery but over his allegiance to North Carolina. He realized his family's peril and fled, along with perhaps 100 others from Hatteras, Trent and the Cape, who faced hostilities. The Rollinsons packed their essentials in his sharpie and began a 2 1/2 year exile.

On the Hyde Co. mainland, John Rollinson added another dimension to life full of skills - farming:

After he returned to Hatteras, Rollinson resumed piloting and further ensured the secutiry of his family by fishing:

In 1885 Rollinson began a fishery that no longer exists:

Col. Jonathan P. Wainwright was a Union officer at Fort Hatteras in 1863-1864. He returned to Hatteras in 1885 with the intentions of making a profit for the porpoises' leather-like skins were in demand for shoes and apparel and the oil produced was used for lamps and as an ointment. The factory stood on the beach out in front of what is now the foot of Austin Lane.

The next season saw 1313 porpoises taken, but at the start of the third season, there was trouble with Wainwright:

Rollinson's journal also shows an emotional and personal side. A letter he wrote to Miss Achsie while he was away to Portsmouth on state business in 1858 is recopied near an account of a shipwreck auction:

Occasionally, tragedy struck the village. The impact was often emotionally overwhelming, and one entry describes an incident that is not forgotten today:

Good times at the Rollinson household are also mentioned. He writes affectionately of his children, often mentioning his boy S.M.S. Rollinson, who would later serve in the state legislature.

By the late 1890's, John Rollinson's aging was starting to show in his journal. He and Miss Achsie took delight in their grandchildren, but in the fall of 1905 she died. His tribute to her, written by S.M.S. Rollinson, but straight from the heart and soul of John W. Rollinson:

Throughout his life John W. Rollinson was a man of intense activity. From teaching school, piloting craft through the inlet, fleeing for the safety of his family before the Union invaders, farming, porpoise fishing, serving as a magistrate, church elder and being a devoted husband and father, he set an example in the continuing tradition of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. His own death goes unrecorded in his journal (Sammy Rollinson was living in Pasquotank County where he served as representative in the NC General Assembly when his father died). So he lives on - in his journal. The essence of his life and his journal is captured in a poem he wrote in honor of the newly erected (Feb. 7th 1880) Hatteras Methodist Episcopal Church South, for which he donated the land and gave many years of devoted service:

The above photograph appeared in the Coastland Times newspaper on January 29, 1981 in a lengthy article written about John W. Rollinson. His house (shown above), was still standing in 1954 but the property was sold out of the Rollinson family and the house, one of the oldest on the island, was torn down about 1971. This picture was taken around 1912. William Harris Rollinson, son of John W. Rollinson, his wife, Theresa Goodwin, and their daughter Mary Rollinson are pictured in front of the Rollinson home in Hatteras Village. The house was built with timbers from wrecked ships.

This picture of Achsah and John W. Rollinson also appeared in the January 29, 1981 edition of The Coastland Times.

Copyright 2002

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