North Carolina’s dominance of the nation’s naval stores industry began to change drastically in the decades after the Civil War. By that time, the industry was destroying the region’s longleaf pine forest. In a frenzied half century of exploitation, the state’s longleaf pine forest fell from an estimated 4-5 million acres to less than 60,000 acres. Travelers began to describe train trips through eastern North Carolina’s pine forests in which they did not see a single tree that did not have the V-shaped scars that were characteristic of tapping.
“This used to be an island where the men went to sea.” That’s what 95-year-old Blanche Howard Jolliff told me a few years ago, when I visited her on Ocracoke Island, one of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I was the guest of her cousin Philip and his family next door, and Philip took me by to see her.
I never grow tired of looking at them: the faces in these old photographs. They are immigrants that settled in eastern North Carolina in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They came from Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Norway, Greece, Poland and many other far-off lands.
I recently found this map in an old book called The Williams History: Tracing the Descendants in America of Robert Williams, of Ruthin, North Wales, who Settled in Carteret County, North Carolina, in 1763. The map describes a largely forgotten group of Quaker settlements that flourished on the North Carolina coast more than 200 years ago.
After leaving her home in Stratford, Conn., Susan Johnson arrived in Suffolk, Va., on the 22ndof November, 1800. The next morning, she re-boarded the stagecoach and headed south into North Carolina for the first time.
When I talked with coastal old timers about Jim Crow, I also heard many stories about African Americans leaving North Carolina in the summertime and going north to get close to the water. Again and again, black Carolinians told me stories about traveling especially to Atlantic City, Wildwood and other towns on the Jersey Shore to work at beach resorts and enjoy the seashore.
A memory. Today I am remembering a trip to New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It’s an extraordinary place: a spectacular collection of exhibits and artifacts dedicated to the history of whaling and New Bedford’s role as the largest whaling port in the U.S. in the 19thcentury.
At the Boston Athenaeum, I also looked at the shipping records of a Boston sea captain that traded in North Carolina in the 1770s. William Kent was the master of the sloop Polly. The records at the Boston Athenaeum concern the Polly’s voyages to ports along the Tar River from 1771 to 1775, as well as one other voyage in 1784.
When my wife and I visited New York City a few weeks ago, we stayed at a hotel next to the Jewish Museum. I had never been to the museum, and on the morning before my wife gave a lecture at Mt. Sinai Hospital (the reason for our trip), we visited the museum. The Jewish Museum's collections cover 4,000 years of history and include 30,000 objects of art, Judaica and antiquities from around the world. But I, of course, Iooked through the museum’s collections for anything related to the history of the North Carolina coast.
A memory. I am remembering when I was at Skara Brae on the west coast of the Mainland, the largest of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. Skara Brae is the ruins of an ancient village. It’s the oldest Neolithic settlement in Europe and was here long before the Pyramids or Stonehenge.
As impressive as I found Yale’s Beinecke Library, which is a modern, architectural wonder (more on that visit later), I found myself far more excited by the Whitney Library at the New Haven Museum. Maybe I just succumbed to nostalgia. Founded in 1862 and located next to Yale, the Whitney has spectacular collections on New Haven’s history but has made few concessions to modernity.
Twenty-five years ago, I lived for most of a year by the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet. I arrived in the fall and watched the great flocks of Canada geese, snow geese and tundra swans settle onto the lake for the winter, and I was there in the spring when they rose back into the sky and headed home to the Arctic Circle.
I want to thank you all for inviting me to join in your celebration of this beautiful new museum’s opening and its inaugural photography exhibit, Ulrich Mack’s “Island People.”