March 1916: The End of North Carolina Whaling

This Month in North Carolina History

Illustration titled "Whale on beach at Beaufort"

On March 16, 1916, North Carolina shore-based whalers caught and killed their last whale in the shallows off Cape Lookout. The last shore-based crew in the area disbanded the next year, after their gear was destroyed by a fire. These events marked the end of more than 250 years of tradition. Although whaling was never a major operation in North Carolina, the unique geography of the state and the tenacity of its residents allowed a small whaling industry to operate from colonial times through the early 20th century.

The earliest North Carolina whaling was not about catching whales, but rather was about processing whales that had already beached themselves or otherwise became stranded near the shore. Later, fishermen all along the East Coast developed shore-based systems of capturing and killing whales using teams of small boats. New England and New York fishermen—the main American whalers—gradually evolved their technique into a famous and extremely profitable ship-based industry. Whaling ships left from ports like New Bedford and Nantucket and hunted on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans until the industry’s demise in the mid-1920s. North Carolinians, however, held to the older tradition, and after 1800 it was the only state south of New York truly participating in a shore-based whaling industry.

North Carolina whaling activities centered on Beaufort, with the most active crews operating off Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks. These particular locations were ideal because they were very close to both the Gulf Stream and the regular migration paths of several types of whales. The season generally ran from late December to early June, with the peak coming sometime between February and May, when the whales migrated northward for the summer. Whalers spent the rest of the year in other endeavors, such as mullet or porpoise fishing. The number of men and the profitability of their whaling varied greatly from year-to-year. For example, R. Edward Earll reported that in 1879 there were four camps with a total of 72 men on the North Carolina coast. They took five whales and sold their products for $4,000. The next year, however, they missed the main migration and 108 men only caught one small whale for a sales total of $408.46. Because whale hunting was a cooperative endeavor, the profit made was divided among the men on a share basis, with about 30 to 45 shares for an 18-man crew. Each man received one share, gunners drew an extra share, and steersmen received an extra half share. In addition, for each gun he provided a man would get an extra two shares. A boat entitled a man to one additional share, and a full set of harpoons and lances was worth about 2/3 of a share.

A relatively detailed description of the North Carolina system of whaling was written by R. Edward Earll in the early 1880s for a federal document about the nation’s fishing industries. At the beginning of the season the whalers would build a camp on the shore that included huts or shelters from the weather and a “crow’s nest” or other type of lookout station on a hill. The station would be constantly manned. When the lookout spotted a whale, he would signal the camp and men would set out in their row boats in pursuit. Upon catching up with the animal, the men would harpoon it, usually with a wooden weight attached to the harpoon. The whale generally attempted to flee, but the drag from the weight would tire it. When it slowed or turned to fight the boats, a gunner would shoot it. In many cases, the men would initially target a calf, knowing that they were slower than the adults and that its mother would stay behind to help it. Early whalers used lances and harpoons to kill their prey, but the post-Civil War years also saw the use of specially-designed whale guns that shot explosive cartridges filled with a quarter pound of gunpowder. After it was killed, the whale’s carcass would be towed to shore. It was then cut apart and the blubber was processed or “tried out.”

There were generally two types of whales targeted by North Carolina crews: right whales—so-called because they were considered the “right” type of whales to hunt—and sperm whales. Both types yielded blubber, as well as fat from tongue, tail, skin, and flukes. These portions of the whale were processed into oil used as a fuel and a lubricant. The flexible baleens of right whales (which they used to filter food from the water) were utilized in a wide variety of products, including women’s corsets and umbrella ribs. Sperm whales produced two unique and very expensive materials. From their heads, whalers collected a very high quality wax/oil called spermaceti which was used in high-quality candles. In their digestive systems sperm whales created ambergris, a natural by-product that was used as a fragrance and fixative in perfumes. After the harvest of these parts, the bulk of the whale was discarded.

