Remembering Portsmouth Island

Today I am remembering a visit to the Outer Banks History Center on Ice Plant Island, which is part of the little town of Manteo, North Carolina. The OBHC is a relatively small branch of the State Archives of North Carolina, but it is home to a unique collection of books, manuscripts, and photographs that focus on the history of the Outer Banks and the coastal counties along the eastern end of Albemarle Sound.

David Stick and I visiting in Currituck County, N.C. Photo by Barbara Snowden

David Stick and I visiting in Currituck County, N.C., many years ago. Photo by Barbara Snowden

At the heart of the center’s holdings is David Stick’s research library. A tireless researcher and an avid collector of historical materials related to the Outer Banks, David was a gifted, self-taught historian and wrote several classic and still widely read books on the region’s history in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Late in his life, about the time that we were becoming friends, David deeded his library and manuscript collection to the State Archives of North Carolina on the condition that they would be housed in Manteo, on the coast, rather than 180 miles inland in Raleigh.

The Outer Banks History Center & Ice Plant Island

I always enjoy doing research at the OBHC. You couldn’t find a site for an archive that is more different than the universities and big cities where I do so much of my historical research.

On Ice Plant Island, you’re surrounded by salt marsh and the broad waters of Shallowbag Bay. Downtown Manteo, with its one stoplight, its Victorian homes and a very interesting little maritime museum, sit just across a short bridge.

A few hundred yards behind the OBHC, a replica of an Elizabethan square-rigged ship, the kind that might have brought Sir Walter Raleigh’s English colonists to Roanoke Island in the 1580s, lies at anchor.

Replica of Elizabeth II at Ice Plant Island, Manteo, N.C.

Elizabeth II, a replica of a 16th-century sailing ship, at Ice Plant Island, Manteo, N.C.

But what really captivates me most are the OBHC’s collections. They’ve grown considerably since David’s passing, but the holdings still have that lovely feeling of having been assembled by a passionate and highly knowledgeable collector whose personal touch and learned, sometimes idiosyncratic interests can be traced in the books, manuscripts, maps and other archival sources that are there.

On the trip that I am remembering today, I visited the OBHC to listen to a remarkable group of oral histories about Portsmouth Island, one of the Outer Banks 60 miles south of Ice Plant Island.

A remote, uninhabited and windswept place, Portsmouth sits on the south side of Ocracoke Inlet, which for generations was the most important entry for deepwater ships into North Carolina waters. The village of Portsmouth was founded in 1754 and, while always small, had a singular importance on the Outer Banks for its role in piloting and lighterage in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Portsmouth’s population peaked at roughly 600 residents before the Civil War, but began to decline steadily after the war. The last residents left the island in 1971.

Today, if you go to the island, you’ll find a half-dozen old homes, a school building, a plain wooden church and a few cemeteries. They’re all neatly tended, mainly by Ocracoke Islanders who cross the inlet and keep them up. The village looks as if the residents still live there and might just have stepped down to the shore for an hour or two and could be back at any time.

The Cape Lookout National Seashore

Portsmouth Island is now part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and is administered by the National Park Service. When the NPS was acquiring the land in the 1970s, the federal agency funded a study of the island’s history, and part of that study included identifying the oldest former residents of the island and talking to them about their memories of the past.

I had wanted to listen to those interviews for years. I’m not sure if I’ve ever found another oral history collection that reaches quite so far into the coastal past.

A talented group of folklorists conducted the interviews between 1968 and 1985. I know two of them. One was my friend Bill Mansfield, and another was my cousin Connie Mason. Their interviews highlight Outer Banks history early in the 20thcentury, and some of the people interviewed were old enough to recall the last decades of the 19th century as well.

Those interviews spoke to the history of all the island communities between Ocracoke Inlet and Shackleford Banks, nearly 50 miles to the south and east, but I had time on that trip only for Portsmouth Island.

