ocracoke
photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

The ghost didn’t come the way you might imagine. No shrieking, no moaning, no shadowy specters.

Nor was it exactly the way Philip Howard told it in Digging Up Uncle Evans: History, Ghost Tales, & Stories From Ocracoke Island. Though she likes to rearrange women’s cosmetics, she left mine undisturbed. Instead, all that uneasy night I felt the steady pressure of her hand on my foot. I might’ve dismissed it as imagination if the desk clerk at the Island Inn hadn’t glanced at my face in the morning and said, “Would you like to change rooms?” That was how I learned that Mrs. Godfrey, one of Ocracoke’s best-known ghosts, had paid me a visit.

What better place to meet a ghost than Ocracoke, where the dead aren’t banished to their own city, but are tucked here and there through the village, beside a chicken coop, behind the lighthouse, 81 cemeteries in all, and those don’t include the many unmarked graves of pirates, shipwrecked sailors, and slaves. Don’t believe in ghosts? Spend a night in room 23 at the Island Inn. Book the cottage on Lighthouse Road, where two tots’ wooden grave markers have since rotted, and whose eternal sleep was disturbed by a new septic field. Take an evening stroll near the community cemetery in Sunset Village, where you might happen upon an elderly couple in 19th-century garb.

• • •

The late Roy Parsons, one of the island’s numerous musicians, refused to ever enter the maritime forest at Springer’s Point again after encountering a large, bearded man sitting on the abandoned cistern near the grave of his one-time employer, the wealthy eccentric Sam Jones. The man chased Roy through the woods to the sound, then, in Roy’s words, “went down like smoke.” Springer’s Point is the site where Edward Teach, a k a Blackbeard, threw a party for fellow pirates in 1718, just days before he was beheaded in the adjacent channel, now known as Teach’s Hole. Some say the ghost is Blackbeard himself, pacing the beach, searching for his head.

Long before the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust saved Springer’s Point from development, and cleared a nature trail, I encountered Roy Parsons’s grandson, who asked if I wanted to see where Sam Jones was buried with his horse. Of course I did, and so I followed the boy around the beach, through a yaupon thicket into a forest of twisted live oaks. He probably hoped to give me a good scare, but at midafternoon the ghost had failed to show, though when I returned by myself, the woods seemed so dense and creepy that I got out of there quickly.

Fannie Pearl McWilliams, bride of Stanley Wahab, seemed to be resting in peace the day I visited her grave, despite her “token of death,” a dream in which she saw herself in a white coffin, sailing on a white sailboat beneath a full moon. She died the next night. The only way to cart a coffin from her in-laws’ house, Around Creek, where she’d been awaiting the birth of her first child, to her family plot Down Point, on the other side of the harbor — then called Cockle Creek — was a deep, sandy lane with narrow planks laid over smaller creeks called “the guts.” Unaware of the dream she’d confided to his mother, Stanley placed the white casket he’d purchased on the mainland on a white skiff that sailed across Cockle Creek beneath a full moon.

Her grave is now off-limits, but not because of ghosts. In recent years, “No trespassing” signs have appeared at many family plots to protect them from overzealous tourists. Indeed, what I remember from my first visit in 1972, besides the lighthouse, are the cemeteries, not the 16 miles of spectacular beach. We didn’t even stop at the beach, for my first husband and I were camped for the month just below the dune in Rodanthe, where the sand so irritated our dog’s tender paws that she spent most of the vacation lying in the shade of our picnic table. Picture Rodanthe in 1972: nothing but the fishing pier, a mom-and-pop motel, a brand new KOA campground, and a beach as unspoiled as Ocracoke’s remains today.

Imagine Ocracoke, too: The lighthouse, built in 1823 and second-oldest still in operation in the United States, was the tallest structure. Water and cell phone towers were yet to come. Villagers still collected rainwater in cisterns. On the harbor, there was a single one-story motel. No kayaks, no ecotours, no Jet Skis, no kite shop, no golf carts, no Jackson Dunes or Oyster Creek with fancy cottages built to sleep 12. No cable, no Internet. Fishing was the primary industry.

Yet many changes to the island had already occurred: electricity, household telephones, the paving of the main streets, the highway, the ferry service, the national park. Before Cape Hatteras National Seashore was dedicated in 1958, the famous island ponies roamed free, as did livestock. Dogs were still recent arrivals, for not until the villagers penned their chickens were canines welcome on the island.

Once, while teaching One Hundred Years of Solitude, I chalked a line through a circle for a student who didn’t understand the novel’s structure. “That’s it?” she asked. That’s it, the shape of all family sagas, and Ocracoke is, above all, a family saga. Generations of Howards, O’Neals, Garrishes, Gaskills, Williamses, Scarboroughs, and Ballances have lived on the island. Philip Howard, founder of Village Craftsmen gallery, publisher of a newsletter and blog about island life, is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of William Howard, the island’s last colonial owner, and also believed to have been Blackbeard’s quartermaster. Philip’s grandson is the 10th generation to reside on Ocracoke.