Whaling was serious and dangerous business, but Shackleford had one particularly unique and whimsical tradition: the residents named many of the animals they caught. “George Washington Whale” was captured on the president’s birthday, “Little Children Whale” was chased and killed by boys from the community when the adults were otherwise occupied, and “Cold Sunday” was taken on a day that was reportedly cold enough to freeze ducks in mid-flight. Perhaps the most famous of the state’s whales is “Mayflower,” a fifty-foot right whale killed in 1874. The whale is notorious for its final fight; it capsized one boat and dragged another between six and eight miles out to sea before it died. Its fame continued to spread after its death when its skeleton was put on display in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in the 1880s. (You can still visit Mayflower today in the Raleigh museum.)

The general downfall of whaling was caused by a combination of factors including the over-hunting of whales and the change in women’s fashions that nearly eliminated the need for whale-bone corsets. North Carolina’s whaling industry was also greatly damaged by particularly bad weather on the Outer Banks. Several large storms on Shackleford in the 1890s followed by a hurricane in 1899 prompted the population to abandon the area for safer locations on the mainland or more sheltered islands.

After the last whale was caught and the last crew disbanded, the occasional beached whale would be processed on North Carolina beaches. New England whaling ships also continued to hunt their quarry in North Carolina waters. In fact, they sent ships to the Hatteras Grounds, far off the northeast corner of North Carolina’s coast, until 1925.

Illustration titled "Cutting blubber"

H. H. Brimley. “Whale Fishing in North Carolina,” in Bulletin of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, 14 (April 1894).

“North Carolina and its Fisheries” in George Brown Goode. The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1887.

Marcus B. Simpson, Jr. and Sallie W. Simpson. Whaling on the North Carolina Coast. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1990.

David Stick. The North Carolina Outer Banks 1584-1958. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958.

William Henry Tripp. There Goes Flukes. New Bedford: Reynolds Printing, 1938.

Image Source:
H. H. Brimley. “Whale Fishing in North Carolina,” in Bulletin of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, 14 (April 1894).

August 1920: North Carolina and the Women’s Suffrage Amendment

This Month in North Carolina History

12 Reasons Why Women Should Vote pamphlet
12 Reasons Why Women Should Vote pamphlet

When the Nineteenth Amendment came before the North Carolina legislature in August 1920, it was not the first time the state’s leaders had considered allowing women to vote. In February 1897, a bill for women’s suffrage had been introduced in the state senate by J.L. Hyatt, a Republican from Yancey County. This bill died after it was referred to the committee on insane asylums, of which Hyatt was the chair.

Representative D.M. Clark of Pitt County introduced a bill in 1913 that would have allowed individual municipalities to vote on local women’s suffrage, but it was eventually tabled. Women’s right to vote came before the Assembly again in January 1915, when bills were introduced simultaneously in the House and Senate. After a joint committee hearing, the House voted to table the issue indefinitely and a few weeks later the Senate followed suit.

Two years later, three separate women’s suffrage bills were introduced. A municipal suffrage bill introduced by Gallatin Roberts of Buncombe County received a favorable committee report, but was ultimately defeated on the House floor. G. Ellis Gardner of Yancey County submitted a bill to allow suffrage via a constitutional amendment, but it was tabled.

The third, which was introduced by state senator Thomas A. Jones of Buncombe County and called for limited voting rights for women, was defeated by a close 20-24 margin. In early 1919, women’s suffrage was a major issue both locally and nationally, and bills for municipal suffrage were introduced in both houses of the North Carolina legislature. This time the bill passed in the Senate (35-12), but the House failed to pass it by a slim margin (49-54).

Although women’s suffrage bills continued to be tabled or rejected, the issue actually had a great deal of support within North Carolina. Among those officially endorsing suffrage were a wide variety of well-respected women’s organizations, as well as the Southern Baptist Conference, Southern Methodist General Conference, and the North Carolina Farmers Union. Virtually all of the state’s mainstream newspapers were sympathetic by 1919, and the issue also had vocal celebrity supporters like William Jennings Bryan, former governor Locke Craig, Lieutenant-Governor O. Max Gardner, and newspaper editor Josephus Daniels.

