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Outer Banks Communities: Hatteras

Outer Banks sunrise
Outer Banks sunrise

Hatteras Island was originally inhabited by the Croatan Indians, a member of the Algonquin tribe, and many of the names on the island derive from Croatan names. Hatteras was named in the late 1500s, when the first English colonists stopped on the island before settling at Roanoke Island. Hatteras comes from "Hattorask" which is believed to be the English pronunciation of a Croatan word meaning "there is less vegetation."

Over 75% of the land on Hatteras Island is owned by the National Park Service and includes the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The remainder of the island consists of maritime forest, pristine beaches, and seven unincorporated villages. The southernmost of those villages is Hatteras. Often the word "village" is added to Hatteras to avoid confusing it with Cape Hatteras, which is 13 miles to the north or with Hatteras Inlet which lies 4 miles to the south.

Life in Hatteras and on the island began hundreds of years ago with the arrival of the Native Americans who came to the island to fish. European explorers discovered the island in the late 1500s, bringing colonists and diseases. Add war among the tribes to the scenario and the Croatan Indians soon disappeared from the island entirely.

Though the Europeans began to settle on the island in the 1700s, Hatteras was still just sand and timber. The remoteness of the area was partly due to the stormy waters along the coastline. In this part of the Atlantic, the cold waters of the Labrador Current meet the warm waters of the Gulf Stream creating turbulence and strong winds. Ships sailing south had two options, take the long way around by going far offshore, or sailing closer to the island and risk running aground on the sandy shoals.

Residents posted watches along the cape for ships inching closer to danger. At one point in history, these watchmen reported as many as 100 ships bogged down during a calm sea, and unable to round the Diamond Shoals to continue south. As a result of the conditions of the Atlantic Ocean, a lot of ships wrecked off the coast of Hatteras during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Residents began keeping records of the wrecks in 1526, and since that time 3,000 ships have been lost to the sea, giving the area the moniker of "Graveyard of the Atlantic." The term was coined by Alexander Hamilton when he served under George Washington, referring to when he, at age 16, had nearly gone down with a ship in those same waters.

In addition to affecting ships, and often bringing residents to the island by way of passengers washing ashore, the stormy Atlantic left its mark on the island, too. In 1846, a hurricane opened the present Hatteras Inlet, and the Oregon Inlet to the north. This new inlet at Hatteras resulted in a boon to the village, because it offered a connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound. A fishing village soon sprung up near the inlet and a post office was erected in Hatteras Village in 1858.

The Civil War brought the Confederacy to Hatteras in 1861. Fort Clark and Fort Hatteras, which guarded the inlet, fell at that time to the Union. Under the control of the Union Fort Wool, Hatteras Inlet gained in strategic importance.

After the Civil War, the federal government established the Durants Lifesaving Station near Hatteras in 1878. A U.S. weather station was established later in 1901. The 1930s brought the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a channel to increase access from the Sound to Hatteras Inlet. This enlargement of the channel encouraged fishing, and soon a large fleet developed at Hatteras.

War once again came to Hatteras in the 1940s when German submarines lay off the coast and attacked American ships. Over 100 ships fell victim to the enemy during World War II, and the area became known as "Torpedo Junction."

After World War II, life slowed down again in Hatteras and the natives returned to their lives of fishing. Visitors came to the island for recreational fishing, but tourism wasn't a booming business. The ferry across Oregon Inlet allowed people to come to Hatteras, but since the area had no paved roads, access was still limited.

In 1952, a road was finally constructed, the North Carolina Highway 12, and the villages became connected. In 1958, Cape Hatteras National Seashore was established, and tourists began lining up to take to the ferry to get to the beach. The completion of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in 1963, though, effected the biggest change. After that, tourists could drive to Hatteras and Hatteras Island, and enjoy all of its beauties.

Today, Hatteras is a popular vacation spot and a huge commercial fishing village. The village maintained its quaint, hometown charm and draws millions of visitors in the summer for the sun and sand, and the wide array of fresh-out-of-the-water seafood. In the winter, anglers come for the blue tuna fishing, and all year round, tourists come to explore The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

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