Sailing to Cape Hatteras

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, 1893. Courtesy, U.S. Coast Guard

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, 1893. Courtesy, U.S. Coast Guard

I recently stumbled onto a New York reporter’s account of a journey to Cape Hatteras in 1890. He made the trip in a remarkable sailing vessel called a kunner and the captain was J. Clifford Bowser, a member of a legendary African American family of fishermen, sailors, pilots and surfmen from Roanoke Island, N.C.

The reporter left from Norfolk, Va. and it took him 5 days and 3 different boats to get to Cape Hatteras in those days before bridges and ferries to the Outer Banks.

As the reporter said in the story, “no one using regular modes of travel can do it in less time.”

One of the Bowsers, William Charles Bowswer, was one of the legendary surfmen at The Pea Island Life-Saving Station. Pea Island was the first life-saving station in the U.S. to have an all-black crew, as well as the first to have a black commanding officer, Richard Etheridge. Renown for their valor, Pea Island’s black surfmen manned that station from 1879 through the Second World War.  

One of the Bowsers, William Charles Bowser, was a surfman at The Pea Island Life-Saving Station. Pea Island was the first life-saving station in the U.S. to have an all-black crew, as well as the first to have a black commanding officer, Richard Etheridge. Renown for their valor, Pea Island’s black surfmen manned the station from 1879 through the Second World War.

In today’s post, I’m going to feature excerpts from that story, which originally appeared, unsigned by the author, in a New York City newspaper called The Sun on April 4, 1890.

I’ll start the excerpt with the New York reporter’s arrival in the town of Manteo, on Roanoke Island, and his effort to find a boat to take him to Cape Hatteras.

A bit of a warning: a New York reporter’s rendering of an Outer Banks dialect rarely makes the speaker or the reporter look good. The Sun’s reporter could have been a lot worse, but as you’ll see below, he wasn’t great.

The reporter also has a unique way of capitalizing words, but I’ll leave his words the way he wrote them.

Capt. Bowser’s Kunner

Here is excerpt number one— these are the reporter’s words.

On Wednesday I went to Manteo to engage passage to Hatteras Island. Manteo is the Court House of Dare County. It is noted as being somewhere near the site of the first white colony that settled in what is now the United States, for its aged Scuppernong grape vines, and the Scuppernong wine that needs only a half lemon to the goblet to be a very pleasant drink, and for being the home of Capt. J. Clifford Bowser.

Capt. Bowser has the contract for carrying the mail to Chicamicomico and Kinnakeet.

Drawing of a kunner by Mike Alford. From Alford, Traditional Workboats of North Carolina“ (NC Maritime Museum, 2004). In that book, he observed, "In the 18th and 19th centuries, kunners, made of a log, or logs, had the same function as shove boats and sail skiffs in later times." The kunner in this drawing is considerably smaller than the Pilot Shad. For more on kunners and their history, check out Mike Alford and my story “The Boat We Had Before Skiffs” elsewhere on this blog.

Drawing of a kunner by Mike Alford. From Alford, Traditional Workboats of North Carolina“ (NC Maritime Museum, 2004). In that book, Mike observed, “In the 18th and 19th centuries, kunners, made of a log, or logs, had the same function as shove boats and sail skiffs in later times.” The kunner in this drawing is considerably smaller than the Pilot Shad. For more on kunners and their history, check out Mike and my story “The Boat We Had Before Skiffs” elsewhere on this blog.

He is a broad-shouldered, deep-chested, strong- limbed negro, black as night with. . . keen eyes, and a most genial temper. Capt. Bowser owns and commands the clipper dugout Pilot Shad, a boat that was made by fashioning two great cypress logs into the shape of the halves of a boat and then placing the halves together and securing them so with proper beams. This sort of a boat is known here as a cunner, that being the pronunciation of canoe.

The Pilot Shad is a mighty dugout, being 27 feet long, seven feet wide, and three and one-half deep. She draws about eighteen inches of water, and will compare as a sea boat and in beauty and speed with the dugouts which travelers in the South tell about.