In June 1919, the federal women’s suffrage amendment—also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment—was submitted to the states for ratification and by April 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified. When the North Carolina legislature met on 10 August 1920, both North Carolina and Tennessee were considering the suffrage amendment and its ratification. It appeared not only that the Nineteenth Amendment would be ratified, but that North Carolina could be the final state required to do so.

Yet, on 11 August 1920, sixty-three of the one hundred and twenty North Carolina House members signed a telegram sent to the Tennessee legislature, promising that they — a majority of the House — would not ratify the amendment on the grounds that it interfered “with the sovereignty of Tennessee and other States of the Union,” and asking that Tennessee do the same. The impact of this telegram seems to have been minimal, however, since the Tennessee State Senate passed ratification on the 13 August 1920.

On the same day, Governor Thomas W. Bickett submitted a bill to the North Carolina legislature in a joint address to both houses. Although Bickett was against women’s suffrage on principle, he felt that it was inevitable and that a North Carolina vote against ratification would only postpone the matter for a few months. He had previously written to President Woodrow Wilson, who was a supporter of women’s suffrage, that he hoped Tennessee would ratify first, thus making a North Carolina vote unnecessary. In fact, the Raleigh News and Observer quoted the governor as saying to the Assembly, “I am profoundly convinced that it would be part of wisdom and grace for North Carolina to accept the inevitable and ratify the amendment.”

On 17 August 1920, state senator Lindsay Warren proposed that the Senate postpone the ratification vote until the next legislative session. Warren’s motion passed by a vote of 25 to 23, crushing any chance that North Carolina would be the final state in the ratification process. Two days later, the House openly rejected ratification by a vote of 41 to 71. Meanwhile, there was also ratification drama in Nashville, where shortly after the Tennessee House ratified the amendment, a motion was made to reconsider. By August 21, however, Tennessee upheld ratification by a unanimous 49 to 0 vote and, in spite of the objections voiced in North Carolina’s legislature, women officially gained the right to vote in the United States.

Although North Carolina technically did not reject the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 (because of Warren’s motion to table the bill in the Senate), it also did not ratify it until 1971, more than fifty years after it became law. The only state to wait longer was Mississippi, which ratified it in 1984.


A. Elizabeth Taylor. “The Woman Suffrage Movement in North Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1961 (Volume 38, no. 1) and April 1961 (Volume 38, no. 2).

The Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1897 by the North Carolina Senate. Winston: M.I. and J.C. Stewart, Public Printers and Binders, 1897.

“Women Suffrage.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

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Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina. Twelve Reasons Why Women Should Vote. [Broadsides]. Raleigh: The Association, [between 1915 and 1920].

March 1865: Executions Spark the Lowry War

This Month in North Carolina History

Cover of The Swamp Outlaws

On March 3, 1865, Allen Lowry and his son William were tried in a hastily organized sham court, declared guilty of theft, and executed in Robeson County. While William was almost certainly a member—and perhaps even the leader—of a gang that committed robberies, it is unlikely that the elderly Allen was involved in any raids. What is certain is that the two men’s deaths sparked North Carolina’s famous Lowry War, a seven-year period of raids, robberies, and murders.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, many Lumbee Indians living in Robeson County were conscripted to work on the construction of Fort Fisher. To avoid forced labor and the Confederate Home Guard conscription officers charged with enforcing it, many Lumbee men camped in the woods and swamps near their homes and depended on friends and relatives for subsistence. For a community already facing desperate times, this practice, known as “laying out,” was taxing.

