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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Outer Banks Where Important History was Made

By Tom Morrow

Unless you’re in Maine, you can’t get much further east in the United States than standing on the white sandy beaches of this thin piece of North Carolina facing the Atlantic.

Known as “The Outer Banks,” it is a string of small islands stretching from near the Virginia border and the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay down to Wilmington, N.C. One of the largest of these islands is Bodie Island, which includes the communities of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head.

Of course, we all assume Kitty Hawk was where the Wright Brothers made their historic series of flights in December 1902-03, but the actual site was from Kill Devil Hill, now an incorporated city. Back in 1903, the entire area was known as “Kitty Hawk,” so both monikers are correct.

The National Parks Service operates a visitors’ center dedicated to the two brothers.

When the Parks Service began its preservation in the late 20s, they discovered that sandy Kill Devil Hill had shifted south some 450 feet from where the brothers had launched their gliders. To preserve the entire area, grass was planted to hold the hill in place.

But, there’s a more compelling story about the Outer Banks than the Wright Brothers. It’s the site of the “Lost Colony.”

 The mystery of the Lost Colony on nearby Roanoke Island (just south of Kill Devil Hill and Kitty Hawk) is the primary story being told at another National Parks visitors’ center at Fort Raleigh in Manteo, N.C.

On March 25, 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of the area of North America. This charter specified that Raleigh needed to establish a colony in North America, or lose his right to colonization. The colony of little more than 100 English men and women established a settlement, but when supplies ran out, the colony’s leader, John White left for new supplies.

White sailed to England in late 1587, although crossing the Atlantic at that time of year was a considerable risk. Plans for a relief fleet were delayed first by the captain’s refusal to return to Roanoke during the winter, and then the attack on England by the Spanish Armada and the subsequent Anglo-Spanish War. In the spring of 1588, White managed to acquire two small vessels and sailed for Roanoke.

When the White and the rescue party finally arrived, they could find no one. The rescue party’s primary plan was to resupply and then head north to establish another colony on the Chesapeake Bay. But the party’s commander refused to let anyone return to the ships  insisting they establish a new colony on Roanoke. There is evidence indicating not only  the commander had good reason for his actions, but the decision to alter the Chesapeake Bay destination had already been agreed upon prior to their arrival on Roanoke.

Contrary to popular myth, Sir Walter Raleigh, personally, never visited North America, although he did lead expeditions in 1595 and 1617 to South America’s Orinoco River basin in search of the legendary golden city of El Dorado.

Roanoke Island is part of today’s Dare County on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. All that remains of the Lost Colony are remnants of a small defensive earthen berm that apparently served as a kind of fort for protection.

There is no conclusive evidence as to what happened to the colonists. Speculation ranges from natives killing everyone to settlers becoming part of the native population to the settlers being captured or killed by the Spanish. No one will ever know.


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