A Little History of Knotts Island

Table of Contents

Preface and Introduction

Chapter 1
Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement

Chapter 2
The Source of a Name

Chapter 3
The Great Dispute

Chapter 4
The History of Currituck Inlet

Chapter 5
Knotts Island Today


by Hal James Bonney, Jr.
University of Richmond, Virginia, 1951

Chapter 1



Surely the most familiar date known to the American schoolboy is 1492 and well it might be, for an Italian sailing under the flag of Spain created a vast world in the unknown that would shortly furnish food for exploration, settlement, and new empire. The voyages of Christopher Columbus were not the beginning of Europe's interest in world trade and new lands, however, but it was rather the "religious" Crusades of the late eleventh century that revealed the varieties of the East.

The overland routes to the Indies and China became almost obsolete in 1453 when the Turks captured Constantinople thus severing these lanes of trade. Other ways must be found, for now trade was acutely vital to the West motivated no little by the Renaissance. The latter can never be overemphasized in the part it played on the stage of world exploration. Men must have the intellectual desire to improve and Europe's Renaissance was masterful in this permeation. Before Columbus' venture, trade experienced a number of stimuli such as the school of Prince Henry the Navigator and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1478 by Bartholomew Diaz.

The discovery of America preceded a hundred years of intensive exploration necessary before permanent settlement could be firmly rooted. The veil was now split revealing a world strange indeed; one that would afford many prizes. The East was all but forgotten as the western world was illuminated with the greedy smiles of monarchs.

The gun was fired and the contestants raced away to claim a share of the erratic treasure called America. Spain had a decisive start through her early exploits in southern North America. Francisco Pizarro conquered the wealth of Peru during the 1530's while Hernando Cortes intruded upon Montezuma‘s Mexico. Ponce de Leon landed in Florida followed in two decades by Hernando de Soto and western America was opened by Francisco Coronado whose expedition sought the gold paved “Seven Cities of Cibola." To the Spanish must be given credit for the first permanent white settlement in the present United States: St. Augustine, 1565.

While Spain encompassed the south, France was seeking a Northern route to the Indies and in 1535 Jacques Cartier entered the St Lawrence River discovering much fish and fur. However, major efforts in trade, exploring, and settlement were to come with Samuel de Champlain in 1603.

England, hearing of Columbus' discoveries, was in no hurry to send forth expensive expeditions, but did establish a firm claim through the explorations of John Cabot on the North American coast in 1497 The British Isles were undergoing a great economic change agriculture to industry and under the mercantile system three main practices must be perfected. There must be a favorable balance of specie, a source of raw materials, and a market for the manufactured wares. It is quite easy to understand England's new interest, but internal strife and political affairs in Europe delayed immediate attainment of the goals. The rivalries between the island kingdom and Spain were biter even unto active force. Gilbert, Drake, and Hawkins, her Majesty's "Sea Dogs,' plundered Spanish treasure in the New World and the private war even reached the point of English raids on Spanish sea towns.

The finale was indeed dramatic, a colorful Armada departed from Spain in the summer of 1588 taking with it the total hopes of Philip II. With twice the tonnage of the English, the "invincible" fleet sailed into the Channel to encounter Lord Howard of Effingham ably assisted by Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher. Enjoying the blessing of natures wrath on the Armada, the English were completely victorious and for the first time in an age she was free from the fear of Spain. England was now a world power; the turning point had been cast in the die.(1).


The Virgin Queen believed that to fully succeed as a new commercial nation England must colonize, therefore Elizabeth gave to Sir Humphrey Gilbert letters patent for territory in the New World. In 1583 Gilbert settled on Newfoundland, but this was as short lived as the life of Sir Humphrey.

A court favorite, Sir Walter Raleigh, became the Queen's next choice as designer of the contemplated empire. Greater dreams had no one than he! This poet, historian, and adventurer sent M Philip Amadas and M. Arthur Barlowe on April 27, 1584 from the Isle with "...free liberty and license...to discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands... "(2).

