Sunday, October 7, 2007

Early History of the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Early Inhabitants

Jutting far into the ocean near the warm, circulating waters of the Gulf Stream, the Outer Banks was the first North American land reached by English explorers. A group of colonists dispatched by Sir Walter Raleigh set up the first English settlement on North American soil in 1587. But Native Americans inhabited these barrier islands long before white men and women arrived.

Historians believe humans have been living in the area that now encompasses North Carolina for more than 10,000 years. Three thousand years ago, people came to the Outer Banks to hunt, fish, and live off the land. The Carolina Algonkian culture, a confederation of 75,000 people divided into distinct tribes, spread across 6,000 square miles of northeastern North Carolina.

Archaeologists believe that as many as 5,000 Native Americans may have inhabited the southern end of Hatteras Island from 1000 to 1700. These Native Americans, known as the Croatan, formed the only island kingdom of the Algonkians. Isolation provided protection and the exclusive use of the island's seemingly limitless resources. For more than 800 years, the Croatan lived comfortably in what is now known as Buxton Woods Maritime Forest at Cape Hatteras. Contact with Europeans proved fateful, however. Disease, famine, and cultural demise eliminated all traces of the Croatan by the 1770s.

Early ventures to America's Atlantic Seaboard proved dangerous and difficult for European explorers because of the high winds, seething surf, and shifting sandbars. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian in the service of France, plied the waters off the Outer Banks in an unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage. To Verrazano, the barrier islands looked like an isthmus and the sounds behind them an endless sea. According to historian David Stick, the explorer reported to the French king that these silvery salt waters must certainly be the "Oriental sea . . . the one without doubt which goes about the extremity of India, China, and Cathay." This misconception-- that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were separated by only the skinny strip of sand we now call the Outer Banks-- was held by some Europeans for more than 150 years.

About 60 years after Verrazano's visit, two English boats arrived along the Outer Banks, searching for a navigable inlet and a place to anchor away from the ocean. The captains, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, had been dispatched by Sir Walter Raleigh to explore the New World's coast. They were hoping to find a suitable site for an English settlement.

The explorers finally found an entrance through the islands, well north of Cape Hatteras, probably at the present-day Ginguite Creek in northern Kitty Hawk. Traversing the inlet, they sailed south through the sounds to Roanoke Island. There, they disembarked, met the natives, and marveled at the abundant wildlife and cedar trees. Of their successful expedition they told Raleigh about the riches they discovered and the kindness with which the Native Americans had received them.

During the next three years, at least 40 English ships visited the Outer Banks, more than 100 English soldiers spent almost a year on Roanoke Island, and Great Britain began to gain a foothold on the continent, much to the dismay of Spanish sailors and fortune-seekers.

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