By December 1864, the riches of their more affluent neighbors became too tempting for four of Allen Lowry’s sons and they stole two hogs from wealthy slaveholder James P. Barnes. Several months of local troubles followed this theft. Barnes suspected the Lowrys, and when he attempted to have them captured, he was shot by a gang that included at least two Lowry brothers. In January 1865, the Lowrys killed J. Brantly Harriss, a local man who had murdered three of their cousins. They also raided the Robeson County Courthouse, stealing guns and ammunition which were then used in a series of February raids against the area’s rich planters.

On March 3 the Home Guard searched farms and homes and questioned suspects, eventually finding stolen guns, clothes, and a gold cane-head at the home of Allen Lowry. They promptly arrested Lowry, his wife, five of their twelve children, and a young woman who was visiting them. The suspects were taken to a nearby plantation and the Guard quickly convened their own version of a court of law. During the trial William Lowry attempted an escape with the aid of one of his brothers. He was shot and recaptured, but the escape attempt brought the court to a swift decision and the members voted to execute Allen Lowry and his sons Calvin, Sinclair, and William. Shortly thereafter, Calvin and Sinclair were given a reprieve because no stolen items had been found on their property or persons. That evening, William and Allen were taken back to the Lowry property, bound to a stake, blindfolded, and shot.

One journalist wrote that “[f]rom a thicket near at hand Henry Berry, the son of Allen Lowery, saw the volley fired which laid his brother and father bleeding on the ground. There he swore eternal vengeance against the perpetrators of the act.” Thus, not only did the executions fail to stop the raids, but they served to further exacerbate local tensions and made the Lowrys determined to get revenge upon the prominent persons that had wronged their family and community. After the Civil War ended, Henry made raids a constant part of local life, organizing a small band of men and coordinating their attacks on local plantations. For years these “swamp outlaws” stole from the wealthy, evaded prosecution, and killed law enforcement officers that tried to arrest them. During what came to be called the “Lowry War,” the band carefully directed their actions toward the community’s more affluent citizens. This earned them popularity and Robin Hood-like reputations among the area’s poorer citizens.

The Lowry Band committed its last major act of outlawry on 16 February 1872, raiding Lumberton and escaping with $1000 worth of goods and a safe filled with over $20,000. Shortly thereafter, Henry Berry Lowry disappeared completely and the $12,000 reward for his capture went unclaimed.

The stories surrounding Henry Berry Lowry’s fate range from the plausible to the incredible. Among the claims are that he died of a gun-shot wound; drowned; faked his own death; or was smuggled out of the area in a tool box. At least one report claimed that he fled to South America; another said that he escaped to the northwest and led the Modoc Indians in their 1872-1873 war against the federal government in Oregon. Still others claimed that he never left the area. As late as 1937 Lowry’s great-nephew, Dr. Earl C. Lowry, claimed that his uncle was still alive.

Although his ultimate fate is unknown, the legend of Henry Berry Lowry and his band of outlaws has never died. They became folk heroes, with one journalist in 1872 calling them “the Rob Roys and Robin Hoods” of Robeson County. Lowry’s influence continues today: the Lumbee community’s highest honor is named for him, several novels and plays have been written about his exploits, and since 1976 a musical drama entitled Strike at the Wind! has been performed in Robeson County every summer.


W. McKee Evans. To Die Game: The Story of the Lowry Band, Indian Guerrillas of Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

The Swamp Outlaws, or, North Carolina Bandits. New York: Robert M. DeWitt, Publisher, 1872.

Mary C. Norment. The Lowrie History, as Acted in Part by Henry Berry Lowry. Lumberton, N.C.: Lumberton Publishing Company, 1909.

“Lowry Band.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

“Says Henry Berry Lowry, Noted Outlaw, Is Living,” News and Observer, 9 May 1937.

“What Became of Henry Berry Lowry, Notorious Robeson Bandit Chief?” Robesonian, 12 June 1922.

“Rhoda Lowrie. Widow of Noted Outlaw in Jail for Retailing Liquor Without a License,” Robesonian, 10 November 1897.

Image Source:

The Swamp Outlaws, or, North Carolina Bandits. New York: Robert M. DeWitt, Publisher, 1872.