December 1870: The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

This Month in North Carolina History

smallhatterasJust off of Cape Hatteras lies Diamond Shoals, a large area of turbulent waters and constantly shifting underwater sand dunes which can wreak havoc with passing ships. This and other treacherous passages caused so many shipwrecks that wary sailors began to call the waters off of North Carolina’s coast the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

The first lighthouse at Hatteras began operating in 1802 and was effective in helping some boats steer clear of dangerous waters, but sailors complained that it was neither tall enough nor bright enough to provide as much advance warning as they needed. Hatteras was the site of an important naval battle early in the Civil War. The island was occupied in the summer of 1861 by Federal troops, many of whom camped around the lighthouse, finding themselves forced to defend the beacon against a Confederate plan to blow it up. After the war, continued complaints about the effectiveness of the light, combined with natural deterioration of the structure, led the United States Congress to authorize funds for a new lighthouse in 1867. In December 1870, the new lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, destined to become one of North Carolina’s most enduring symbols, was lit for the first time.

The new lighthouse took over two years to build and cost $155,000, more than twice the cost originally allocated by Congress. The familiar black and white stripes were painted in 1873. The finished structure stood 208 feet high, making it the tallest lighthouse in the United States, a distinction that it still holds.

The new light shone for decades, helping ships steer clear of the dangerous passages, but it was these very waters that threatened the existence of the lighthouse. Beach erosion had become so severe that by 1936 waves reached the base of the lighthouse and, without any immediate solutions to stop the encroaching tide, the Lighthouse Service was forced to close the Hatteras lighthouse. For 14 years, it would remain dark.

In 1950 the lighthouse was restored, a new electric light was installed, and the Hatteras lighthouse began its second life. The next half-century saw a number of efforts to reinforce the shoreline – sand was pumped in to extend the beach, concrete bunkers were poured, and a large seawall was built around the base of the lighthouse – but none were able to keep the ocean away for long. Finally, in 1999, the entire lighthouse was lifted from its foundation and moved to a new location 1,600 feet from the sea. In the years since the move, the lighthouse has reopened to visitors, has withstood several severe storms and, most importantly, has continued to shine, warning passing ships that they were approaching the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

This detail from an 1897 map produced by the U.S. Light-House Board shows the range of the Hatteras light. The dotted lines mean that the light at Hatteras was a blinking white light, while the solid black line signifies a fixed white light, as with the Ocracoke lighthouse south of Hatteras.
This detail from an 1897 map produced by the U.S. Light-House Board shows the range of the Hatteras light. The dotted lines mean that the light at Hatteras was a blinking white light, while the solid black line signifies a fixed white light, as with the Ocracoke lighthouse south of Hatteras.

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Suggestions for Further Reading
Carr, Dawson. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Sentinel of the Shoals. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Duffus, Kevin P. The Lost Light: The Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras Fresnel Lens. Raleigh: Looking Glass Productions, 2003.

Stick, David. North Carolina Lighthouses. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1999.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, National Park Service

Image Source
“Fifth L.H. District.” Map published in Annual Report of the Light-House Board to the Secretary of the Treasury for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1897. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897. Detail.

November 1718: The Death of Blackbeard

This Month in North Carolina History

Drawing of BlackbeardThe 1710s have been called the “golden age of piracy.” Pirate ships roamed the Atlantic Ocean, preying upon busy commercial ports in the West Indies and along the coast of North America. One of the most notorious of the pirates, Edward Teach, better known as “Blackbeard,” was a frequent visitor to North Carolina and it was here, in November 1718, that he was captured and killed.

Edward Teach was from Bristol, England, a town on the Avon River in southwest England, which produced many pirates. Teach served on a privateer during Queen Anne’s War (1701-1714). Privateering was, in a sense, legalized piracy. The British government authorized private ships to attack and capture enemy merchant vessels, with the proceeds divided between the Queen and the crew of the privateer. When the war ended, Teach was faced with the prospect of losing his livelihood and the great potential for adventure and profit that it promised. Along with many others in the same position, he turned to piracy.

Teach served for several years on a pirate ship under another captain before, in 1717, he stole a ship for himself and formed a crew of his own. Teach and his crew, aboard the “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” captured a number of valuable cargoes off of the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas. In what would become one of his most famous acts, Teach sailed boldly into Charleston, South Carolina, captured several prominent citizens, and held them hostage until the city agreed to exchange them for costly medical supplies.

While he was terrorizing commercial ports along the coast of North America, Teach became known as “Blackbeard” and his reputation spread quickly. Blackbeard was widely feared for his violence and cruelty and cultivated a fierce appearance to intimidate his victims. This memorable description is from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, published in London in 1726:

This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramilies Wiggs, and turn them about his Ears: In Time of Action, he wore a sling over his Shoulders, with three Brace of Pistols, hanging in Holsters like Bandaliers; and stuck lighted Matches under his Hat, which appearing on each Side of his Face, his Eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a Figure, that Imagination cannot form an Idea of a Fury, from Hell, to look more frightful.

Between adventures at sea, Blackbeard often returned to North Carolina. The shallow waters and complicated inlets of the Outer Banks provided a popular hiding place for pirates while they rested their crews and repaired their ships. Blackbeard favored Ocracoke Inlet and was rumored to have had a house in Ocracoke village. There is an inlet there today still known as “Teach’s Hole.” North Carolina was also a popular refuge for pirates because of its governor, Charles Eden, who was widely rumored to have ignored the illegal activities of the pirates in exchange for a share of the spoils. In the summer of 1718, Blackbeard lived in the coastal town of Bath, North Carolina, where he was known to have socialized with Governor Eden. After a few months on shore, Blackbeard had to return to piracy in order to maintain his lavish lifestyle. The people of North Carolina, tired of seeing their ships attacked and goods stolen, and frustrated at their own government’s failure to act, turned to the governor of Virginia for help.

Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia gathered a crew of British Naval officers, led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, and sent them to Ocracoke where Blackbeard was known to be hiding. In a fierce fight beginning at dawn on November 22, 1718, the British sailors attacked and defeated Blackbeard and his crew. After suffering twenty-five wounds, including five from gunshots, Blackbeard finally died. Lieutenant Maynard, needing proof of Blackbeard’s death in order to claim the bounty offered by Governor Spotswood, beheaded the pirate and hung his severed head from the front of the ship as it sailed home.


Suggestions for Further Reading
Clowse, Converse D. “Teach, Edward.” In American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lee, Robert E. Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1974.

Lee, Robert E. “Blackbeard the Pirate.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 1, ed. William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Moore, David D. “A General History of Blackbeard the Pirate, the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the Adventure.” Tributaries, vol. 7, 1997, pp. 31-35. Available online, http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/qar/rcorner/genhistory.htm

Rankin, Hugh F. The Golden Age of Piracy. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg, 1969.

Rankin, Hugh F. The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina. Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History, 2008.