Everything You Need to Know About the History of the Outer Banks

Everything You Need to Know About the History of the Outer Banks

Few places are as majestic and beautiful as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. With a diverse landscape made up of several islands, surrounded by spectacular coastal waters, it is easy to fall in love with the Outer Banks. Since the first English settlers explored the area in 1584, to the thousands of present day visitors, people have been drawn to the Outer Banks for different reasons. Things have changed a lot since those first settlers arrived on the shores of the Outer Banks. Today we will take you on a short history tour of the areas we now simply call the OBX.

We know no matter how long you stay during your Outer Banks vacation, that you too will feel the draw of the Outer Banks and make your own memories and history. 

What is a Barrier Island

The Outer Banks is comprised of a two hundred mile long group of barrier islands.  These islands were created over 18,000 years ago by the shifting sands, and tidal action. Now, this thin line of islands parallels the North Carolina coast for over 200 miles. The islands comprising the Outer Banks are sometimes miles wide, and other times so narrow you can easily see across the entire width of the island. A combination of shifting sea levels, surplus sand, and waves large enough to move that sand, create an ever changing and interesting landscape. The Outer Banks looks very different today than they did even a hundred years ago. With each shift in the wind or change in an ocean current, the Outer Banks is sculpted into something new and different. 

Outer Banks

Native American Influence

Native Americans have long inhabited the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Today, visitors can see the influence of the islands first inhabitants at every turn. Names like Manteo, Wanchese, and Roanoke all have their origins in the languages of the local Native American communities. Manteo, for example, is named after the local chief of the Croatan Indians, who in 1585, befriended the English settlers on Roanoke Island. Wanchese, the name of a small town now famous for fresh local seafood, was actually the name of the last known ruler of the Roanoke Native Americans.

Unlike today, where beautiful homes with spectacular views stand on the edge of the ocean, Native Americans preferred the sound side of the islands, or the safety of the more inland islands such as present day Roanoke Island. These more protected inland areas offered the Native Americans easy access to the local fishing and fresh seafood, while providing protection from mother natures' unpredictable and powerful storms.

Trivia: Two Native American chiefs, Wanchese and Manteo, at the invitation of Sir Walter Raleigh, traveled to London England in 1584.



English settlers arrived on the Outer Banks in 1584. At first, the settlers arrived on Hatteras Island but realized quickly the island was not suitable for agricultural purposes. The settlers moved up the coast via the local waterways, and eventually settled on Roanoke Island, now home to the beautiful small town of Manteo. Due to several missteps, and with relations deteriorating with the local tribes the settlement eventually disappeared. Even today, it is a mystery as to why and where exactly the last colonist disappeared. For a fun and interesting exploration of this fascinating part of the OBX history, visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo during your Outer Banks Vacation. With exhibits dedicated to the English Settlers as well as the Native Americans of the area, you're sure to enjoy this intriguing part of OBX history. 

Pier at Sunset

Pirate Life

Perhaps the most famous part of the Outer Banks history is the history of the local pirates who raided the waters along the Atlantic Coast. With constantly shifting inlets, sand bars, and treacherous currents...the waters off the coast of the Outer Banks provided the perfect place to launch raids and attacks against ships plying the waters of the Atlantic Coast.

Few pirates are as famous as Edward Teach, A.K.A., Blackbeard. Over the course of his career (if you can call it that), Blackbeard is believed to have sunk, captured, or destroyed over fifty ships in the waters on or around the Outer Banks. He often retreated to the waters near Ocracoke Island to resupply, rest, or escape the searching Royal Navy. Finally, in 1718, Blackbeard's luck ran out when he ran his flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge aground in the shallow waters off the coast. Eventually, he was beheaded by the Royal Navy. The remains of the ship were believed (although there is much debate) to have been discovered in 1996. During your Outer Banks Vacation take time to visit Ocracoke Island; make sure to ask the locals about Teach's Lights.   

Trivia: Local lore has it that Nags Head is named for the pirate trick of placing a lantern around an "old Nag" then walking the horse up and down the beach trying to trick ships into thinking the swaying light represented a safe harbor. Nothing was further from the truth. 

The Beach Life Begins

The Outer Banks began its life as a vacation hotspot many years ago. As early as the late 19th century, families from surrounding counties, such as Chowan, Perquimans, and Bertie began vacationing on the Outer Banks. These families built cottages along the Nags Head ocean front. In fact, today there are still original beach cottages present in what is called the Nags Head Beach Cottage Row Historic District. Names like Nixon, Twiddy, and Wood have for generations been vacationing on the Outer Banks in the same cottages their relatives build in the late 1800's.  Click here, to see a short video about the history of some of the oldest cottages on the Outer Banks.  

With the advent of new highways and improved waterways connecting the Outer Banks to the north and surrounding areas, it was inevitable that the Outer Banks would shift from a small rural community of "Bankers" to the vacation center it now is. Today, not only are the Outer Banks famous for vacations, but also commercial fishing, boat manufacturing, and environmental research. 

Trivia: "Bankers" was a term used to describe locals living on the Outer Banks.


Wright Brother's Memorial 

Taking to the Skies 

Perhaps even more famous than Blackbeard are the Wright Brothers,   Orville and Wilbur. On December 19, 1903, the Wright brothers took to the air, flying the first heavier-than-air-plane for that fateful twelve seconds on the dunes of Kitty Hawk. Today, Hang Gliders still take off from the dunes in Kitty Hawk, keeping that adventurous spirit alive on the OBX. Now a National Park in Kill Devil Hills, is a must see while vacationing on the Outer Banks. Just feel the sea breeze and imagine the feeling the brothers must have felt that fateful day. 
Trivia: Neil Armstrong carried a small piece of fabric from the original 1903 Wright Flyer in his space suit when he became the first man to step on the moon. 

Graveyard of the Atlantic

The waters off the Outer Banks are great for swimming, surf casting, and are a surfer's paradise. However, these coastal waters are also challenging and often treacherous for ships going up and down the Atlantic Coast. Shifting currents, unpredictable weather, and hidden shoals have caused hundreds of ships to meet the ocean floor. This area is commonly called "The Graveyard of the Atlantic". From British and Spanish ships from as far back as the 16th century, to the hundreds of ships sunk during World War I and World War II by German U-Boats, the naval history, and archeology of the waters off the Outer Banks offer historians and visitors alike an interesting window into one of the more dangerous aspects of the area. 

Perhaps no time was more interesting or dangerous than the period encompassing World War II. German U-Boats sank hundreds of ships off the coast of the Outer Banks. It was almost a nightly occurrence to see the red glow of a burning ship off in the distance. If you're lucky enough to meet a local from that era, ask them to tell you what life was like during the war. With beaches full of salvage, debris, and the dead, it was a difficult time for the folks of the Outer Banks. Even today, there are reminders, most notably perhaps are the two British cemeteries, in Buxton and on Ocracoke Island. 
Trivia:  The coast of North Carolina, along the Outer Banks, was nicknamed "Torpedo Junction" during WWII due to the almost daily torpedo attacks on the local shipping channels. 

The Outer Banks has shifted and changed with the winds, and yielded to the whims of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. No matter how our beautiful Outer Banks look today, tomorrow they will be different. This is perhaps the best part of a vacation on the Outer Banks. While remaining constantly beautiful, the Outer Banks remain intriguing and interesting for visitors. You could visit for years to come and at each mile post, and at every twist of the beach, you can find something new and exciting, yet familiar and comforting. Come enjoy the late season and see what is new on the OBX.

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