Arriving on the coast of present day North Carolina, they found entrance through an inlet (Trinity Harbor) into an "Enclosed Sea" in which they found and named Roanoke Island.(3). The two captains noted that "Besides this Island Roanoke there are many..." varying in size from two to five miles more or less "Most beautiful and pleasant to behold .... "(4). The islands mentioned are found in the enclosed sea (Currituck, Albemarle, and Pamlico Sounds) which lies between the chain of sand banks and the mainland of North Carolina one of which is Roanoke Island and another - Knotts Island.(5). An island by island description is not found in the records of Amadas and Barlowe, but the islands are referred to as plentiful in "fruits and other natural increases..." with many Indian townes and villages located along the mainland.(6).

The adventurers returned to their native land carrying with them two natives of "Virginia", Manteo and Wanchese, as well as descriptive tales of the garden spot. Sir Walter was well pleased and plans for a complete settlement were made.


 Knotts Island was discovered twenty-two years before the Newport expedition settled on Jamestwon Island. In 1585 this dot of land was both discovered and explored by the settlers of England on Roanoke Island which deduction is based upon due consideration of the accounts. Naturally the Raleigh colony did not record "We discovered and explored Knotts Island," for they did not know it from any of the numerous islands and slices of land surrounding them.

"An account of the particularities of the imployments of the Englishmen left in Virginia by Richard Greenwill under the charge of Ralph Lane General of the same, from the 17. of August l585 until the 18. of June 1586 at which time they departed the Countrey;..." reveals that the second Raleigh expedition arrived, as stated, August 17, 1585 to explore and select a location for permanent settlement.(7). As Amadas and Barlowe they entered through an inlet and located on Roanoke Island.

Not satisfied with this selection without investigation of other possibilities, a group in a small craft ventured into the south, but found no suitable place due to the vastness of the waters.(8).

Their next search affords positive proof that Knotts Island was discovered at this time. Having exhausted their efforts to the southward of Roanoke Island, they recorded

    To the Northward our furthest discover was to the Chesepians (Indian tribe; Chespeake     Bay) distant from Roanoke about 130 miles, the passage to it was very shallow and most     dangerous, by reason of the bredth of the sound, and the little succour (help) that upon     any flawe was ther to be had.(9).

The route proceeded into the north through Currituck Sound since there was no other way of reaching the Chesapeake other than this. The author‘s claim is fully supported by Dr. Francis L. Hawks who says, "Their voyage must have been up Currituck sound; .... "(10).

 Once in the Sound they still must reach their goal and to accomplish this they must have entered the Atlantic Ocean through Currituck Inlet and by rounding Cape Henry the Bay would be in sight.(11) There is a claim they left their craft at the head of Currituck Sound (Back Bay), but this is not probable.(12). It was a great deal easier in the days of Indian trails only to journey on the road of the sea than through the unknown wilds. Master Ralph Lane, the captain, also recorded they marched inland about fifteen miles which indicates they reached Cape Henry or Virginia Beach by water and then went inland almost to the present site of Norfolk.(13).

Further proof of this route is strikingly evident in reverse. A letter from Mr. Francis Yardley living at Linnehaven (on Chesapeake Bay; Princess Anne County) to John Farrar, Esq., Huntingdonshire, England, dated May 8, 1654 reveals that a beaver trader appeared at his home the past September to seek aid in recovering a vessel that he believed had drifted to Rhoanoke Island. He received aid from Yardley as well as guides and soon they "entered in at Caratoke (Currituck Inlet), ten leagues to the southward or Cape Henry, and so went to Rhoanoke Island ...."(14). Another allusion to the route is the testimony on July 14, 1737 of William Pierce who told of a convict running away from Nansemond (Virginia) and entering North Carolina via Currituck Inlet.(15). Certainly without a doubt this was the conventional way; the one used by Lane's expedition since it was the natural route.

The point to be made is that Knott's Island is located directly opposite Currituck Inlet and to use the latter passageway would bring the Raleigh expedition in contact with the Island. Thus did the small craft of Lane on the trip to the Chesapeake Bay discover to their left a wooded area of pines and rich land that is the subject of this paper. Explored? Very probable since the prime motive or the jaunt was to explore the lands of the enclosed sea and seek a suitable location for permanent colonization. The distance between Knotts Island and the sand bank that created the inlet is a mile a half; quite near the route.

To the precise historian this claim may appear somewhat crude, but the scant records available of the expedition of Lane to the north do provide a complete line when deduction is applied. 1585 -- Knotts Island discovered and explored. The month of discovery was more than likely the last or September considering the time spent on Roanoke Island and in explorations to the south before the northern trip.

