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Ocracoke Island

February 28, 2011

The Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, were first settled by the English, many of whom have descendants still living on the islands. Before bridges were built in the 1930s, the only form of transport between or off the islands was by boat. The islands remained isolated from much of the rest of the mainland. This helped to preserve the unique culture and brogue of the Outer Banks. The accent is thickest on Ocracoke Island.

Ocracoke is the island that our family enjoyed the most. The island is also a great place to look for seashells. It is one of only two places where I have found the rare Scotch Bonnet, the state shell of North Carolina.

The barrier island is home to herds of wild horses, sometimes called banker ponies. According to local legend, the ponies are descended from Spanish Mustangs washed ashore centuries ago in shipwrecks.

Ocracoke Island was the harbor of the feared pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. It is also where Blackbeard was killed.

One prominent family on Ocracoke is Oden clan. There is an interesting story connected to the name. The winter of 1856 was especially difficult along the islands of the Outer Banks.  The temperatures remained below freezing day after day until Pamlico Sound separating the islands from the mainland was completely frozen.  Boats were unable to bring supplies out to the islanders.  By March, the people of Ocracoke were beginning to suffer from deprivation and longed for the taste of something besides dried fish.

On Sunday morning the preacher in the local church prayed that if God had in mind wrecking a ship along the coast, which the preacher certainly hoped God did not have in mind, that the ship would have on board some pork. And that the pork might wash ashore to feed the hungry islanders.

Within the week, a barkentine vessel named the Mary Varney had wrecked on Diamond Shoals and was beginning to break apart.  As pieces of the ship began to wash ashore, the expectant islanders saw a very large pork barrel bobbing up and down in the stormy sea.  With each swell the huge white-capped waves pushed the cask closer to the shore. The preacher reminded those along the beach that just four days before he had prayed that God would provide.  When the pork barrel entered the thundering breakers, a large wave picked it up and brought it crashing onto the beach.  The islanders rushed to rescue the barrel when something even more unexpected happened.  The top of the barrel popped off and out crawled Herbert Oden.  As his ship had been breaking up, this enterprising young seaman had emptied the pork barrel and converted it to a life raft.

The islanders continued to eat dried fish until the thaw.  Herbert Oden never went to sea again. The preacher disappeared and was never heard from again.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2011
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