The oldest person interviewed was a fisherman and lifesaver named Fred Gillikin, who was born on the island in 1878. He was 99 years old when he was interviewed at his home in Smyrna, in the Down East section of Carteret County, in 1977.

Doctor's Creek, Portsmouth Island, N.C.

Doctor’s Creek, Portsmouth Island, N.C.

Mr. Gillikin was still as sharp as a tack. I listened to every word as he described oyster dredging on Pamlico Sound in the 1890s and a long career in the U.S. Life Saving Service (a predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard) that began in January of 1900.

Mr. Gillikin served at Core Banks, Cape Lookout and Fort Macon and retired in 1939. That’s roughly when the oldest coastal residents that I interview today begin their life stories.

The collection is full of little gems. I have always been interested in the state’s historical watercraft, so I was especially taken by Lee Daniels, a retired Coast Guardsmen born on Cedar Island, who recalled his father’s cooner.

The cooner and its larger cousin, the periauger, were distinct kinds of regional dugouts that Mike Alford and I have written about elsewhere on this blog.

For centuries they were the classic workboats on the North Carolina coast, ubiquitous on open waters and saltwater creeks alike.

Nobody alive today has ever seen a cooner or periauger on the water, however. According to Mike, who is the foremost authority on the state’s historic wooden boats, the NPS interview with Lee Daniels provides what is likely the single best description of a cooner’s construction in existence.

The earliest interviews evoke the Age of Sail and its decline. In his interview, Daniels recalled seeing, in a single glance, “five and six, 4-masted schooners, trying to beat up the coast.”

“The West Indian Trade”

That world of wooden sailing ships had largely disappeared by the 1920s. Yet, according to their sons and daughters, their fathers almost to a one had worked on merchant sailing vessels in their younger days.

That was true on Portsmouth Island and also on Ocracoke Island, on the other side of the inlet. One of the other people interviewed, Fanny Pearl Fulcher, a schoolteacher from Ocracoke, told a familiar story about her father.

“When he was sixteen,” she said, “he went away to work on a vessel, as most of the boys did at Ocracoke.” She remembered “hearing him talk all my life about St. Kitts, Dominica and Puerto Rico.”

Like Fanny Pearl Fulcher’s father, many island men worked in the “West Indian trade,” as it was called.

Others, like the father of another interviewee, Ocracoker Ben Salter, were sailors on schooners that plied up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Salter’s father ran lumber to Maine and often returned on ships laden with ice cut out of Bay State lakes and preserved in a ship’s hold packed in saw dust.

By the 1920s and ‘30s, the local boys had largely given up on the schooner trade, but most still had to leave home at least for a time to make their livings. The bulk of them seemed to have migrated from the shipping trade to working on dredge boats, tugboats and pilot boats elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, and especially in Philadelphia and other ports on the Delaware River.

The old Coast Guard station, Portsmouth Island

The old Coast Guard station, Portsmouth Island

In the islanders’ stories, I could hear how deeply the West Indian and coastwise trades shaped Outer Banks life. In his father’s day, Portsmouth Islander Steve Roberts, born in 1902, explained that, “They went from Portsmouth to the West Indies and East Indies and brought all the different things that people ate.”

The islanders of course dined frequently on local oysters, clams and fish. But at least as often, and more reliably, they supped on foods preserved, in Roberts’ words, in “vinegar and molasses and molasses hogsheads. Vinegar was in bottles. And there was cider…. We got that in bottles and got pork in bottles and I don’t know how many different things to eat came in bottles.”

Washington Row

In addition to shaping the local diet, the sea trade added a convivial bellicosity to island life in the 19th century. Marion Gray Babb, who I believe was the last child born on the island, was one of several interviewees who recalled their elders telling stories about “Washington Row,” a section of taverns frequented by sailors.

(I remember meeting Marion Gray Babb two or three times when I was young— she was a cheerful, good natured woman, and very proud of her island roots.)