Even the shape of the island mimics the line and a circle. Nearly all marine geologists agree that North Carolina’s barrier islands migrated to their present position, but if Stan Riggs is correct, the “real” island, the circle that became the village, has existed in its present position much longer than the ribbon of sand that attached itself to it. Before Hatteras Inlet opened, Ocracoke Inlet was the major gateway to North Carolina’s mainland ports, and in 1715, the state assembly established Ocracoke as Pilot Town, its first residents pilots who guided ships across the shoals of Pamlico Sound.

Islanders live close to nature and are acutely attuned to its cycles: the tides, the seasons, the storms, those hurricanes and nor’easters that periodically wash out the highway or cause Hatteras Inlet to shoal up and ferry service to be curtailed or even suspended. Boards nailed to the side of  Village Craftsmen mark their high tides. Hurricane Gloria, 1985, was the benchmark when I began going to the island every May in 1990. Since then, Dennis, Gustav, Isabel, Earl, and Sandy have added their own lines, with 2004’s Alex still uppermost. Villagers used to scuttle their houses to keep them from floating off their foundations; later houses included trapdoors. Now they’re simply built on stilts, and several of the older ones have been raised.

The 900-some year-round residents also mark the cycles of one another’s lives. Before the Health Center opened in 1981, islanders had to depend on folk remedies and one another to survive. Some of my favorites: To relieve an earache, have a member of the opposite sex urinate on a cotton ball and place it in your ear; to cure measles, drink sheep-turd tea; to get rid of warts, steal your mama’s dishrag and bury it.

The cemeteries tell the sad story of childhood epidemics. Warren O. Wahab, “the boy who died before he lived” according to Carl Goerch’s 1956 book, Ocracoke, was one of those victims. Though a glance at his tombstone suggests that he was born in 1855 and died in 1842, Philip Howard has since pointed out that the numbers have simply weathered. Warren was actually born in 1833 and died the same month as two of his brothers, all buried near their parents on British Cemetery Road. In a plot on Howard Street, the sandy lane that most resembles the Ocracoke of old, eight Howard children share four headstones inscribed on each side.

But despite the ravages of childhood disease, Ocracokers have been a remarkably long-lived lot. The oldest, Ann Howard, wife of George Howard, died November 24, 1841, at the age of 117, and the original William Howard may have lived to be 108. Charlotte O’Neal, better known as Aunt Lot, one of the island’s midwives, lived to be 96, and her daughter, Sarah Ellen Gaskill, died at 104. In 2004, the entire community turned out to celebrate the 100th birthday of Muzel Bryant, the last surviving member of the island’s only black family. She died not quite four years later.

• • •

Ocracokers had to recycle long before the rest of us learned to toss our bottles and cans into special bins. Many of their houses were built with wood salvaged from shipwrecks. The cross in the Methodist Church was fashioned from the timber that confirmed that one of their own had gone down on the ill-fated Caribsea. When four British sailors washed up on Ocracoke’s beach after a German U-boat sank the HMT Bedfordshire in 1942, lumber was so scarce that the two were buried in hunters’ sinkboxes, the others in coffins built with boards intended for an outhouse. By then, the Navy had dredged Cockle Creek, but after World War II the naval base closed, and duck hunters moved several barracks up island to serve as camps. When the National Park Service took over the entire barrier part of the island, the barracks were moved to Down Point to serve as vacation rentals. The cottage at Windmill Point where I stayed through the 1990s once housed the Navy. It was in the early ’90s that the traditional red-and-white wooden fishing skiffs disappeared from the harbor, only to reappear as planters in village yards. The old Slushy Stand was repurposed into a children’s playhouse.

When the Black Squall, which carried James Nixon’s Royal Circus and Menagerie of Living Animals, wrecked off Ocracoke in 1861, islanders made quilts from the costumes that washed up in a trunk. Though hippopotamuses, giraffes, camels, lions, and tigers also washed up on the beach, two horses survived and roamed the island for years, performing circus tricks for anyone nearby in hope of a treat. Some claim they mated with the ponies that may or may not be descended from shipwrecked Spanish mustangs, mixing their genes into the herd. You can’t always tell where a circle begins.

• • •

My own circle is marked by an annual visit, though as an outsider, I’m conscious of the line, for each year I note changes — the paving of the roads in Jackson Dunes and Oyster Creek; new street signs; the renovation of Sam Jones’s vacant castle into a handsome bed and breakfast; the restrooms behind the lifeguard beach and north end; a footbridge at the end of Grass Road; additions to the Pony Island Motel and Island Inn; the trail at Springer’s Point; monuments commemorating Fort Ocracoke and Loop Shack Hill; new bridges over the tidal creeks; new motels and restaurants and shops; a new ferry building and fire station — the list goes on, though the biggest change was the closing of the Coast Guard Station in 1997. During the next few years, I watched the once-immaculate landmark deteriorate, its white siding flapping and growing dingy. What a thrill it was to enter the harbor in May of 2007 and see the station freshly shingled and capped with a new red roof, renovated for the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

In some ways, I’ve completed a circle. I came to Ocracoke for the first time with my first dog, and in 2014 I visited with my last. He’s chased his last ball in the sound. But I’ll be back without him until my own line ends.

This story was published on

Lee Zacharias is the author of a novel, Lessons, and a book of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It through the Night. In addition to writing workshops in fiction and nonfiction, she teaches courses in the structure of fiction and in the contemporary novel at UNC Greensboro.