Outer Banks Background

Nags Head Travel Blog

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So we’ve been living in North Carolina for almost a year now and sampled exceeding few of its attractions.  Time to correct this shortcoming and head for the Outer Banks!  The trip was thanks to my brother-in-law, who invited us to join an annual get-together he has there each summer with a bunch of college buddies and their families.  They’ve been doing this almost every year since the early 1990’s, so there was obviously some vibe we needed to get in touch with.



Being a rookie, I was compelled to read a couple books on this succession of islands stretching 175 miles along America’s eastern seaboard.  The initial lessons were geographical and I was enlightened as to how several natural coincidences converged to create a series of gargantuan sand bars popping significantly above sea level.   After years and years of rainfall cleansing away the salt, vegetation took root and breathed life into this unique environment.  The rain also accumulated beneath the sandy surface, providing stores of fresh water for anyone with enough knowledge or desperation to dig a shallow well.



Several Indian tribes found this a reasonable place for existence and subsided here until the European invasion.  The first explorer to encounter the Outer Banks was apparently Verrazano in 1524, who was unable to spot any land mass beyond the Banks and reported that he must have reached the fringes of the oriental seas, with China just beyond!



About sixty years later, under the sponsorship of Sir Walter Raleigh, the first permanent settlement in North America was attempted on Roanoke Island in 1587 on the Banks.  The ambitious venture was heralded by a wonderful omen not long after the 110 settlers were set down --- Virginia Dare became the first European to be born in the New World.  The colonists were left to forge their community with promises of a speedy return and fresh supplies, but England’s entanglement with the Spanish Armada would delay a return for three years.  When John White, the first governor of North Carolina and Virginia Dare’s grandfather, finally made it back in 1590, the settlement was found to have been abandoned without a trace.   No bodies or clues would ever be uncovered to hint at the fate of the “Lost Colony”.  This would be the first of many tragedies associated with the Outer Banks.



Most of the further tragedies were associated with the numerous and quickly changing sand bars here, earning a troublesome nickname – “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.  Perils often double as opportunity, especially for sailors who learned the secrets of navigating around the treacherous Banks.  The Outer Banks would become a haven for pirates in the early 1700’s.  Intimate knowledge of local waterways afforded ample protection from pursuit and there was a ready supple of treasure laden vessels since most ships returning to Europe capitalized upon favorable currents provided by the Gulf Stream, which runs along the Banks..



Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was probably the most infamous of this gang, and another of the Banks vicious sagas was his bloody death off Ocracoke Island in 1718.  If you get to visit the Outer Banks, it won’t take long to appreciate how forcefully the tourism industry promotes Blackbeard’s tenure here.



The dangers of sailing around the Outer Banks would retard North Carolina’s growth in colonial times, since the mainland was insulated from ready access by the deep draught ships going back-and-forth from Europe.  During the American Revolution, however, this turned out to be a huge advantage since local knowledge could find ways to get supplies through.  The British navy, unrivaled in supremacy during this era, effectively blockaded everything from Boston to the Chesapeake Bay, but were powerless to plug routes through the Banks, hampered by their depth requirements.


The final nugget of Outer Banks history, celebrated on the state’s license plates and by numerous sites and other attractions, was the Wright Brothers ushering in of aviation at Kitty Hawk.  Since we lived in Dayton, Ohio (where the Wright Brothers lived) during the 100th anniversary of the first flight, I confess continuing amusement that Ohio license plates proclaim “Birthplace of Aviation” and our new home of North Carolina has license plates broadcasting “First in Flight”.  Everybody wants a piece of the action.



That tidbit aside, the ingenuity and determination of the Wright Brothers is an inspiring story.  Their first visit to Kitty Hawk was in 1900, and they returned annually until achieving success in 1903.  I encourage you to learn about this magnificent endeavor as they labored mightily to capitalize upon lessons learned after the failures during their first three visits to the Outer Banks.


There is a much greater bounty of Outer Banks history, but my goal is only to entice you to find sources much better than my rambling.  On to our experiences and some pictures to display the beauty.

rotorhead85 says:
Good info Vance, thanks!
Posted on: Dec 16, 2008
Aditu says:
I never knew all those things, very cool!
Posted on: Jul 19, 2008
bkretzer says:
Great Lesson. Glad it was featured and got my attention!
Posted on: Jul 01, 2008
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Nags Head
photo by: Zagnut66