Those taverns were emblematic of that earlier age, reaching well into the 1700s, when hundreds of merchant sailing vessels annually lightered their cargos and picked up pilots at Portsmouth and Ocracoke.

Well into the 1800s, those sailors came from all over the world, spoke many languages and represented many races and cultures.

However, by the time that Babb was born, that had changed. Ocracoke Inlet had shoaled up, the merchant sea trade had disappeared, and the taverns and sailors were gone.

Instead of foreign mariners, far more likely visitors in her younger days would have been gangs of oystermen from Core Sound or Hatteras Island. They often came and lived and worked on Portsmouth during the winter. Commercial fishing, not maritime trade, had become the thing.

The Age of Sail’s Last Day

Listening to the islanders’ stories, I also relished the revelations of moments when I could actually hear momentous change happening.

In college I was taught that historical transformations usually unfold gradually and reflect broad social changes and that is of course often true.

On the other hand, we who grew up on the coast and lived through hurricanes understand that change is often sudden, unexpected and cataclysmic. And we have also learned these last few years that Nature holds no monopoly as a force that shatters the old ways and turns our world upside down overnight.

The Methodist Church and cottages, Portsmouth Island

The Methodist Church and cottages, Portsmouth Island

But then consider a story that Lionel Gilgo told in these interviews about a winter day on Pamlico Sound in 1918 or 1919.

Gilgo, who was still alive and kicking the last time I checked, heard this story from his father, Lionel Gilgo, Sr., and from other Portsmouth Islanders.

According to Lionel, a group of Portsmouth Islanders was tonging for oysters at a place called Cross Rock. They were maneuvering their sailing skiffs over the oyster beds and wrestling the oysters out of the cold sea and into their boats.

All of a sudden, according to Gilgo, they heard a strange noise in the distance. They looked up from their work and paused, tongs in hand, and made out a faint thump, thump, thump over the sound of the wind and waves.

The noise was coming out of southwest, in the direction of Core Sound, and was moving toward them, but they, in his words, “kept looking and couldn’t see a thing in the world.”

The oystermen stood in their boats and watched the horizon and waited as the thump, thump, thump grew louder.

As I listened to the tape at the Outer Banks History Center, I closed my eyes and I could see them there in the inlet, standing and looking, unaware that their whole world was going to change in the next few seconds.

Finally, they followed the sound to the channel by the old fish factory on Casey’s Island and made out a boat coming through the channel. The boat had neither sails nor oars, but was cutting through the waves and throwing up salt spray.

“There come a skiff and nobody a poling it nor a rowing it,” Gilgo recalled the oystermen thinking. “Everybody laid their oyster tongs down and just gazed at that boat coming,” he said.

The strange sight turned out to be Bill Gaskill, an Ocracoke fisherman traveling home from Beaufort, and they were witnessing the first gasoline motor boat ever seen at Ocracoke Inlet.

“That was, the most amazing thing they ever saw in their life,” Gilgo remembered the oystermen telling him. They weren’t scared of it or upset in any way, either. In fact, by nightfall, one of the oystermen, a man named Dave Salter, had ordered a gasoline engine for himself.

Eager to put the Age of Sail behind them—those who romanticize that era are usually people like me, who never had to make a living on a sailing vessel—the younger fishermen were all soon sporting gasoline motors on their boats.

Of course, some of the old timers probably railed until the end of their days about the noise and the motors breaking down, the clatter scaring off fish and the more powerful engines allowing fishermen to catch so many fish and oysters until they were disappearing.

Parts of daily life as tangible as boat design, fishing gear and culinary practices and as intangible as their sense of time and their relationship with Nature changed virtually overnight.

To say nothing of the ease with which outsiders would soon be able to visit the island, as well as the ease with which the islanders would soon be able to leave their home.

At Ocracoke Inlet, that instant was the end of the Age of Sail, the beginning of the Age of Petroleum.

Sitting in the archive, my eyes closed, listening and realizing how irreparably Bill Gaskill’s motorboat would turn life upside down on the Outer Banks, Gilgo’s story took my breath away.

