Outer Banks Communities: Manteo

Roanoke Marshes lighthouse at Manteo
Roanoke Marshes lighthouse at Manteo

Though the town of Manteo recently celebrated its 100th birthday as an incorporated town, its history dates back to the very beginning of the United States.

Over 400 years ago, Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to colonize the New World for England. The first group of settlers set foot on Roanoke Island in 1585 north of Manteo. Unfortunately, a permanent colony was never established. The weather, the lack of supplies, and poor relations with the Native Americans contributed to the settlement's failure, forcing the colonists return to England.

In 1587, another group of over 100 men and women sailed to the New World, again landing on Roanoke Island. A month later, Virginia Dare, the first English-speaking child was born. This colony failed, too, but no one knows exactly why. In 1590, when a ship arrived with supplies, the settlement was gone. There were no houses and no people. The "Lost Colony" had simply vanished, leaving an empty settlement and a mystery.

Colonization attempts continued, however, and by the mid-1600s, Roanoke Island had settlements at the Upper End (north end of the island) and at the Lower End (southern end at Wanchese). In 1783, the first private home was built in the Upper End.

During the 1860s, Manteo was established on the bay between the Upper and Lower Ends. Named for a Native American who befriended and assisted the earlier English explorers, the town became an important port for smaller ships. In 1870, Manteo was named the county seat of Dare County (named for Virginia Dare), and the town built a courthouse and post office. In 1872, a private home which later became the Tranquil House was built. This house received such famous visitors as Thomas Edison and radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden.

In 1899, Manteo voted to incorporate, and is still the only incorporated town on Roanoke Island. In 1904, the original wooden courthouse was rebuilt as a white-columned brick structure which still stands today.

Manteo's position on the water made it an important port in the area. Small ships sailed into Shallowbag Bay, and larger ships docked on the west side of the island between Manteo and Wanchese. In 1906, though, the bay was dredged to allow access to larger ships, such as the river steamer, Trenton. After the bay was enlarged the Trenton sailed into port every day, bringing mail, freight, and passengers for the next 20 years.

Manteo has been around for a long time, but has suffered some tough times. During the 20th century, fire ravaged the town's shoreline five times. Oil storage tanks caused major problems during these fires. In the early years of the 20th century, all that was available to squelch the fire was a bucket brigade, so much of the original town succumbed to the flames. When the town initiated rebuilding in the 1930s, it added a modern water system and improved fire fighting equipment and techniques.

The town of Manteo continued to be the center of Dare County's business and to be a vacation destination. During the mid 1980s, in anticipation of the 400th birthday of colonization of America, Manteo refurbished many of its buildings and planted 1,500 live oaks and crepe myrtles along the main route into town. On July 13, 1984, several famous visitors arrived to help celebrate America's Quadricentennial. North Carolina's Governor, James B. Hunt, Jr., newsman Walter Cronkite, and Princess Anne of England visited Manteo and attended the dedication of the Elizabeth II, a replica of the 16th century ship which brought the first colonists to Roanoke Island. A memorial stone was placed along the waterfront to commemorate the occasion.

In 1999, Manteo celebrated its 100th birthday as an incorporated town. The celebration included many events, including the establishment of a centennial clock at the corner of Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth streets downtown.

Manteo today is a portal into its past. Private homes and commercial buildings exhibit the architecture of previous centuries. Outdoor picnic tables and benches line the docks, affording a view of the ships, particularly the Elizabeth II, which is berthed across the bay from Manteo. Evidence of the town's Native American ties and its English heritage is displayed in street names like Wingina, Ananias Dare, Essex, and Uppowac. Even with the development of hotels and restaurants, Manteo retains its old-style charm and beauty, along with its small-town friendliness and hospitality.

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