Samuel W. Newell

A Maritime History of Ocracoke Inlet, 1584-1783

(Under the direction of William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, November 1987.

The purpose of this paper is to narrate the history of Ocracoke Inlet's maritime commerce from the inlet's exploration through the end of the American Revolution. Fragments of Ocracoke's history have been published by various authors in many works and articles. Noted historian Christopher Crittenden made numerous references to Ocracoke's importance in several articles and particularly in his work The Commerce of North Carolina, 1763-1789. This paper attempts to integrate the various descriptions into one narrative, which will show the evolution of maritime activities in North Carolina's most important commercial inlet.

It is widely believed the shoally waters of North Carolina's inlets, sounds and rivers retarded her commercial growth. While this, no doubt, had an effect, it is obvious that a respectable seaborne trade developed over time. This paper details events which occurred at the inlet, and also touches on many other subjects or issues which influenced the commercial prosperity of the posts served by Ocracoke thereby showing Ocracoke's role in the larger perspective of North Carolina's maritime affairs.

Ocracoke's influence is apparent from the earliest period of North Carolina's maritime history. Elizabethan explorers and colonists examined Ocracoke but found it too shallow and dangerous for large vessels. After the near loss of a supply vessel, they embarked for an unsuccessful colonization attempt on Roanoke Island.

Ocracoke began to serve as a commercial outlet during the Proprietary Period, The search for farmland and forest resources had brought settlers to the Neuse and Pamlico regions shortly before 1715. At that time the colonial legislature felt the need to pass a pilotage law to facilitate trade. The following year Bath was proclaimed a seaport where vessels could exchange cargo and clear customs. These factors coupled with the shoaling of Roanoke and Currituck Inlets helped make Ocracoke increasingly convenient for vessels trading along the river front settlements.

In 1729, North Carolina became a royal colony and maritime affairs were administered by Crown officials. Royal Governors and the colonial assembly worked to encourage trade, although at times political disputes hindered progress. The scope of these efforts surpassed Proprietary measures and legislation was continually modified in response to need. Significant legislation allowed for a pilotage and navigational aids at Ocracoke and elsewhere, the creation of Portsmouth, Fort Granville and special taxes to pay for maritime projects.

Shipping and commerce expanded greatly during the Royal Period. Naval stores and agricultural products were exported in exchange for a wide variety of imports; particularly manufactured goods. Ocracoke was used by a majority of those vessels trading with Beaufort, Bath, Roanoke and Currituck port districts. Information provided by Governor Arthur Dobbs in 1763 suggests that those vessels using Ocracoke tended to be smaller than those clearing Port Brunswick. Likely, more vessels used Ocracoke than Port Brunswick and its tonnage, at least for mid-century, was comparable to that of the Cape Fear.

Ocracoke remained an important supply route throughout the Revolutionary War. Privateers, letters of marque and commercial vessels brought cargoes through Ocracoke to serve both military and consumer markets. Continental naval vessels, as well, occasionally used the inlet. The inlet's commerce declined gradually after 1779, but this was due to general economic conditions rather than those problems which had previously limited maritime trade. Ocracoke's inaccessibility, combined with state-sponsored defenses and British naval policy, kept the inlet open throughout the conflict.