History of the Outer Banks

Ship Elizabeth II at Manteo
Elizabeth II at Manteo

The history of the Outer Banks dates back the very beginning of the United States. The Outer Banks is a section of a chain of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast that stretch from the Virginia state line to Ocracoke. Some people consider the Outer Banks to extend all the way to Bogue Inlet, but for the purpose of this website, we will cover the area to Ocracoke plus Portsmouth Island.

These islands are 130 miles long (from Virginia to Ocracoke), and in the early years were sparse and difficult to inhabit. Over time, sand has shifted, waterways have changed course, and the dunes have built up to prevent the complete wash out by the Atlantic Ocean.

This early period of Outer Banks history saw very few visitors to its shore. Amerigo Vespuci dropped anchor off Hatteras Island during his late 1400s discovery of America. In the mid to late 1500s, French and Spanish explorers stepped ashore in search of gold.

In the late 1500s settlers began to arrive. The first came when Queen Elizabeth I gave Sir Walter Raleigh permission to colonize the New World. In 1585 the first settlers landed on Roanoke Island, followed shortly by a group of 116 English men and women. Their stay witnessed the birth of Virginia Dare (Dare County is named for her), the first English child born in the New World. Unfortunately, every single colonist of this "Lost Colony" disappeared into the countryside, never to be seen or heard from again.

A different type of "settler" also visited the Outer Banks during these early years--pirates. Between 1500 and 1725, privateers and pirates under the protection of England sailed these shallow coastal waters, raiding ships for gold and silver. Possibly the most famous, or infamous, of these pirates was Blackbeard (his real name was Edward Teach). The locals who inhabited the Outer Banks grew tired of the pirate raids and called for help. The Royal Navy answered the call. Blackbeard was killed during a raging battle, and legend says his spirit still haunts the island

The islands were difficult to inhabit and the shallow waters were difficult to navigate. After the pirates left, the few persons who took up residence in the Outer Banks were often the survivors of shipwrecks, and there were many shipwrecks along these barrier islands. In fact, these waters are known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic due to the nearly 1,500 shipwrecks lying on the ocean floor. These shipwrecks often provided goods, however, which allowed the inhabitants to survive and to begin to build settlements.

After the United States became an independent country, the new government urged the building of lighthouses and of lifesaving stations. Construction of the first lighthouse and its outbuildings began in 1796 on Cape Hatteras. All this construction brought workers to the islands and soon the population of the Outer Banks began to grow.

The history of the Outer Banks has as its next major milestone the Civil War. Troops covered the North Carolina countryside, and both the Union and the Confederate armies understood the strategic importance of the lighthouses placed along the barrier islands. Some were taken over by one side to be won back by the other. Lanterns and lens were broken or stolen, and some of the brick walls knocked down, but the lighthouses stood tall, and have since undergone renovation and restoration.

After the Civil War, America discovered that the Outer Banks was a great place to hunt duck and geese. During the autumn, New York tourists would come to the islands in droves to shoot swans, Canada geese, and other water birds. The result of these hunting troops was tourism. To support the incoming visitors, hotels, rooming houses, and cafes sprung up. Locals became guides and provided water transport. The water transportation was an important part of the Outer Banks tourism, as at that time the islands could only be reached by boat.

Wright Brothers Memorial
Wright Brothers Memorial, Kill Devil Hills

Possibly the most well-known milestone in Outer Banks history is the spectacular display at Kitty Hawk. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first powered flight from Kill Devil Hill. Today a memorial to the Wright Brothers marks that historic site. Visitors can stand atop the hill and imagine themselves soaring out over the water.

After the Wright Brothers, Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks became the hot spot for millions of tourists. Because the islands are separated by water, not only from mainland North Carolina, but also from each other, private ferries provided transport for visitors. These ferries also carried mail and delivered products to the mainland, such as fresh fish.

During World War I, Outer Banks history marked the arrival of German submarines off the coast. In 1918, a German sub sank the Diamond Shoals Lightship, and later that same month The Mirlo was sunk off Rodanthe by another German sub. Members of the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station rescued The Mirlo crew.

In 1937, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was established, and Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island was designated as a National Historic Site. Both of these sites helped the area become a major tourist draw.

During World War II, the history of the Outer Banks again marked the arrival of German submarines. The U. S. Coast Guard took over the lighthouses and manned them as outpost. The Diamond Shoals saw another ship taken down by the German subs, this time it was the British ship San Delfino. Victims from that ship and from other British ships were laid to rest in the British Cemetery on Ocracoke Island.

After World War II, when automobiles came into widespread use, some of the shallow inlets were filled in and the deeper ones had bridges built over them. This allowed the islands to be connected to each other, except for Hatteras Island. A bridge was built in the 1950s over the Oregon Inlet which allowed access to Hatteras. A visitor could then take a ferry from the mainland to the Outer Banks, and then travel by car all along the islands. Part of that trip still requires a ferry, but it is state operated and carries cars as well as passengers.

With the increased access, tourism became a year round industry in the Outer Banks. Luckily, these barrier islands did not fall victim to tourism's ills. In the last couple of decades, the National Park Service and other conservation and restoration groups have initiated and completed restorations of many of the historic sites. The National Park Service owns and oversees a great deal of the Outer Banks, particularly the wildlife refuges and preserve. Conservation groups also help protect several species of endangered animals, and to restore and preserve Outer Banks history for future generations.

The history of the Outer Banks is an important part of making this a charming, village-dotted beach community that offers sports on water, land, and air; museums and history, culture and music, family entertainment, excellent dining and shopping, and of course, some of the finest beaches in the United States.

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