Would Capt. Bowser carry a passenger with two grip packs and a bundle to Kinnakeet? He reckoned that he would.

For how much? “Seventy-five cents, sah.” It is a sail of forty-five miles.

Sailing to Chicamicomico

Capt. Bowser and the New York reporter struck a deal, and the next morning they headed to Kinnakeet and Cape Hatteras, with a stop along the way.

The story continues—

The Pilot Shad cast off her lines at 6 o’clock on Thursday morning. She had on board fourteen 56-pound bags of ballast and a mailbag.

Capt. Bowser carried a crew of one, a boy of 17 named Joe. Among the ship’s stores was a big keg of water, a big tin pail full of bread, pork, and cheese, a bag of coffee, a coffee pot, and a small stove on which to boil the coffee.

I’se made the trip in tree hours, but sometimes Ise out clus to two days. I certainly has to carry perwisions for a long voyage foh du wind sometimes dead ahead an’ none of hit, sah,” said Capt Bowser.

Duck Island (the red mark) is a marshy hammock 2 miles south/southeast of Roanoke Island. It is located in the waters where Roanoke Sound is opening up into the Pamlico Sound, 2 and 1/5 miles southwest of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. From Google Maps

Aerial view of Duck Island (the red mark), a marshy hammock 2 miles south/southeast of Roanoke Island. It is located in the waters where Roanoke Sound is opening up into the Pamlico Sound, 2 and 1/5 miles southwest of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. From Google Maps

On this trip, having a Sun correspondent on board, the wind was fair, and there was a plenty of it. We went driving down past Duck Island with the waves fairly whooping after us, and now and then overtaking us in a way that wet and disgusted Capt. Bowser.

I don’t min’ a-turnin’ the old cunner over, sah,” he said, “but I des naterally hates to upset to windud.

We reached Chicamicomico at 1:30, a run of 25 miles, in 7 1⁄2 hours. After bringing the boat to anchor in two feet of water, Capt. Bowser drew a pair of long-legged rubber boots from under his seat in the cockpit and pulled them on.

There were holes in the toes of both boots, and at intervals up the legs, but Capt. Bowser was particular to draw the long legs up as far as they would go.

At Chicamicomico

Capt. Bowser, his first mate Joe and The Sun reporter then came ashore at Chicamicomico. The little settlement was located on the northern part of Hatteras Island, just south of what is now the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Then he took the mailbag and waded ashore. I pulled off my shoes and followed him barefooted. Joe looked at me with suppressed satisfaction until I started across the beach toward the Post Office, and had stepped on three sand burrs at once. Then he sat down suddenly on a thwart and snorted, while I sat down and clawed at the burrs.

The boy undoubtedly laughs every time he thinks about my motions even yet.

After getting rid of the burrs I kept in the path which Capt. Bowser had followed, and so had little trouble with burrs, and soon reached the lone, weather-beaten shanty that is put down on the map as the village of Chicamicomico, because it is the Post Office for a scattered settlement that exists in the shade of a rapidly disappearing fringe of trees on the westerly side of the upper end of this island.

This 8 x 12 ft. post office served Salvo beginning about 1910, so it's not the one to which Capt. Bowser delivered mail in 1890. Nevertheless, it might give a sense of the kind of post office buildings common on Hatteras Island and other parts of the Outer Banks that time period. This was a movable building, and it would usually have been moved to the yard of whoever was the new postmaster or postmistress.

This 8 x 12 ft. post office served Salvo beginning about 1910, so it’s not the one to which Capt. Bowser delivered mail in 1890. Nevertheless, it might give a sense of the kind of post office buildings common on Hatteras Island and other parts of the Outer Banks in that general time period. This was a movable building, and it would usually have been moved to the yard of whoever was the new postmaster or postmistress.

