Wanchese and the History of Outer Banks Fishing
Coming from the Outer Banks at the intersection of US64 Business and US64, there are some choices to be made. Turn right, and the road leads to Manteo; straight, and there’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Mann’s Harbor. Or turn left onto NC345 and head to Wanchese.
The village is about five and a half or six miles down the road, and it’s about as different from every other town on the Outer Banks as any place could be.
Wanchese is a fishing village. That’s its industry, and that’s what it does.
At one time there were five or six fish houses along the docks, but there are still three in operation, and for local commercial fishermen, Wanchese is where most of them unload their catch.
The village is also home to another industry not tied directly to tourism. Boats have been built on Roanoke Island since the 19th century. Beginning in the 1940s, the boatyards moved to Wanchese. To get an idea of how important the boatbuilding industry is to the local economy, head down Harbor Road—that’s a left turn off NC345 heading toward Wanchese.
But at the heart of it all, fishing is what Wanchese is all about—and there is conclusive evidence that fishing has been a part of this location for some 1500 years.
Back in the 1980s, the state of North Carolina identified Wanchese as the best site on the Outer Banks for an industrial park fishing site. To do that, though, the Mill Creek, where the docks would be located, would have to be widened and dredged.
When the US Corps of Engineers surveyed the area, they identified a potential site of archeological significance about a half-mile south of the dredge area. The archeology department of ECU was contacted, and they headed out to the Tillett Site, called Thicket Lump locally.
Visually there wasn’t much to suggest there was anything of significance there, just a remnant hammock with a thicket of yaupon and cedar surrounded by marsh.
But what the archeologists found at the site drew a direct line from modern-day fishing to the earliest peoples of the Outer Banks.
In the paper prepared for the public by the lead archeologist, David Phelps, wrote, “Some 1500 years ago, when sea level had risen sufficiently to create the saline sounds and marshes around the south end of Roanoke Island, people of a culture previous to our own took advantage of this hammock beside the marshes and began to fish in the sounds and collect oysters and other shellfish from nearby beds.”
There is evidence that what is now Roanoke Island was inhabited even earlier than the first fishing activity that happened at the Tillett Site. According to Phelps and other archeologists, the Algonquin people—the tribe that greeted the Lost Colony in 1586—were already living in the area 8000-9000 years ago. At that time, the sea level was significantly lower and Roanoke Island was part of the mainland. Over time, the sea level rose, and as it did so, water surrounded Roanoke Island, and it became a true island.
The Phelps report makes the point, though, that it is doubtful if the Tillett site had a permanent population.
“The Tillett site appears to have been a seasonal settlement to which people from the mainland came to fish and collect shellfish,” Phelps wrote.
Today there is really nothing noticeable about the Tillett site, and since it is privately owned, there is no access to it. But it is a fascinating snippet of history that links different cultures and people to a common activity.
Wanchese makes for a great side trip from the usual Outer Banks routine. It’s not really an all-day activity, but walking along the docks and getting a sense of the Outer Banks commercial fishing fleet makes for an interesting hour or two.
The harbor is also home to one of the most important sportfishing fleets along the Outer Banks.
While visiting, be sure to stop for lunch. There are some amazing seafood restaurants in the village. O’Neal’s Sea Harvest on Harbor Road is open year-round. They sell fresh seafood in their retail shop as well.