Hatteras Island Always a Native Land


DESIGN  Doug Dobey                                                   PHOTO  Charles McGuigan

by Charles McGuigan

On a Saturday morning in late August, the traffic was backed up from the Causeway to the Bypass, or North Croatan Highway, as they call it on the maps. Once on the Bypass, the traffic clipped along steadily until we reached the 9-milepost around Kill Devil Hills when everything came to a grinding halt. From there on down to Whalebone Junction, we inched, we crept, we crawled, making three or four miles an hour.  But as soon as Route 158 became Route 12, the cars thinned out, many heading over to Roanoke Island to the right, many others heading to the beach road to the left. Straight ahead, our way, there were few cars, and the dense development gave way to old maritime forests and the brown sign that announced Cape Hatteras National Seashore, bearing images of the two iconic lighthouses that cap this national treasure—the striped one on Bodie Island, the candy cane-striped one on Hatteras Island. To the left we could see, far in the distance, some of the last houses along Old Nags Head Road, and to our right there were dense salt marshes of needlerush and salt grass, of cordgrass and sawgrass, glowing green and yellow in the silver light of that overcast day. All windows were down and the air was scented with salt and sea decay, rising from those marshlands that are the nurseries of all marine life in our part of the ocean world. Just beyond the Bodie Island light we began a gentle ascent that leveled out and ribboned through vast salt marshes, straddling land and water, and then the rapid ascent began to roller coaster heights overlooking Oregon Inlet, one of the most treacherous inlets on the East Coast. Only the most skilled charter boat captains can negotiate these waters that they call Hell’s Gate. Shoals form overnight and the current is swift as a raging river. Even on days when there is no wind, it is a white knuckle passage. When we reached the other side where the old Coast Guard Station sits high and dry, surrounded by shifting sands that displaced the water years ago, everything changed in an instant. Magically.

Hatteras Island retains an ancient spirit, and the air is saltier and the foliage becomes tropical. Dunes are covered in sea oats and blanketed in colonies of these daisy-like flowers called gallardia, or, more aptly, fire wheels.  The deeper south we get, the more live oaks we see, some of them ancient and strung with Spanish moss. And down here sabal palms grow in great profusion, dwarf palmettos with fanned fronds. There are also an abundance of prickly pear cactus and yucca.


For long stretches there is no evidence of human beings whatsoever, except our car and the asphalt beneath us. We pull into one of the parking lots and cross the dunes. The beach is wide and littered with shells and seaweed, and a driving wind comes out of the northeast and the ocean is as violent as if there were a nor’easter on the rise, the water brown and churning, and twelve foot waves that could snap a spinal column like a twig pound at the sand like hammers. When we get back to the car, it begins to rain and the wind pushes against our Honda-CRV as we head further south. We pass through the first three villages, and then travel through a long expanse of the National Seashore before hitting Avon.

The sky had clears and the wind lets up. In the next stretch of public land, we check out the beach again. The wind is still whipping on the other side of the dunes and twelve foot waves slap the shore.

The house we had rented for the week was in Frisco, just below Buxton, but check-in time isn’t until six o’clock, so we head down to the village of Hatteras, and wander around a marina. By the time we get back to the car, the fresh seafood market we had seen on our way in, is closed, so we head back to one we had seen up near Frisco. While there we decide to get our temporary fishing licenses a package of squid, and bait, preferably bunker, for the crab pot I had strapped to the roof of our car.

This seafood market is set back from the road, and inside it is poorly lit. Behind the counter there’s a man who is slow in his movements. His hand are thick, and he wears glasses. He weighs out three pounds of shrimp and bags them, then he takes my driver’s license and my daughter’s and he moves over to a computer. He taps at a key pad, striking one character at a time. He tells me my son, Charles, who forgot his wallet, will not be able to get a fishing license. Behind us is the only other patron. She is a petite woman with coal black hair and a tawny complexion and her features are chiseled. We smile at one another, and I ask if she’d like to get in front of us, and she says, “No,” then looks down.

Five minutes pass. Then ten minutes, and the owner is still striking the keys at a painfully slow rate. The woman behind us leaves abruptly, and that’s when I see all the references to the current president adorning the shop. There’s a banner of Scripture over the counter. Hats for sale that bear the current president’s name.  My Charles studies me, then rolls his eyes. My daughter follows suit, and the owner still struggles with the keyboard.

