Regardless of what pundits, experts, historians or local authorities may say, the name origins of many Outer Banks locations are nothing more than speculation.
Some we know by fact. For example, Currituck comes from an Algonquin native American word meaning “wild geese” or “land of the wild goose.” The spelling is subject to debate which may explain why Caratoke Highway (NC-168) is another way to spell and pronounce “land of the wild goose.”
The tale of how Duck got its name is well-documented, and its origin can be traced back to the town’s first postmaster who labeled the town after its best known feature. And, Frank Stick came up with the name Southern Shores as a marketing tool to sell real estate. However, the origin of other town names is steeped in mystery.
Kitty Hawk – The most likely source for the naming of Kitty Hawk comes from the Algonquin word Chickehauk which seems to have been a Native American village in the area. There is a possibility that Kitty Hawk evolved from the local description for hunting geese, reported to be “killy honk.”
There are other more colorful explanations as well. Anyone who has been attacked by swarms of aggressive mosquitos in our area will appreciate the explanation that Kitty Hawk was derived from the phrase Skeeter Hawk. Another belief is that Kitty Hawk evolved from the words keel hauls, an area term used to describe large hunting hauls.
What we do know as fact is that in the early 1700s, this region was listed as Chickehawk on area maps, and by the end of the century was recorded on deeds as Kittyhuk or Kitty Hawk.
Kill Devil Hills – Subject to multiple levels of conjecture, no one can state with certainty the origin of the name Kill Devil Hills. Taking in the sweep of history and personal antipathy of one human being, there is the possibility that the name came from a description that William Byrd of Virginia hung on the area.
To say Byrd, who surveyed the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, disliked the residents of the state would be an understatement. Among other insults, in an unpublished book he described them as “ . . . indolent wretches.” He also wrote that “Most of the Rum they get in this Country . . . is so bad and unwholesome, that it is not improperly called ‘Kill-Devil.”
There is also the retelling of a local sailors’ comment that it was enough to kill the devil to navigate the local waters. Lastly, there is the possibility that the town got its name from the killdeer—a medium sized plover that is common in the area.
Nags Head – Most early residents of the Outer Banks had no moral objection to helping themselves to the contents of shipwrecks. A myth exists that a lantern was tied around a Nag’s head, and the motion of the horse walking back and forth looked like an anchored ship to entice sea captains to shore. However, that tale is largely discounted.
It is more likely that in the late 18th or early 19th century someone with ties to England purchased a tract of land where Nags Head is today. Nags Head was a fairly common place name in England, and it is entirely possible that the new land owner named his holdings after his hometown.
There is no town of Nags Head in England today – at least not according to Google Maps. However, most every hamlet, village, town and city in Great Britain appears to have at least one Nags Head Pub.