For many students of American history, the letters between Russell Coles and Teddy Roosevelt would be the most important historical documents that my daughter Vera and I found at Coles Hill.
Russell Coles first learned about giant oceanic manta rays in or about 1900, when he began to spend his summers on a houseboat at Cape Lookout and started listening to the local fishermen's stories.
Around midnight on the night of July 1st, 1916, Russell Coles and his crew were returning from Cape Lookout Shoals when what seemed to them to be a strange glowing specter rose up in the sea before them.
In July of 1912 an extraordinary young scientist named Maud Menten visited Russell Coles at Cape Lookout, N.C. After spending a week assisting her with a research project, Coles wrote a colleague at the Smithsonian, saying “Dr. Menten is unquestionably the most wonderful human being in the world.”
Now, only a century later, those who study sharks-- as with so much of the world's fauna-- seem to spend most of their time like me, a historian: chronicling extinctions and warning of coming extinctions, as if Russell Coles' lust for conquering nature had spread throughout the world.
In Russell Coles’ day, many ichthyologists—biologists that study fish—had never actually seen sharks in the wild. Coles offered such scientists the twin possibilities of studying sharks in their native habitat at Cape Lookout and of expanding their collections for study in some of the most prestigious natural history museums in the world.
In a 1915 account, Russell Coles described his pursuit of great white sharks in the waters off Cape Lookout, N.C., in the years since 1900. I found his account strange and fascinating and more than a little chilling.
Every summer shark hunter Russell Coles took the train to Morehead City, and the first thing he always did when he arrived at the depot was meet Capt. Charlie W. Willis in the Promise Land.
In 1915 Russell J. Coles drafted an article on two kinds of manta rays that he had hunted at Cape Lookout. One was the lesser devil ray, and the other was the giant oceanic manta ray, a gentle, incredibly beautiful creature with fins that can be 18 feet or more across and which look like great black wings when moving through the sea.
A few years ago, a gentleman in Virginia, Walter Coles, Sr., invited my daughter Vera and me to visit his family’s private library of research materials related to his uncle, a world-renowned shark hunter named Russell J. Coles who did the large bulk of his shark hunting at Cape Lookout, N.C., between roughly 1900 and 1925.
Late one night in 1862, a slave waterman named Dempsey Hill slipped into the customs house in Beaufort, N.C., removed copies of the latest nautical charts and buried them in the local cemetery-- the one people now call the Old Burying Ground.
This essay originated in discussions with Dr. Makini Chisolm-Straker and Katherine Chon on the history of human trafficking in the American South-- and especially in eastern North Carolina.
In today's post, I want to reflect a little bit on our history and how we got here-- how we came to be such a divided people, why our racial divisions seem to run so deep and why our country remains the land that the great writer James Baldwin once called "these yet-to-be-United States."
What touched me most deeply in Maury York’s remarkable new article on the history of school desegregation in Franklin County, N.C. are the stories of the African American parents who first sought to send their children to previously all-white schools.
Far more than I usually do, I am noticing the beauty in even the smallest, most everyday parts of my world.
I always wonder what happened to them-- the men, women and children that fled Wilmington after the massacre in 1898. I thought of that again just a few days ago when I stumbled onto one of them in a place that I never would have expected-- a catalog for an art exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston.
The New York Times reported today that the great African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was working on a play about the massacre of black citizens in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 when she died, far too young, of pancreatic cancer in 1965. The news took my breath away.
A project called Last Seen—Finding Family after Slavery has been documenting the efforts of African Americans to find their families and other loved ones after the American Civil War. Most of the documents that the project has collected and put on-line are newspaper notices like this one about a family in Perquimans County, in northeastern … Continue reading “I Desire to find my Children”
As I wrap up "The Story of Shad Boats," I can’t help reflecting on how lucky we are to have Earl Willis, Jr. and Mike Alford to help us to appreciate these extraordinary workboats and their history .
Today in part 11 of my special series "The Story of Shad Boats," I'm exploring the life of Capt. Nal Midyette, the man that one Hatteras fisherman called "the champion shad boat builder."
Another lesson that I learned from Mike Alford and Earl Wynn Jr.'s research is this: fishermen used their shad boats for a great deal more than catching shad. In the words of Roanoke Island's old timers, they also did a whole lot of “proggin.”
In Part 9 of my special series "The Story of Shad Boats," I'm looking at the shad boat's sails and rigging-- everything from its lovely spritsail sailing rig to its "goose wing" that was unique among small watercraft anywhere in the U.S.
In this photograph we see the Dough family’s boatyard on the north end of Roanoke Island, ca. 1930. A shad boat is being “framed up.” One of master boat builder Otis Dough’s sons, probably Worden Dough, is working on a spar. All three of his sons—Worden, Horace and Lee—built shad boats.
When talking with Earl Wynn, Jr. and Mike Alford, Roanoke Islander Wynne Dough remembered that he, his father and his brothers went into the swamps along Mill Tail Creek, on the mainland of Dare County, in search of the juniper knees that were a crucial part of building shad boats.
Today in the 6th part of my special series, "The Story of Shad Boats," I just want to share a rough sketch of a shad boat’s interior arrangement that Earl Willis, Jr. drew in the 1980s, based on what Roanoke Island's old timers taught him about the boats.