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The Croatans were the only Native Americans to live year round on a barrier island. Other tribes lived on the mainland and only visited the barrier islands to hunt and fish, but the Croatans, supported by the bounty of the sea and sound and the protection of wooded areas, found safe haven on Hatteras Island. The Algonquins are believed to have been on the Outer Banks since around 500 A.D.
Native American artifacts are commonly found on Hatteras Island today, especially in Buxton and Frisco. Archaeologists have pinpointed the location of an enormous shell midden (shell repository and trash heap) at Kings Point (now Brigand’s Bay) in Frisco, proof that the native population was large and that they had a healthy diet of oysters and clams. Archaeologists now believe that the natives occupied a huge area starting at about the beginning of the Buxton line and ending south of present-day Frisco. Much of this area was part of Buxton Woods. The land under the Cape Hatteras School in Buxton is regarded as sacred by Native Americans.
Other than archaeological remnants, it is only through the eyes of European explorers that we know much about the Native Americans who inhabited the Outer Banks. In 1524 Florentine explorer Giovanni Da Verrazzano, sailing for France, anchored offshore somewhere between Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras and had a friendly encounter with the native Bankers. All reports of the Native Americans on the island were that they were friendly to European explorers.
The Spanish explored much of this coast before the English, and their maps referred to Cape Hatteras as Cape St. John. English explorers mapped and charted the islands later, and a 1585 English map refers to the island as Croatan Island. John White’s map of 1585 first names the cape as “Hattorask.”
John White and 116 colonists landed on “Hattorask” on June 22, 1587, and they encountered the friendly natives prior to moving on to Roanoke Island, where they set up a colony. When John White came back to his Roanoke Island colony in 1590 after three years of being away in England, the 116 colonists were gone, the only connection to their whereabouts were the letters “CRO” and “CROATAN” carved into a tree.
White assumed this meant the missing colonists had gone to Hatteras to live with the Croatan tribe, but he was never able to go there to find out for himself. We may never know what happened to the “Lost Colonists,” but there are some who believe that they did indeed go to Hatteras Island to seek help from the kind natives. Legends of blue-eyed, light-skinned Indians living on the island suggest a mingling of Native American and European genes. And in the 1990s, an archaeologist found a 16th-century English signet ring during a dig in Buxton.
European settlers began making their way to Hatteras Island in the 1700s. These were primarily people of English descent moving to the island from colonies on the Virginia and North Carolina mainland. It appears that Kinnakeet, now Avon, was the first area to be colonized.
The first land grant on the island was at Kinnakeet in 1711.
In the colonial period the island was part of Hyde County and was collectively called the Hatteras Sand Banks. The banks were divided into three sections: Cape Hatteras Banks (from old Hatteras Inlet on what is now Ocracoke Island to the cape); Kinnakeet Banks (from the cape to Chicamacomico Banks); and Chicamacomico Banks (through Chickinacommock, or New Inlet, on Pea Island). At this time the banks were heavily forested with live oak and Atlantic white cedar, locally called juniper.
The early settlers only sparsely populated the island. They lived a subsistence lifestyle, gardening, fishing, hunting and raising livestock to provide food for the table. Windmills used for grinding corn bought on the mainland were spotted at Kinnakeet as early as 1723.
The islanders also probably did a lot of beach combing. The major shipping routes between Europe, the Caribbean and the New World ran right past Hatteras Island on the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current.
Cargo lost overboard or ships wrecked on the island’s dangerous shoals would wash up as bounty for the Bankers.
The 1700s were hard on the Croatan Indians, by then called the Hatteras Indians by the new settlers. The Hatteras Indians were attacked by warring tribes, the Corees and the Machapunga, in 1714, and in addition they had no defenses against the Europeans’ diseases of smallpox and tuberculosis. The native Outer Bankers were reduced to poverty and sickness, and by 1788, the natives had all but disappeared.
By the end of the Revolutionary War, which did not bring much action to Hatteras, settlement was growing on the island, but still the population was sparse. More people were moving over from the mainland, and some new residents were shipwreck victims who decided to stay on the island. Longtime island names like Austin, Oden, Gray, Etheridge, Willis, O’Neal and Scarborough all reportedly owe their Hatteras heritage to shipwrecks.
The residents lived on the soundside of the island, in small villages oriented toward the mainland and away from the harshness of the ocean, surrounded by healthy stands of trees that protected them from the elements. The Bankers were farmers, mariners and livestockmen. They fished for their own sustenance, but commercial fishing wasn’t a viable trade at the time. They also cut trees and exported them for use in building houses and ships.
Unfortunately, the combination of logging and allowing livestock to run freely all over the island destroyed much of the island’s natural vegetation, leaving great bare spots of sand. The sand blew freely in the constant winds and, at Kinnakeet, began to form great migrating sand dunes that could be quite destructive to property and any remaining plants.
In the late 1700s shipwrecks were common off the North Carolina coast, particularly at Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras. Two strong ocean currents, the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream, collide near Cape Hatteras, and sail-power vessels had to draw close to the Outer Banks to hitch a ride on either of these currents. This should not have been a problem except that the winds and storms so common to the Outer Banks often drove the ships ashore or landed them on shoals.
Plus Hatteras Island was so flat with no visible landmarks that ships often didn’t realize where they were until they were running aground on its shoals.
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