John W. Rollinson's
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:
"Remember me when this you see, and bear me in your mind.
Let others say what they may of me, should anger pass in time."
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:
"John W. Rollinson, my hand and pen. Wrote on Cape
Hatteras Banks, Hyde County, NC August the 28th day
1845. Going to scool to Trent at Mr. Geo. Stowe & C."
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:
"June 8th 1849: Articles made between John W.
Rollinson on the one hand and the people on the other
that I the said J.W. Rollinson will teach three months
schooling for two dollars and 50 cts. per head and will
do everything that he can for ther benefit. Sickness
will be excepted, no other reductions will be made for
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:
"John W. Rollinson bought off A.J. Stowe one pilot
boat for forty dollars. Traded her and two horses to
Bill Smith for his boat. I put her on the beach April
10th and lost my pilot boat July 30th towing her over
Hatteras Bar behind Schooner Champion."
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.
"I qualified as Justice of the Peace for term beginning May 30th".
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:
"March 1st, 1860. Sch. George Henry, James Field
master. Tonnage 162 from Antigua and St. Martins
bound to New Bern. Cargo 656 Barrels of Salt, 11
casks Molasses, ship stores, 8 Bbl. of flower, 1 Barrel
of Sugar, 4 Bags Peas, 1 Barrel Beef, 4000 oranges, 30
tons ballast, $1,500 in gold. Sundry stores."
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:
"The Troops arrived at Hatteras Inlet to gard
the Inlet on Thursday 9th of May 1861."
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:
"Hatteras July 4th 1861. John W. Rollinson, wife Achsah
and daughter Missouri were at the Fort and went over to
the camps and took dinner with Colonel Stark. The first
Battle at Hatteras was fot by a northern steamer. She
commence bombarding the Fort about 3 o'clock on
Wednesday July 10th 1861. The first guns were fired from
the Fort by Capt. Cahoon, commander. There was no
damage done to the Fort. J W Rollinson."
However, the next entry records in just 13 words what is one of the most influential (yet unrecognized) events of the Civil War:
"The Bombardment of Fort Hatteras commence
August 28th and Surrendered August 29th 1861."
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.
"John W. Rollinson and wife and three children left home on the 28th of
August and went to Bate Williams (his wife's uncle) on the Cape on the 29th.
Went to Kinnakeet and then to Middlecreek (Hyde County) and landed
there the 30th. Stade there about three weeks in the House known by the
name of Kit Spencer. From there mooved to Wysoken (Engelhard) to the
House belonging to D.M. Selby cald the Midgett House. Stade there untell
January 11th 1862 and mooved to Dr. Selby's overseers House. Stade there
untell the 14 of March 1862 then moved back to Middlecreek to the Ben M.
Gibbs House and was there March 19th 1864. I left Wysocken May 16th 1864
and came to Ocracoke and on the 20th of May I came to Hatteras and on the
8 of June Christopher Rollinson Sen. and Redding R. Quidley Esq. moved my
family back to Hatteras and we moved in with my wife's Father (Quidley) and
Mother and staded there untell July 12th 1864 when I mooved back to the
House that I formaly lived at (after evicting two carpetbaggers/political opportunists
from New York) and on the 13th of September my wife had a son born and we cald
his name Samuel Milton Selby Rollinson. A Charge to keep have I, a God to Glorify.
Sept. 13th 1864. J.W. Rollinson."
On the Hyde Co. mainland, John Rollinson added another dimension to life full of skills - farming:
"I planted my westard cut of corn April 21, my eastard
cut and upper cut of corn April 22. Planted my lower cut of
corn April 27th 1864."
After he returned to Hatteras, Rollinson resumed piloting and further ensured the secutiry of his family by fishing:
"December 19th 1870. I caught 119 Big Talors (bluefish)
on the same day the Steamer Birbank came in at Hatteras
Inlet and was burned up."
"Commence freezing Jan. 23, 1867. Froze nearly to the reef.
Plenty of little mullets frozen in the slash. I got about 600."
"The grates run of Trouts along the sea beach ever known was
on Saturday December 12th 1876. They onley got down to Trent
at Sundown. At Trent we cought five or six thousand."
In 1885 Rollinson began a fishery that no longer exists:
"I commence Porposing for Colonel Wainwright November
16th 1885 at $30 per month for myself as Boss and $15 per
month for my boat and I have charge of the cru. Raze steam
at the Factory November the 28. J.W. Rollinson, Capt."
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.
"Stop fishing for porposes May 31th [May 30th?] 1886. Whole
number caught 1295. J.W. Rollinson superintendent."
The next season saw 1313 porpoises taken, but at the start of the third season, there was trouble with Wainwright:
"John W. Rollinson commence fishing for Col. Wainwright
Oct. 19th 1887 and fished untell December 14, one month and
17 days on pay and then he wanted to put the whole cru on
shares but they refused."
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:
"My Dear Wife - I have taken the oppertunity to inform you
that I am in good health and i hope that these few lines may
find you injoy the same good health. When I left Cape Hatteras
it was hartbraking to part with you, however, pore people must
Occasionally, tragedy struck the village. The impact was often emotionally overwhelming, and one entry describes an incident that is not forgotten today:
"October 8th 1880 - Capt. Dick Burrus of the Sch. Cox bound to Wilmington
passed Hatteras Bar, the wind lite to the eastard. That night came a terrible
gale from the northeast and was never heard of anymore. Cru William A. Ballance,
Litchfield Stron, George L. Styron, Russel Austin, Walter Gaskins."
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.
"Hatteras, December 12th 1897. Brother L.O. Wyche preach at this place today. I and
my children attended church, namely Wm. H. Rollinson, SMS Rollinson, Missouri W.
Rollinson, and Alleva C. Rollinson. They all went Home with me and got dinner and
on the 16th day of said month Sammy and wife and fore children moved to Elizabeth
City, NC. His wife's name was Betty A. Fulcher. His children's names were John W.
Rollinson, Rondal G. Rollinson, Missouri W. Rollinson (married Harry Kramer of
Elizabeth City) and Mary W. Rollinson. SMS marred the daughter of George C.
Fulcher and Dorothy his wife, daughter of Caleb Stowe. My daughter Missouri W.
Rollinson marred Charles Willis by whom she had four children when they moved to
Carteret County: Wm. T. Willis, George H. Willis, Lenora Willis and Eliza Willis.
My daughter Alleva marred A.J. Stowe, the son of Caleb Stowe by whom she had one
daughter named Lucy A. Stowe. Wm. H. Rollinson is still living with me and his
Mother at the old Home Sted and is not marred this December 16th 1897. J.W.
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:
"My beloved wife Acsah W. Rollinson, passed suddenly, yet peacefully away at
11:30 p.m. Thursday the 16th day of November AD 1905. After fifty-two years of
happy and faithful married life separation has come, but will not endure for we
shall soon join hands again where no change, neither sorrow, nor pain, nor
sickness nor death shall ever come. John W. Rollinson Nov. 19th, 1905."
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:
"Sweet birds may sing melodious songs, and fame may tell their story
I envy not their fading flags, I hope to sing in glory.
For heaps of gold let others toil, life's blooming flowers they hoard
Nor will they corrupt nor thieves will spoil my treasured home in glory.
Let bannered hearts in mortal strife, their deeds others embroil
Signing heart-bound lies not seeking life, I seek a crown in glory.
No city here I have as home, where all is transitory.
On this earth I have life's roam, I will have my home in glory."
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.
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