Outer Banks Communities: Ocracoke

cars on ferry from Ocracoke
Ferry leaving Ocracoke

Located on the southern end of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke Island is accessible only by air or water. There is no road from the mainland, but visitors can bring their cars via the free ferry from Hatteras Island. The island is only 16 miles long, has one village, Ocracoke, and lies almost completely within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Like most of the villages of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke began life as a fishing port for Native American tribes. The origin of the name and the exact topography, however, are a bit of a mystery. When the English explorers first set foot on the island, Ocracoke was attached to Hatteras Island, and called Croatan Island. Other maps, however, show Ocracoke attached to Portsmouth Island, its neighbor to the south. These two islands jointly bore the name of Wokokon.

One of the stories regarding the origin of Ocracoke names, therefore, is that it is a derivation of the name Wokokon, which is the name of a tribe of Native Americans. Legend says that this tribe often traveled to Ocracoke to feast on the plentiful seafood. Giving credence to this story is the discovery of a survey map from 1657, which lists the island as Wococock.

Another popular explanation for the island's origin involves Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard, the pirate. In the early 1700s, Ocracoke was a popular spot for Blackbeard, and he looted many of the ships off the island's shores. The residents called for help, which arrived in the form of the Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who was dispatched by the governor of Virginia. The battle was slated for dawn. Anxious to meet his enemy, Blackbeard is said to have yelled from his ship, "O Crow Cock Crow! O Crow Cock!" demanding the arrival of the sun.

In 1715, the Ocracoke Colonial Assembly passed a law to establish the island as a port to improve trade and navigation. Included in this act were provisions for pilots and their assistants who safely aided the ships in from the sea. In 1730, pilots finally came to Ocracoke. After over thirty years, the pilots and their families were given 20 acres of land to maintain residence, and in 1779, the Ocracoke Militia Company was founded to protect the Inlet.

To further aid navigation, a lighthouse was built on the southern end of Ocracoke Island in 1823, and has stood in Ocracoke Village ever since. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is now the second oldest lighthouse in North America. Lifesaving stations were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as was a U.S. Coast Guard station in 1940.

In 1931, Cockle Creek was dredged. This created Silver Lake Harbor in the Ocracoke Village, and allowed larger boats to safely dock at the village's port. With easier and better access to the island, the fishing industry grew to a thriving business.

Ocracoke has one rather unusual claim, that of being home to the only plot of British soil in the U.S. not owned by an embassy. During World War II, German submarines sank many ships off the coast of the Outer Banks, including the British ship, the HMS Bedfordshire. The bodies of the British sailors washed ashore and were buried in a cemetery on Ocracoke Island. The cemetery was then decreed British soil and the British flag flies there at all times.

In 1953, the island, except for Ocracoke Village, became part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Paved roads arrived soon after, providing a connection with Hatteras Island. Tourism boomed and replaced fishing as the primary source of revenue.

Tourism, though, had a harmful effect on the water supply. In the 1970s and 1980s, the only sources of water were cisterns and individual wells. With so many people visiting the island, the demand for water increased to the point that salt water intruded. Severe water restrictions were put in place, limiting water to personal use at certain times of the day. Any other use, such as water at boat docks, was prohibited.

To solve the problem a desalination plant was built on the island, which provides enough water for tourists, boaters and locals. In 1990, Ocracoke Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places, along with the Ocracoke Lighthouse and several buildings and homes.

Today, Ocracoke looks and feels much as it did in the mid-1800s. The island, especially the village, is a quaint, peaceful and popular vacation destination, known for fishing, bird watching, and the famous wild ponies. Ocracoke fenced in 180 acres for ponies, and set up a visitor "lookout" midway down North Carolina Highway 12. The ponies and the area are overseen by the National Park Service.

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