The Outer Banks along the coast of North Carolina are a string of islands
separating the Atlantic Ocean on the east with the shallow water sounds
to the west. These sounds extend up to thirty miles inland and serve
as a valuable transportation highway. A number of inlets divide the
Outer Banks and provide a waterway for vessels to travel between the sounds
and ocean. These inlets have shifted over time; some have closed entirely, new ones have
opened, some have migrated along the islands and their depth continually changes
due to the effects of weather and current (Newell 1987:1).
The shifting depth and width of these inlets hindered maritime activity. Only a few of the many inlets were deep enough to admit the passage of moderate sized vessels into the sounds. These inlets included Roanoke, Currituck, Topsail, and Ocracoke. Roanoke and Currituck were frequently used during North Carolina's early history, but became too shallow to admit any but the smallest vessels by the 1730's. Topsail Inlet had achieved some importance by` this time, but poor transportation connections with the interior limited the growth of its commerce. With the exception of the region served by the Cape Fear River, much of the colony's commerce was channeled through Ocracoke Inlet (Newell 1987:1).
Ocracoke Inlet today lies at 35° 03' N 76° 00' W and available evidence
indicates there has been an inlet in that area at least since the late sixteenth
century (Price 1926:625). French and Spanish seafarers knew of the North Carolina
coast by the mid 1500's, but it was only after the English arrived in 1584
that Europeans became aware of an inlet at a place called Wococon, near the
site of present day Ocracoke.
The early history of the English experience at Wococon is incorporated into the Roanoke voyages. The Roanoke voyages were expeditions sent to the coast of present day North Carolina, between 1584 and 1590, directed and sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Miller 1983:ix). Wococon's discovery and exploration involves the first two of Raleigh's expeditions.
The end of Raleigh's Roanoke ventures leaves a gap in Ocracoke's historical
record. Although the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 reintroduced the English
to the American coast, little mention of the inlet occurs in historical records
until the 1700's (Newell 1987:23). The first specific reference comes in 1665,
in a letter to Proprietor Sir John Colleton by Thomas Woodward, the recently
appointed Surveyor of Albemarle. Woodward mentioned "there is n Inlett
at Wococok or Wococon which hereafter may serve for an other Government between
this Albemarle and Cape Fear, if to your Honore it shall seem convenient" (Woodward 1665:99-100).
The influx of settlers from Virginia into the Pamlico Sound area provides some documentation on maritime activity. The area around the Pamlico River was first settled around 1690 with the County of Bath formed by the Lords Proprietors in 1696. The settlement of this area brought settlers within the immediate vicinity of Ocracoke Inlet. By 1706, settlers were locating along the shores of the Neuse River. Ocracoke Island was settled in 1706 by Farnigold Green who petitioned the Assembly for permission to settle Livestock "upon the Banks at or near Occacock Inlett " (Cain 1984:VII,6).
North Carolina's 1729 transition from a proprietary to a Royal colony heralded
years of relative commercial growth and expansion in spite of the poor navigability
of her inland waters. Ocracoke established its commercial primacy among North
Carolina's inlets as early as the 1730's. The tonnage passing through Ocracoke
was regulated and inspected through the creation of port districts, each with
one or more ports (Becker 1971:80). Vessels were required to clear with custom
officials at those ports when entering or leaving the colony. Four of North
Carolina's five port districts were served by Ocracoke Inlet, although Ocracoke
itself never became an official port under royal administration (Cain 1974:336).
Throughout the American Revolution, British vessels and privateers made numerous raids at Ocracoke Inlet; with several attempts to blockade the inlet against all vessels sustaining the Patriot cause. These activities led to the establishment of American land and naval forces at the inlet, which continued to serve as a crucial artery of supplies until the struggle for independence was won.
War of 1812
Throughout the War of 1812, Ocracoke Inlet served as a base of operations for privateers and as an important avenue for supplies bound for southeastern Virginia through the "back door." An enemy attack on the area had been feared since the beginning of hostilities; and in the summer of 1813 the British made their appearance in considerable force:
At daybreak, July 12, the residents of Portsmouth, Ocracoke, and Shell Castle awoke to find a formidable British fleet anchored just off the Bar, including nine large war vessels. Barges soon put off from the ship-one observer counted nineteen barges, each carrying forty men-and when they entered the inlet they attacked two American privateers, the Anaconda and the Atlas, and a revenue cutter, capturing the privateers and forcing the cutter to retreat up the sounds. Then the British troops landed at Portsmouth and Ocracoke, collected hundreds of cattle and sheep, and after five days on the Banks weighed anchor and sailed away, announcing before their departure that the entire coast of North Carolina was under blockade (Dunbar 1958:39,150).