Homes Built from the Planking of Wrecked Ships…

The oral histories also brought to life a more recent era in Portsmouth’s history. Early in the 20th century, after the Age of Sail, the village was declining, but still stubbornly holding onto its fragile island world. For most of the men and women interviewed, this was the Portsmouth of their youth.

Most recalled the time around the turn of the 20th century, when the village still boasted several stores, a church, a gristmill, a post office and a Coast Guard station.

By then, a growing number of islanders lived by fishing, oystering and clamming, something that nobody at Ocracoke Inlet could do prior to 1880. But by the early 1900s, oyster buy-boats regularly visited from as far away as Little Washington, N.C. and even the Chesapeake Bay.

One of Portsmouth village's cemeteries. Courtesy, Ocracoke Observer

One of Portsmouth village’s cemeteries. Courtesy, Ocracoke Observer

A menhaden fish factory had opened at Casey Island and a clam cannery at Ocracoke Island, so the islanders also had markets for their fresh catches for the first time.

Those Portsmouth Islanders lived off the sea no less than did their ancestors. One can scarcely separate any part of their lives from the sea.

They built their homes out of the decks and planking of wrecked ships. “[You’d] pick up boards from wrecks [and] use that to burn and cook with, and you didn’t have to buy anything except coffee,” Roberts recalled.

“If a ship come ashore like the John I Snow  …you got enough to last you half your life,” he added.

The schooner John I. Snow wrecked 3 miles south of the Portsmouth lifesaving station in January 1907.

… and Strengthened by Whalebone

The old residents of Portsmouth remembered their needs as being fairly simple.

“You had to buy white beans,” Roberts said, referring to a dish that one hardly thinks of as classic coastal cuisine any longer.

Not so then: “White beans was the biggest dish there was in that day,” he continued. Chicken and white beans, he said, was the most cherished Sunday dinner, and probably a welcome respite from eating so many fish and oysters.

“And collards if you could get them,” chimed in Joseph Morgan, another Portsmouth Islander, born around 1900, who was interviewed at the same time as Roberts.

In their lives, the sea was bones and sinew. The Portsmouth Islanders heated their cottages and cooked with driftwood and wreck planks. They mulched their gardens with seaweed.

They dined on waterfowl all winter, and nearly every islander made an important, extra bit of money by raising “live decoys,” which were Canada geese with clipped wings that hunters used to entice wild geese into shot-gun range.

In autumn they held a “goose round up” and drove several hundred geese, already marked as to ownership, out of the salt marshes and into a pen on the property of George Gilgo. A, local waterman, Gilgo was renowned for his way with the birds. There they divided up the geese and sold them to hunters.

The reliance on the sea went literally to the foundations of island homes. Another of the islanders, Ada Roberts Styron, recalled how, when she was a girl, they used whalebone to reinforce the construction of what they called “storm houses,” which were built especially strong so that they could be used as places of safe refuge during hurricanes.

Living on a low-lying island like Portsmouth, where storms such as the great ’33 hurricane flooded homes, in Ms. Styron’s words, “up to the beds,” they believed the extra strength might be a matter of life and death.

During her youth, Portsmouth had three such “storm houses” put together with wooden pegs and whalebones and, in a bad storm, all the islanders would gather in one or another of them.

A Sailor’s Dance

I always relish the deepening layers of familiarity when I move through a large collection of oral histories that are about a single place.

Another thing that I like about hearing so many interviews from a single community is that you get to hear different sides of some of the more memorable individuals. Gradually you build up your own vision of them.

Among the Portsmouth Islanders, two individuals especially stood out to me.

The first was a cantankerous, plainspoken old bachelor named Sam Tolson. When most of the interviewees were young, Tolson was the island’s oldest resident.

He was a small, stooped over fellow who walked with a cane. But in his younger days, he apparently had more than a passing resemblance to the dashing John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin.