When I reached the shanty Capt. Bowser had disappeared, and a man of say 24 years, with a thin, yellowish face, yellowish white hair, a yellowish white little moustache, and watery blue eyes, stood before the closed door. He wore brown overalls and an unbleached cotton shirt. He looked at me without moving a muscle for a moment, and then said imperatively: “Howdy?”

How are you sir?” said I.

I’m well. Whar from?”

New York.”

How fur?”

New York City.”

I heard that. How fur?” (This was in a voice that was not far from insolent.)

Oh. Cape Hatteras.”

What fur?”

Just to see the people and the country.”

Hah! They look all right. Come in.”

He opened the door and walked in. I followed. A young woman in a blue calico dress sat facing one corner knitting a fish net. She did not even turn her head when I entered.

Chicamicomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum, Rodanthe, N.C. In 1890 the local post office served what are now Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo, but Chicamicomico was best known for its life-saving station, which was established in 1874. Courtesy, Chicamicomico Historical Association

Chicamicomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum, Rodanthe, N.C. In 1890 the local post office served what are now Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo, but Chicamicomico was best known for its life-saving station, which was established in 1874. Courtesy, Chicamicomico Historical Association

A baby of two years or so in a single garment toddled about the floor. The man brought the only whole chair in the room to me and said: “Sit.” I sat down. A coffee pot sat on a stove in one corner. He poured out a cup of coffee and brought it to me.

Have some coffee,” he said.

I took the coffee and drank it at a gulp. When he saw me do that, the smooth, hard skin about his mouth gathered into sharp-edged corrugations, which I supposed to be a smile of satisfaction, and in a voice that was not imperative he said: “Fine breeze.”

I saw that I was getting acquainted, and, winking at the baby, drew out a penny and placed it in the little white hand. The corrugations grew deeper and sharper than before, the young woman was thumped on the back to draw her attention to the baby, and then the young man said to the child: “What do you say to the gentleman?

A post windmill on Hatteras Island during the Civil War. Kinnakeet, on Hatteras Island, was the site of a windmill as early as 1723, one of the earliest windmills on the N.C. coast. From the Edward Graves Champney Sketches Collection, Outer Banks History Center

A post windmill on Hatteras Island during the Civil War. Kinnakeet, on Hatteras Island, was the site of a windmill as early as 1723, one of the earliest windmills on the N.C. coast. From the Edward Graves Champney Sketches Collection, Outer Banks History Center

I had doubted whether this man had any suavity in his make-up, but when he asked that question I saw that, in one respect at least, he was like all other fathers and mothers in the United States. He knew the question invariably asked of a bashful child that has received a present.

We were quite sociable after that. The man had had no intention of being discourteous or rude in his speech or bearing; indeed, according to Capt. Bowser, he had been startled by the sudden appearance of a stranger, and was somewhat defiant in manner, only as one dog unexpectedly caught in a corner by a large one snarls and growls until convinced of the pacific character of the big one.

He was interesting, because he was the first islander I had seen. After seeing more of them it was plain that he was simply shy and wild and suspicious, and his bearing was due to these characteristics.

Voyage to Kinnakeet

After delivering the mail to Chicamicomico, Capt. Bowser and Joe loaded the reporter back on the Pilot Shad. They sailed further south on Pamlico Sound, along the interior side of Hatteras Island.

Little Kinnakeet Life-Saving Station, Hatteras Island, N.C., ca. 1880-1900. Courtesy, Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Little Kinnakeet Life-Saving Station, Kinnakeet, N.C., ca. 1880-1900. Kinnakeet was located well to the south of Chicamicomico and just north of Cape Hatteras. The little settlement was home to two U.S. Life-Saving Stations. The station at “Little Kinnakeet,” north of present-day Avon, was established in 1874, and the station at “Big Kinnakeet,” just south of Avon, was established four years later. Courtesy, Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

The breeze had freshened, and by 5 o’clock we were coming to anchor off a woody stretch of land which Capt. Bowser said was Kinnakeet. An old windmill that looked as if it would tumble over, the next time the wind blew, stood near the water.

Two little fish shanties stood hard by. A small white one-story building stood back a little ways further. It had a covered platform across the front, and some barrels stood on the platform, while empty boxes were piled about it. Plainly, it was a Kinnakeet store.

Once known for its cedar and live oak forests, Kinnakeet was mostly sand and swale by 1890. Its forests had largely been cut for boat and shipbuilding, firewood and other uses. Without forests to keep them in place, dunes were moving across the island, sometimes unearthing graves and covering much of what remained of the maritime forest. This photo of someone standing inside a live oak tree on Bald Head Island gives a sense of what Kinnakeet's forests would have once been like. Courtesy, Bald Head Island Conservancy

Once known for its cedar and live oak forests, Kinnakeet was a mix of sand, swale and second-growth maritime forest by 1890. Its old growth forests had largely been cut for boat and shipbuilding, firewood and other uses, but it was still one of the more forested areas on the Outer Banks. This photo of someone standing inside a live oak tree on Bald Head Island gives a sense of what Kinnakeet’s forests would have once been like. Courtesy, Bald Head Island Conservancy

Sandy trails led up from the beach in various directions, and a dozen unpainted houses could be seen scattered about in the low groves called woods.

I waded ashore, carrying my baggage. A barefooted man, who had been in a boat nearby, stopped and glanced at me, and then walked on.

Two barefooted boys came along and gazed earnestly while I tied my shoes, and then followed me to the store.

Capt. Miller was the storekeeper. Could the Captain tell me whether I could get someone to carry me to Cape Hatteras? He reckoned I could get chances enough. There were boats passing to-and-fro between the Cape and Kinnakeet every two or three days, and, come to think, the Ocracoke mail boat sailed tomorrow and stopped there.

Was there any hotel here at Kinnakeet? No one keep boarders? No. Could I get anyone to keep me overnight? I was willing to pay. Yes; anybody would give me accommodations. I could stay with him if I wanted to. I stayed with Capt. Miller.

Aboard the Sharpie Maud

The next morning, while Capt. Bowser and Joe headed back to Manteo on the Pilot Shad, our reporter found a ride the rest of the way to Cape Hatteras on the mailboat that ran from Kinnakeet to Ocracoke. The village of Ocracoke is on Ocracoke Island, the next island to the south in the long chain of barrier islands called the Outer Banks. This was the end of his journey.

A sharpie, probably similar to the Maud, under sail. From Howard Chapelle, <em>American Small Sailing Craft</em> (1951). I don’t know for sure, but the Maud may be the damaged vessel Maud that the lifesaving crew at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station found abandoned in the surf on May 3, 1896. Station records indicate that the station's surfmen turned the Maud over to the wreck commissioner, who sold her two weeks later, but do not list the buyer.

A sharpie, probably similar to the Maud, under sail. From Howard Chapelle, American Small Sailing Craft (1951). I don’t know for sure, but the Maud may be the damaged vessel Maud that the lifesaving crew at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station found abandoned in the surf on May 3, 1896. Station records indicate that the station’s surfmen turned the Maud over to the wreck commissioner, who sold her two weeks later, but do not list the buyer.

At daylight the Ocracoke mail carrier, Capt. George L. Fulcher, called me, and with no time for breakfast I hurried to the little sharpie Maud and away we went. The speed was not such as to take a man’s breath, however, for there was no wind, and the man had to pole the boat six miles to the landing in the bay behind Cape Hatteras.

On this place I found a stout young boy, who said he would carry my valise to Hatteras lighthouse “by and by“. “By and by” is a common expression among the Hatteras people when they promise to do anything. By and by meant after he had seen the mail distributed at a little house tucked away in the woods a quarter of a mile from the landing.

I left Norfolk at 6 o’clock on Monday morning. I reached Cape Hatteras lighthouse at 10 o’clock on Friday, and no one using regular modes of travel can do it in less time.

End-

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