Earlier proof of discovery is not substantial enough to merit a claim since the logs are so incomplete. The Spanish explorers Quexos and Ayllon sailed the North American coast in 1521 and 1526 respectively, but the records are not complete to the point of designating their exact movements in the Knotts Island area. Perhaps they did enter one of the many inlets and explore the "Enclosed Sea.

" Verrazzano in 1524 rode at anchor for three days off the upper North Carolina coast, but there is nothing specific. No earthly annals can reveal their minute proceedings.

It is unfortunate that a detailed account of the intense searchings does not exist. How helpful it would be to know of Knotts Island's habitation and endowments at this early age. The enclosed sea is reported as shallow and dangerous and a concise description of the Chesepians tells of the fertility of the soil, the excellent location, the multitude of bears, and the great woods.(16). Except for location, we can imagine Knotts Island to be also a virtual garden spot.

One of the most sorrowful and unfortunate mysteries of history was now enacted upon a stage set in a deep wilderness. The Raleigh colony on Roanoke Island vanished between 1587 – 1590 leaving behind them only ruins and the crude wording “Croatoan”. Sir Walter's dream fell victim to who knows what?(17).


Knotts Island and the kingdom of the "Enclosed Sea" now returned to their former state, free from the interference of the white man, to sleep once again. This retirement of the New World was short lived, however, with less than two decades elapsing until the revival of settlement. With the defeat of the Spanish on the English Channel in July of 1588 came England’s turning point and all out participation now began.

James II granted charters in 1606 to two stock companies, London and Plymouth, and with the dawning of May 6, 1607 104 colonists landed at Cape Henry, offered thanks for a successful voyage, and proceeded up the James River to establish a settlement on Jamestown. This would be a permanent occupancy because one man possessed foresight. Captain John Smith knew that to survive the perils of the wilds the colony must meet the environment rather than seek gold.

More colonists arrived, women and slaves were imported, and a system of government was installed while with the perfection of tobacco in 1612 by John Rolfe the future of Virginia was assured. An agrarian society developed enticing many to leave the British Isles and seek success in the colonial outpost; England's dreams were fulfilled.

As the number of inhabitants increased, the government expanded to meet the needs. The various plantations were formed into eight shires (counties) in 1634 one of which was Elizabeth City. This southern shire, as the years rolled by, was itself divided into counties.

The dividing lines between Virginia and Carolina were extremely indefinite and therefore Knotts Island, due to its location, was for years considered in Lower Norfolk County and later Princess Anne County. For this reason the reader can well see this is as much Virginia history as it is Carolina history. A great deal of the facts concerning the Island are found in Virginia documents both public and private.


King Charles II set his seal March 20, 1663 and gave through a charter the land contained between the latitudes 31 and 36 degrees North to George, duke of Albemarle; Edward, earl of Clarendon; William, earl of Craven; John, Lord Berkeley; Anthony, Lord Ashley; Sir George Carteret; Sir William Berkeley; and Sir John Colleton.(18).

The vast five degrees of parallel must now be settled; in fact it had been investigated before the charter of 1663. Two years later on June 30 Charles once again set his seal and extended the territory on the north to 36 degrees, 30 minutes.

The author concludes the land called Carolina was settled in four ways. Even before the charters some persons had purchased land from the Indians as did George Durant from Kilcocanen the king of the Yeopim Indians on March 1, 1662. The section secured became known as “Durant‘s Neck."(19). Others desiring a taste of the land received theirs through grant from the Virginia government which gave land in the present state or North Carolina since the boundary line was not known.

Such was the method used in disposing or Knotts Island as the original Virginia land patents and grants reveal. The first date was September 25, 1663. On this date the land in the Knotts Island area was deeded for the first time. William Munday received 300 acres in Carratucks Creek for paying the passage of six persons from the old country to Virginia.(20). This was known as the headright system whereby fifty acres of land was given to anyone paying the passage fee of a person coming to the colony. William West received 2500 acres running from the Perquimmins River northeast to the "mouth of a small creeke called Curraticke” (adjacent to Knotts Island) while John Harvey secured 600 acres in a small creek called "Carrawtucks" and Henry White, