The Promise Landers

Capt. Charlie Willis at Cape Lookout in 1920. He and Russell Coles were very close. Capt. Charlie named one of his children Russell Coles Willis. Photo courtesy of Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Capt. Charlie W. Willis at Cape Lookout in 1920. One of his grandchildren was named Russell Coles Willis. Photo courtesy of Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

This is chapter 3 of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.

Between 1900 and 1925 Russell Coles always arrived in Morehead City, N.C., on the train that local people affectionately called the “Old Mullet Road” or the “Old Mullet Line” because of the seemingly endless barrels of that salted fish with which they filled its freight cars.

As soon as he stepped off the train, the first thing that Coles did, year in and year out, was go in search of Capt. Charles Wesley Willis in the Promise Land.

Everybody called him “Capt. Charlie.”  He lived in a neighborhood of fishermen and their families on the shores of Bogue Sound, on what in those days was the western side of Morehead City.

Nobody knows exactly why, but they called their neighborhood the Promise Land.

For almost a quarter century, Capt. Charlie was the leader of Coles’ fishing crew at Cape Lookout. He was Coles’ guide to the natural world, and he was also his friend.

Exactly when Coles made his first trip to Morehead City is a little unclear. But from the letters, diaries and other documents that my daughter Vera and I found at Coles Hill, his family’s estate in Virginia, we suspect it was a year or two before 1900.

Soon the trip became an annual pilgrimage. By 1902 at the latest, Coles was spending three or four months a year on a houseboat at Cape Lookout.

Postcard view of the railroad to Morehead City on which Russell Coles traveled. This is on the causeway that was built over the marsh between Morehead City and Beaufort. For generations, locals called it the "Old Mullet Road" or the "Old Mullet Line" for the seemingly endless barrels of that salted fish with which they filled its freight cars. From Edward Ellis, "Havelock Station Railroad History" (remarks to Havelock Historical Preservation Society), July 27, 2004.

Postcard view of the railroad to Morehead City on which Russell Coles traveled, a.k. a. the “Old Mullet Line.” This is the causeway between Morehead City and Beaufort. From Edward Ellis, “Havelock Station Railroad History” (remarks to Havelock Historical Preservation Society), July 27, 2004.

Capt. Charlie was his righthand man. He was a fisherman’s fisherman. He was the kind of man that other commercial fishermen watched closely to see where he was fishing and what kind of gear he was using and how he went about it.

Far more than any of the ichthyologists or other esteemed marine biologists with whom Coles later worked, Capt. Charlie Willis revealed to Coles the wonders of Cape Lookout and the ways of the sea’s creatures.

A later view of the edge of the Promise land in the 1940s. The boat in the foreground was said to be the last whaleboat used on the North Carolina coast. Its captain was John E. Lewis. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History

A view of the edge of the Promise land in the 1940s. The boat in the foreground was said to be the last whaleboat used on the North Carolina coast. Its captain was John E. Lewis. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History

At Shackleford Banks

Like most of the Promise Land’s residents, Capt. Charlie and his wife had settled there only a few years earlier, after having lived all their lives on a remote island several miles to the southeast.

That island is called Shackleford Banks and it’s a 9-mile-long, narrow ribbon of sand, salt marsh and maritime forest. In those days, it was only separated from Core Banks and Cape Lookout by what people used to call “The Drain.”

The Drain was a low, sandy stretch where the ocean flowed across the island at high tide, but you could walk across it at low tide.

Many years later, in 1933, a hurricane opened a navigable inlet at the site of The Drain. At that time,  Shackleford Banks and Core Banks started really looking like two islands. Both are now part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Map of Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout, 1850-1890, before the height of the migration off the island. The largest settlement, with perhaps as many as 500 residents, was Diamond City on the island's east end. Map by Connie Mason. Courtesy, National Park Service

Map of Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout, 1850-1890, before the height of the migration off the island. The largest settlement, with perhaps as many as 500 residents, was Diamond City on the island’s east end. Map by Connie Mason. Courtesy, National Park Service

The Ca’e Bankers

Capt. Charlie was born on the Cape Banks– or “Ca’e Banks– as the families with roots there call them– in 1866.  He came from a family of fishermen, whalers and shipbuilders.

He married another islander, Elenous Guthrie. Her mother, Mary Gillikin, was a renown  local midwife and her father was a legend– half man and half myth.

(Maybe more than half myth, given all the tall tales I’ve heard about him over the years!)

His name was Decatur Gillikin and he was the Paul Bunyan of the Down East fishing communities in eastern Carteret County.

Beverly Willis Piner, who is one of Capt. Charlie and Elenous’s great-grandchildren, told me the other day that Elenous was “known for her cooking and feistiness.”

“Daddy said she got her feistiness from her daddy Decatur,” Beverly added.

Capt. Charlie and Elenous made their home on the Cape Banks until a series of storms laid the island’s communities to waste at the end of the 19th century. A pair of devastating hurricanes in 1896 and 1899 proved to be the last straws.

It was a hard time: cottages destroyed, gardens and orchards ruined by saltwater, graves washed away.

By 1902, Capt. Charlie and his family and all their neighbors too had uprooted and many of them had made a new home in the Promise Land.

A mullet fishermen's camp, Shackleford Banks, ca. 1907. The island was Charlie Willis's home when he was a boy. For generations, thatched roof huts like this, made of salt marsh grasses and bound by yucca threads, could be found along the island's shores. Crews of fishermen lived in them during the big fall runs of striped "jumpin'" mullet. From Hugh M. Smith, The Fishes of North Carolina" (1907).

A mullet fishermen’s camp, Shackleford Banks, ca. 1907. The island was Capt. Charlie Willis’s home when he was a boy. For generations, thatched roof huts like this, made of salt marsh grasses and bound by strands of yucca, could be found along the island’s shores. Crews of fishermen lived in them during the big fall runs of striped “jumpin'” mullet. From Hugh M. Smith, The Fishes of North Carolina” (1907).

Coles could not have found a better guide to Cape Lookout and its waters than Charlie Willis or the other old timers that had been raised on Shackleford Banks.

For generations they had lived off the sea and they had managed to survive by observing and learning its ways.

On Shackleford they had lived lives so deeply attached to the Atlantic that, when they moved to Morehead City, they seemed to many of the town’s citizens, and perhaps to themselves as well, to be foreigners in a strange land.

On the island they had fished, oystered and clammed and gone whaling. They built their own wooden boats, stitched their own fishing nets and girded their houses against hurricane winds with posts made of whalebone.

They lit their homes at night with dolphin oil, stuffed their mattresses with seaweed and lined the graves of their dead with seashells.

A few oral histories of people who grew up on the island have survived, especially at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island. When I listen those interviews, I always get the impression that there was nothing about the sea that they did not know, nothing that they had not seen.

But when they finally gave up living on the island and moved to Morehead City, many of the townspeople eyed them with suspicion.

They were looked down upon and vilified for their “old-fashioned” island ways and their manner of talking and their paucity of schooling.

The families in Morehead City looked at them the way people often do new immigrants to this country, and the young kids from the Promise Land soon learned not to walk out of the neighborhood alone.

In the Promise Land

That was not the way that Russell Coles looked at Capt. Charlie or the other Promise Landers, however. He wanted nothing more than to know the sea and its ways, and he knew that they were his key to do so.

Coles had plenty of faults, but not respecting the local fishermen or appreciating their knowledge of the local waters was not one of them.

The old islanders usually had little or no schooling and had lived hard lives with little profit, but Coles respected their deep understanding of natural history and judged them by their character and wisdom.

Capt. Charlie Willis and Coles' friend Theresa Ambler on a fishing trip at Cape Lookout, 1920. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Capt. Charlie Willis and Theresa Ambler (who I believe was one of Russell Coles’ Virginia cousins) on a fishing trip at Cape Lookout, 1920. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Coles came from a rigid, class bound society, but that was not what he found at Cape Lookout and the Promise Land. Indeed, he found the opposite and it was a way of life that seemed to suit him.

In his letters, diaries and other writings, I could always tell that he never put himself above Capt. Charlie or the other local fishermen with whom he worked.

Capt. Charlie’s descendants echo that opinion of Coles.

During those summers at Cape Lookout, Coles anchored his houseboat in Lookout Bight, the big hook on the south end of Core Banks that reached out into the sea, then curled around like a fishhook into a breathtakingly beautiful natural harbor.

On the houseboat, Coles, Capt. Charlie and the rest of the crewmen lived together, ate together and no doubt drank a dram or two together.

Many times Coles was also a guest at Capt. Charlie’s home in the Promise Land. On the 26th of December 1916, for instance, he wrote in his diary:

“Was about to head to Edna Earl when Charlie told me that he had for dinner at his home fried fresh mullets, boiled collards with cornbread dumplings and pie…”

The Edna Earl was the houseboat that he anchored at Cape Lookout. (It might have belonged to Capt. Charlie.)

Like any one of right mind when presented the opportunity to dine on fresh mullets, collard greens with cornmeal dumplings and pie, Coles decided that the Edna Earl could wait.

That evening he stayed for dinner, and on many other evenings he also stayed the night.

A Little Warning for Teddy Roosevelt

At one point, Russell Coles invited Teddy Roosevelt to join him, Capt. Charlie and the rest of his Morehead City crew and go in hunt of giant manta rays (more on that story in a later chapter).

But before Roosevelt arrived, Coles felt obliged to write him and warn him that Capt. Charlie and his mates were not going to be his servants and would not abide being treated like servants, even by a man that had once been president of the United States.

“A Down Easterner is a strange animal– they can’t be driven and they can’t be led,” Down East fisherman, philosopher and county commissioner Jonathan Robinson (who just passed away) used to say of his people in the eastern part of Carteret County– and the same was true of the Promise Landers.

In an article that Coles wrote for the Danville Register of July 18, 1919, he described what he told Roosevelt about Capt. Charlie and the rest of his crew:

Colonel, these men in my crew are a different type of man from any you have probably ever seen. They will risk their lives for you; they are absolutely tried and true. They have been with me for years. Well, these men will eat with us and sleep with us. There are no private dishes. We all eat and sleep together in one big room….”

Capt. Charlie’s Crew

At Coles Hill, Vera and I found an undated, handwritten note, in Coles’ hand, in which he briefly describes the crew with which he hunted sharks and rays at Cape Lookout.

This is a rare photograph that includes all of Russell Coles' regular crew from Morehead City, N.C.: (left to right): Roland Phillips, Capt. Charlie Willis, Coles, Teddy Roosevelt, Capt Jack McCann (a Florida fisherman we'll hear more about later) and Mart Lewis. The picture was taken near Punta Gorda, Fl. in 1917.

Coles, his crew from Morehead City and Teddy Roosevelt near Punta Gorda, Fl., 1917. From left to right: Roland Phillips, Capt. Charlie Willis, Russell Coles, Teddy Roosevelt, Capt Jack McCann (a Florida fisherman we’ll hear more about later) and Mart Lewis. By the time of this photograph, Willis, Phillips and Lewis had been working with Coles for many years.

At the time that Coles wrote the note, Charlie Willis was 49 years old. Coles explained that Capt. Charlie had “been my boat captain and companion on nearly every one of my expeditions for 12 years.” He called him “a natural leader” and the “highest possible type of native fisherman.”

Coles admired Capt. Charlie’s courage, self-reliance and seamanship. Willis was, he said:

“The most dependable man in an emergency from either storm or ‘dangerous game of the sea’ I have ever known. A natural leader of the NC coast type of fishermen.”