While on a visit to New Bern in the spring of 1865, the story goes, Tolson was accused of being Booth and jailed until John Wallace, Portsmouth’s leading merchant, traveled to New Bern and vouched for him.

Sam Tolson’s talent on the dance floor was legendary. He enthralled one and all with his dancing ability. Under the influence of (in order of his preference) laudanum, vapor drops or paregoric, the old curmudgeon apparently did a soft shoe with such grace and balance that, as Steve Roberts attested, Tolson “could dance with a glass of water on his head without spilling it.”

According to the other islanders, he even carried dancing slippers in his pocket wherever he went, so that he would not have muddy shoes in case he happened upon a dance.

This was not as unusual as it might seem to us today. On sailing ships, dancing—all men, no women— was a sailor’s art in the 19th century. Tolson may well have gained his gift for dancing at sea when he was younger.

All the islanders agreed that Tolson was irascible, plainspoken until it hurt and, at times, almost a hermit. That did not seem to matter.

“Everybody knew of his peculiar ways, but everybody liked him,” Roberts said.

Oystering just like the Men

The Portsmouth Islanders’ recollections of a very different individual also stayed with me. Her name was Lizzie Pigott and she was a member of the island’s only African-American family early in the 20thcentury.

Approximately a third of the islanders were African or African American slaves in 1810.  Nearly all left Portsmouth during or just after the Civil War.

Ms. Pigott and her family were consigned to the back pew at the island’s Methodist church, and they had to be mindful of a Southern color line that frayed, but did not totally vanish there on the sea’s edge.

Nonetheless, she hardly lived the life of a typical Southern woman, black or white.

Lizzie Pigott and her sister were oyster-women. They were not cannery oyster shuckers or oyster hawkers, like so many black townswomen on the coast in that day, but working oyster-women.

Descendants of Portsmouth Island's families and other lovers of the island gather for a community homecoming every other spring.

Descendants of Portsmouth Island’s families and other lovers of the island gather for a community homecoming every other spring. Photo, courtesy of The Coastal Review

Oystering was one of the hardest, most dangerous jobs on the Pamlico Sound. Yet Pigott and her sister, Rachel, as Lionel Gilgo recalled, “used to oyster just like men.”

They had their own sail skiff and tongs and, as Gilgo remembered, “They’d go out on oyster bottoms, oyster all day long, go aboard the oyster [buy] boats and put their oysters out and come back to shore, just like men did.”

Lizzie Pigott was evidently a woman of many talents. She was also renowned for her accordion playing and her hymn singing.

In addition, she was the island’s only haircutter, and she was said to make the island’s best light rolls, the classic Down East yeast bread. That’s a rather beguiling group of skills in my mind.

She also grew some of the island’s loveliest flowers and was a compulsively fastidious homemaker. According to legend, she once refused to let her sister from New York City come into her house until she had taken a bath.

Playing Croquet until Dark

And then there is the islanders’ fervor for croquet.

Somehow, before listening to the OBHC’s interviews, when I thought of Portsmouth Island, with its harsh, wind-swept landscape, its clouds of mosquitoes, its crusty oystermen with biceps as big as ham hocks and old sailors’ wives who could gut a sea turtle faster than you can blink, I did not anticipate a passion for a British yard game.

“That was the only recreation we had,” an old fisherman exclaimed in one of the interviews.

The old fisherman went on: “We took that serious, too, I’m telling you. We’d play four or five hours one game…. If it got dark on us and we were playing a game, [the balls and wickets] were left there, as is, and [we] …started [again] the next afternoon.”

Perhaps because they did not have enough people on the island to play the team sports that were popular on the mainland, the islanders’ ardor for croquet comes up frequently in the interviews.

When the islanders interviewed by the NPS folklorists were young, the village boasted three croquet diamonds. That was roughly between 1910 and 1940, when only two or three hundred people called the village home.