Just then another woman enters the store, and I know who it is. I’d been staring at her likeness for almost ten minutes. In a photograph taped to the counter, this woman stands with the owner, who is her husband. From behind the counter, the owner asks his wife if she had seen the woman who had left a moment ago. And the woman says this, “You mean that colored woman? She’s getting in her car.” Then the woman went goes outside and stops the woman from leaving because the owner had just rung us up, handed over our fishing licenses, and handed me a bag containing the frozen squid and the stinking bunker. We would never enter that shop again.

We stop at a local market, pick up potatoes, corn, a large onion, a lemon and a package of Johnsonville andouille sausage. The only other ingredient I need–Old Bay seasoning—is already packed among our things in the car.

We find our house in Frisco with little trouble. It’s on Snug Harbor Road and stands on twelve-foot stilts fronting a wide canal that empties into nearby Brigands Bay, a small arm of Pamlico Sound. After quickly checking out the lodgings and emptying the car, I unstrap the crab pot from the roof of the car, bait it with the rancid menhaden, just shy of being maggot-ridden, and drop it off the small dock where the water’s about five feet deep on a high tide. And then I return to the house. Catherine and Charles have already claimed their respective rooms and are lounging. A few hours later, close to nine, we feast on a Low Country Boil, and we can hear the wind whipping by the windows and a steady rain pattering the roof.

About midnight, with both kids sleeping, I step out on the deck. The rain has lifted and the clouds have thinned and because there is a new moon the stars are brilliant even behind the veil of thin clouds. I go down to the dock, and flood lights come on, activated, I’m guessing, by a motion detector. I pull in the crab pot and there are already five keepers, all Jimmies. I rebait with the remaining bunker, and drop the crab pot back into the water.

At sunrise I return to the dock with fishing gear, rod and reel, and squid. I strip out the squid, bait twin hook, and cast out. There is one strike after another, but they are small pinfish, which I throw back, one after another.

Across the canal there’s a vast savanna of spartina and other grasses. Throughout it there are old trees, some white as driftwood, others, pines primarily, still green. Roosting on branches of these trees are eight great herons—snow white, large, long-legged, graceful in flight, with massive yellow beaks that strike fish like daggers. Every morning from then on, I see them roost in this same grouping of trees, a sort of rookery, I suspect.

Catherine, who is training for a marathon, leaves the house at around ten for a five-mile run. Some mornings it will be nine miles, some days six. Charles is still sleeping and I let him at it until Catherine returns and then we eat breakfast, and are off for the day.

Along Route 12 we notice several signs that are printed with messages that are ignorant at best. One features a bird that is shaped like a clenched fish with all but the medius finger retracted. It reads: “Hey! Audubon Identify This Bird!”

On the other side of the same sign is a circle with a diagonal slash running through it superimposed over the letters NPS (National Park Service).

We all shake our heads, and then start laughing uncontrollably.

“Who hates birds?” I ask.

“Some of them might be bad hombres,” says Charles, and we’re all laughing again.

Catherine points out that it’s the National Seashore that attracts tourists. And I nod, and say that if it hadn’t been for the National Park here the land would have been developed into gated communities and no one except the super-rich would be able to see the splendor of this island.

We see other similar signs along the way, just a few, really, and they are almost pathetic in their ignorance and their anger. Late that afternoon, we pull into a gravel parking lot. There’s a stand there called Hatteras Sno-Balls with this tagline: “The Best Balls on the Beach.”

Her concoctions are really the best on the beach. It’s not crushed ice, it’s shaved ice, more like Italian water ice, and it’s available in a mind-boggling assortment of flavors. You can get it plain or served on top of a scoop of ice cream. The combo’s incredible. Margie tells us she served in the US Navy for eight years, raised her children, and has traveled widely. During our last day on the island, Margie will take me, my son and my daughter on a boat ride from Frisco down to Hatteras. Margie proved to be a skilled navigator, constantly watching the depth finder and running with the proper channel markers.

Later that afternoon, down in the village of Hatteras, we stumble upon a small graveyard ringed in old live oaks, each draped with festoons of Spanish moss. We read the gravestones. The name of the realty company we rented through is on one of them, and there is another honoring the memory of a woman named Cordelia.

Just across Route 12 from the marinas, we enter a seafood market that is owned by a woman of Native American descent. She is very friendly and sells us several dozen chowder clams raked from the sand that morning, which will end up in Down East North Carolina clam chowder that evening.

A little something about the house we rent, which is called Hook, Wine and Sinker. It could easily sleep eleven, and is octagonal, built, I’m guessing, sometime in the late sixties or early seventies, to resemble some of the old light stations like Thomas Shoal Light in the Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay. A deck wraps around two-thirds of the house, so views are almost panoramic. And there’s another advantage to those eight sides—there is plenty of natural light in every single room.