In that note, Coles also described two other local fishermen with whom he and Capt. Charlie worked for decades.

Those two men were part of Capt. Charlie’s regular crew when he was commercial fishing. Whenever Coles was at Cape Lookout, they usually made up part of the crew as well.

Both were cousins of Capt. Charlie’s through his father’s side of the family, Beverly Willis Piner, his great-granddaughter, told me recently.

Capt. Charlie’s first mate was a man named Roland Phillips, who was also from Morehead City and was just a little younger than the captain.

“A little man,” Coles said of him, “but hard and quick; extra good lookout. Has worked in Charlie’s fishing crew for nearly 30 years as second in command. I regard him a safe reliable man.”

The other crewman was Martin “Mart” Lewis, who also lived in Morehead City by that time, but apparently was from the Cape Banks where Capt. Charlie had been born and raised.

Coles described Lewis as a  “tall dark haired man” and said that he had worked for Capt. Willis for 30 years.

“A good camp cook, engineer and fisherman, but only valuable to me when working under Charlie as he has taken orders from him for so many years that he lacks initiative,” Coles confided.

For at least two decades, Russell Coles, Capt. Charlie Willis, Roland Phillips and Mart Lewis worked together in the waters around Cape Lookout. They also made at least three trips to the west coast of Florida that I’ll discuss in later chapters.  They lived together, worked together and risked their lives together.

A later photograph of Capt. Charlie Willis and his wife, Elenous Guthrie Willis, on the front porch of their home at 1204 Shephard St. in the Promise Land, Morehead City, N.C. The couple raised 9 children there. Courtesy, the Promise Land Society

Capt. Charlie Willis and his wife, Elenous Guthrie Willis, on the front porch of their home at 1204 Shephard St. in the Promise Land, Morehead City, N.C., ca. 1940. Capt. Charlie built the house and the couple raised 9 children there. Courtesy, the Promise Land Society

The Coles Hill documents mainly tell a story of brotherhood and comradeship, but Vera and I did find one reference to an incident that shows that Coles and his crew did not always sail smooth waters.

In a May 16, 1918 letter to his sister-in-law Eliza, Coles describe his whole crew—at that time, Capt. Charlie, Phillips, Lewis and two other men— going on strike:

“Led by Charlie, my crew struck on me yesterday for double wages and for the first time in my life I yielded to a strike and now I am having to pay Charlie over a hundred dollars a month flat wages and Charlie gets to make a percentage of the profits from fish caught in his nets.”

Coles knew that Capt. Willis and his crew were worth the extra pay. In the coming days, as I chronicle more of Coles’ adventures and scientific research, be sure to remember, as he did, that he could not have done any of it without them.

Indeed, I firmly believe that at least some of Coles’ most exciting discoveries about sharks, rays and other fishes at Cape Lookout arose first from Capt. Charlie and his crew.

They had learned the diversity of marine life and the behavior of the sea’s creatures from decades of working on those waters.

They learned them from listening to their fathers and grandfathers, and sometimes their mothers and grandmothers, too.

In that way, Russell Coles did not benefit just from their experience, but he also inherited the knowledge of generations of Promise Landers that had come to know, deep in their bones, the ways of the sea and shore.

In a way, his greatest gift may have been that he had the wisdom to listen and learn from them.

-To be continued-

4 thoughts on “The Promise Landers

  1. I believe that Roland Phillips was my Great Grandfather. My Grandmother was Beatrice Phillips who Married Garland Willis, who I am named after. My mother was. Charlotte Willis. Married Richard Lovick from the “ Rabbit Hill” area of Morehead City.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure how many “greats” to put in front of grandfather but I am pretty sure that Captain Charlie is a great great great grandfather, I am loving these stories and they help me make sense of the picture I inherited of old cape lookout and why I was told it was a family heirloom. It’s protected and proudly hanging on my house wall.

    Liked by 1 person

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