4 Outer Banks Facts that May Surprise You

4 Facts about Outer Banks History that Will Surprise You

Looking around at the modern version of the Outer Banks, it can be hard to imagine that there was ever anything else here that what we currently see. But there is a history here—a very rich and wonderful history.

Of course everyone records the big events, but rather than write about the Lost Colony or the Wright Brothers, we thought a few lesser known historic facts about the Outer Banks might be interesting.

1) Nags Head was one of first tourist towns in the US

The Hudson Valley of New York is often given credit as the birthplace of American tourism, as a growing middle class ventured out of the urban centers of the Northeast.

The South, before the Civil War, didn’t have much of a middle class, but the wealthy plantation owners had their own reasons for finding places to visit during the summer.

Perquimans County plantation owner Francis Nixon is usually credited with being the first tourist to land in Nags Head. The story holds that in 1830, malaria was rampant in the coastal plane of North Carolina, and to escape the heat, humidity and disease of his home, he loaded his family onto a sailboat, sailed across the sound until he came to a dock at the base of Jockey’s Ridge.

He liked the ocean, the ocean breezes ,and the area, so he built a cottage and invited his friends, who also liked the area. By 1840, Nags Head was a thriving tourist destination with a number of summer cottages and a soundside hotel with a boardwalk to the beach.

Long before rows of oceanfront homes, Nags Head was one of the first tourist destinations in the US

2) The Wild Horses Once Numbered in the Thousands

In the May 1926 edition of National Geographic Magazine, writer Melville Chater observed that there appeared to be “…between 5,000 and 6,000 of these wild horses roam the sand banks of the North Carolina coast.”

Admittedly Chater was talking about everything from Beaufort to the Virginia state line, but that’s remarkable number. It’s difficult to say just how accurate that figure is, but there can be no doubt that the Banker horses were thriving.

What happened?

Two things, somewhat simultaneously changed everything.

In 1921 North Carolina passed a law ordering livestock to be fenced; the barrier islands were exempt, however. In 1935 that changed when the legislature passed “An act to place certain portions of Dare County under the Statewide stock law.”

The Great Depression gripped the Outer Banks as tightly as every other corner of the country at that time, and building a fence was beyond the means of the stockmen.

Simultaneously, the Federal Government was creating Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Environmental scientists of the day believed that the grazing of the wild horses, who were not native to the area, damaged the vegetation holding the sand dunes in place.

To rid the newly created national seashore of what was thought to be an invasive species, special legislation was passed granting a $10 bounty on horses in Dare County and by 1938 there were no more to be hunted.

3) The Outer Banks is one of the first permanently settled areas by the English

This has nothing to do with the Lost Colony, which does not qualify as a permanent settlement. In this case, we’re talking about the northern Currituck Banks, the area around Carova to Knotts Island.

Precise records are difficult to come by, but there is no doubt that by the 1650s, settlers drifted down from the Jamestown settlement and found new homes just south of what is now the North Carolina/Virginia Border.

That predates the founding of Philadelphia (1682), Charleston (1670), and Baltimore (1729) by quite a number of years.

This Queen Elizabeth I statue in Elizabethan Gardens illustrates the Outer Banks’ connection with English history

4) Manteo was originally a planned town

Manteo as a recognizable town didn’t come into existence until after the Civil War. However, in 1715 there was an attempt by the NC colonial legislature to create a planned community on Shallowbag Bay.

Meticulously laid out on 300 acres, the law that created the community included specific placement for a town square, church, municipal offices and lot sizes of homes. Because Roanoke Inlet was still open at that time, Provincial officials were hoping to create a port of entry.

The name of the town was to be Carteret Town, after one of the Lords Proprietors who owned North Carolina.

The plan failed for a number of reasons, but considerable blame can be placed at the feet of Richard Sanderson Jr. of Perquimans County. One of the wealthiest and most influential men of his day, Sanderson seems to have sold 1500 acres of land on Roanoke Island that he did not have title to.

Current day downtown Manteo