After dinner, Charles watches a movie, Catherine draws in a sketch pad and I move out to the deck, and staring into the black water of the canal, I see ripple upon ripple punctuated by great splashes as schools of fish move in to feed—speckled trout and red drum. Rather than going down to the dock, I simply cast into the middle of the canal from the deck itself. I hook into a small puppy drum, which I release, and then a two-foot long eel, which I untangle from the rig before releasing this slithering, slimy wonder that was born in the Saragasso Sea.

In the morning, the sky is absolutely cloudless, and there is no wind at all. When I get into the great room I see Catherine asleep on one of the built-in couches that ring the hearth. I don’t wake her up. Instead, I take a bike ride through the little development along Brigands Bay and its canals. On my way back I encounter a woman who has just finished jogging. She is standing by a very old live oak which grows in the median strip less than fifty yards from the house we rent.

We talk for a while. She and her family come here every year. They’re from Alexandria, Virginia and she tells me they think of Hatteras Island as a second home. She rubs her hand along the coarse bark of the tree.

“You know about this tree?” she asks.

I shake my head.

The Cora Tree on Snug Harbor Drive.

“It’s called the Cora tree,” she says. She invites me to inspect a massive whole in the central bole of the tree, and then tells me this story.

During the early eighteenth century an unmarried woman with an infant began living in a crude shack in this area of Hatteras Island, which at the time was called Trent Woods. For the most part, other folks living here just let her be. But then there were suspicions about the woman, and a rumor mill started grinding away truth. A cow Cora touched went dry. A little boy who mocked Cora’s baby got deathly ill. Fishermen stopped catching fish.

At about that time, the brig Susan G ran aground in Brigands Bay. Her captain was a New Englander named Eli Blood who hailed from Salem, Massachusetts. Blood heard of the woman and became convinced she was a witch. Locals also became convinced. They captured Cora and her baby. Cora was bound and thrown into the water. She rose to the surface. They tested her for witchery in other ways, too.

They decided this single mother was indeed a witch, so they tied Cora, who held her baby in her arms, to a large live oak. They placed dried branches and tinder at its base. But before Blood was able to light the kindling, the baby turned into a cat and fled to the woods, and out of clear blue sky a bolt of lightning struck the tree and Cora was gone in a puff of smoke.

When I get back to the house, Catherine is just rising, and I ask why she hadn’t slept in her bedroom the night before.

“I got scared,” she says. “All night I kept hearing this scratching sound.”

When she says this a chill ripples down my spine.

We look behind the baseboard of her bed and find an empty potato chip bag that makes a rustling sound to the touch. Something the previous tenants left behind.

Lighthouse keeper’s quarters.

We ride our bikes along an off-road trail that threads its way through Salvo, Waves and Rodanthe, and then we head down to the Hatteras Lighthouse back in Buxton. We walk to the beach, fish for an hour or so, and then walk around the grounds of the lighthouse, and visit the museum there.

I get talking with one of the rangers, who, like my daughter, has a degree in environmental studies. She pull out a pamphlet, and shows me a magnificent passage written by a man named Harold Ickes, who was Secretary of the Interior under FDR. He was one of the prime movers behind the establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Here’s what he wrote eighty years ago:

“When we look up and down the ocean fronts of America, we find that everywhere they are passing behind the fences of private ownership. The people can no longer get to the ocean. When we have reached the point that a nation of 125 million people cannot set foot upon the thousands of miles of beaches that border the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, except by permission of those who monopolize the ocean front, then I say it is the prerogative and the duty of the Federal and State Governments to step in and acquire, not a swimming beach here and there, but solid blocks of ocean front hundreds of miles in length. Call this ocean front a national park, or a national seashore, or a state park or anything you please—I say that the people have a right to a fair share of it.”

“He was on the money,” I say.

The ranger smiles at my reaction. “He was a real American hero,” she says.

One of the very last places we visit on the island is a simple structure called the Frisco Native American Museum. We spends hours here, looking at the exhibits, and listening to the caretakers. In some very important ways this is the omphalos of the entire island, a place that everyone should visit, because it puts everything into perspective, and encourages us to learn from the wisdom of those who truly understood the delicate relationship we have with the Earth. That no one owns it, or any part of it, and that we are here because Nature permits us to be.

This unassuming building on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina houses one of the most impressive collections of Native art and artifacts anywhere in the country. It’s on par with the Smithsonian’s collection.  And the story of its creation is another story for another time.

As we make our way back up Route 12 and pass through the successive villages on the island, my mind calls them by other names—Kinakeet, Chicamacomico, Croatoan.

I say the words out loud, and they ring with authenticity.



About CharlesM 294 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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