Admiral Cockburn, commander of the British naval force, had initially planned
to proceed up the Neuse River and capture New Bern. The escape of the revenue
cutter to New Bern, however, removed the necessary element of surprise, and
the proposed attack was abandoned. This was the only British incursion
into the area of Ocracoke Inlet.
When hostilities ceased , attention was directed toward methods of improving the inlet as an artery of commerce (Dunbar 1958:39).
Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Confederate forces seized the existing forts along the coast of North Carolina and began construction of additional fortifications on Roanoke Island and at Hatteras, Oregon, and Ocracoke Inlets. The Ocracoke facility was situated on Beacon Island, where an earlier fortification had existed during the War of 1812. Built in an octagonal shape, the Civil War installation was known alternatively as Fort Ocracoke or Fort Morgan. In addition to a garrison there, it was reported that several hundred troops were stationed at Portsmouth and on the beach below Ocracoke Inlet. All told, there were about 500 Confederate troops in the area (Rush 1914:80).
Due to the primary importance of the inlet, Fort Hatteras was the first of the coastal fortifications to be taken by Union forces in late August 1861. Upon the news of the Union victory at Hatteras, only seventeen miles away, the defenders of the Beacon Island fort spiked their guns, burned the gun platforms, and hastily boarded the gunboat Ellis for a voyage up the Pamlico River to Washington, abandoning the fort (Rush 1914:81).
Railroad and Automobile Period
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, both Ocracoke and Hatteras Inlets declined in importance as roads, railroads, and canals developed as rival arteries of trade and transportation (Dunbar 1958:25). By the 1890's, the privately-owned Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was carrying more traffic than the inlets had ever known. In 1892 tolls were collected on this waterway for 4,061 steamers, 1,817 schooners, 1,150 barges, 62 lighters, 329 sloops, and some 298 rafts. The federal government in 1913 finally purchased the heavily used canal. In 1891 the government had acquired the old Clubfoot Creek-Harlow Creek Canal linking Beaufort and the Pamlico Sound. Roughly parallel with this canal was the much better Adams Creek Canal, which was completed in 1910. Finally, a new canal was constructed through the marshlands, which separated the Alligator and Pungo Rivers, providing a secure inland passage between the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. With the completion of this system of canals, it was now possible for vessels drawing up to ten feet to ply the coastal waters from Beaufort to the Chesapeake Bay without passing outward through either Hatteras or Ocracoke Inlet to brave the perils of the open sea (Stick 1958:182-183).
World War II
During World War II, Ocracoke first served as a location for a Navy Section Base between 1942-1944; later as an Amphibious Training Station between 1944-1945 and as a Combat Information Center. Although the war was primarily focused on the European continent and the Pacific, Ocracoke and the rest of the Atlantic Seaboard became the prime hunting ground for the German U-Boats.
Throughout both the first and second World Wars, the single most effective weapon targeting merchant shipping off the British and American coast was the U-Boat. At a conservative estimate, from January 1942 to the end of April 1942, over 200 ships totaling 1,150,675 tons were destroyed on the Eastern seaboard. Over 60 of these vessels were lost off the North Carolina coast (Stick 1952).
Ocracoke Inlet Today
The existence of the Navy and Coast Guard installations on Ocracoke during World War II brought numerous servicemen from outside the area and had an invigorating effect on the local economy. Ocracoke prior to the war was seeing approximately 3,000 visitors each summer to fish and swim while another 500 visitors flocked to the island each fall and winter for duck hunting (United States Congress No.325:6). The establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 1953 brought a steady flux of outsiders. Restricting the flow of tourists were the difficulties in reaching the island and the lack of roads on the island itself. These impediments were eliminated in 1957 with the creation of the state's establishment of year-round, toll-free ferry service across Hatteras Inlet and the completion of a paved road between Ocracoke Village and the ferry terminal.
Since 1953 all of Ocracoke Island, with the exception of Ocracoke Village, has been under federal ownership as a part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, administered by the National Park Service. The island remains unspoiled and in its natural state, the only improvements being the state road and about ten miles of sand-fence barrier.