A fourth croquet diamond was also located at the Coast Guard station. “Sometimes,” another retired fisherman recalled, “we’d go down and challenge them.”

For the opportunity to play a few wickets, they would go a good deal farther, too. The Portsmouth Islanders challenged teams up and down the Outer Banks and they’d take the mail boat to engage in spirited contests with them.

“There were people that would gather to them matches, I’m telling you, just like they do baseball today,” Lionel Gilgo recalled. “The field would be full of people.”

The village champion was a man named Wash Roberts, an oysterman. Gilgo remembered when Roberts traveled 50 miles down Core Sound in order to play Marshallberg’s champion and defend the island’s honor.

Roberts won the match and, when he returned on the mail boat, Gilgo recalled, “We give him a celebration.”

Sunset on Shallowbag Bay

The sun was setting on Shallowbag Bay, when the archivist at the Outer Banks History Center gave me a gentle nudge on my shoulder to let me know that it was closing time. She startled me and, for a moment, I struggled to return to the 21st century.  I rather shakily got my things together and said my goodbyes.

As I crossed the bridge to my inn, I decided that maybe I had found a good place to leave the islanders anyway: playing croquet until dark on a hot breezy summer day, a crowd gathered around the lawn and spiritedly cheering their champion.

Perhaps Lizzie Pigott was sitting on her front porch and softly singing a hymn while she watched them. Maybe Sam Tolson was standing by the counter at Dixon’s Store and the aroma of white beans and chicken was in the air.

The islanders that night would not know of course that the ’33 storm was coming. I’m sure they could not have imagined what it would do to the oyster grounds and eel grass beds and how much it would change life on the island.

Then the gristmill would close, and the fish factory, and then the general store and the school. Even the Coast Guard station would be decommissioned eventually, and then, in 1959, the post office.

When I was growing up, the island only had three residents: Lizzie Pigott’s brother, Henry, and two older ladies, Elma Dixon and Marion Gray Babb. And then they were gone, too.

* * *

This is a new version of a lecture that I originally gave at the N.C. Folklife Society’s annual meeting some years ago. Titled “Playing Croquet until Dark: Voices of Portsmouth Islanders,” that rather more scholarly lecture was later published in the North Carolina Folklore Journal and can be found elsewhere on my blog.

4 thoughts on “Remembering Portsmouth Island

  1. David, my uncle Roy Wilder painted a portrait of Henry Pigott poling his boat in the Albemsrle Sound to Portsmouth Island. Roy gave the painting to his stepson. I’m wondering if he painted Henry from memory or from a photograph or another painting. Are you aware of any of these images? Thank you, Nancy Wilder


    • Dear Nancy,
      Please forgive my taking so long to get back to you– I’m afraid your note got lost in my rather foggy understanding of how this blog program works!
      As for the photo– no, I’m afraid I don’t think I know that photograph or painting– but I would LOVE to see it. Do you have a photograph of the painting that you could share? that would be ok with Roy Wilder’s step-son to share? When I was a boy, I remember Mr. Pigott still residing on the island, along with 2 older women. That was probably in the late 1960s. I can’t recall exactly when they left the island, but I believe it was in the early ’70s. If your uncle visited Portsmouth I. before that time, he might well have photograph Mr. Pigott for the painting, do you suppose? Thanks again for writing, and my apologies again for the tardiness of my reply. all my best, David


  2. David, my uncle Roy Wilder painted a portrait of Henry Pigott poling his boat in the Albemarle Sound to Portsmouth Island. Roy gave the painting to his stepson. I’m wondering if he painted Henry from memory or from a photograph or another painting. Are you aware of any of these images? Thank you, Nancy Wilder


    • Hi Nancy- no, I’m not familiar them, at least not recently. Yet somehow they do ring a bell, as if perhaps I saw your uncle’s painting and/or a photograph on which it might have been based many years ago. I’d certainly love to see the painting! And I’ll ask around about s photograph and let you know if it turns up! Take care, David


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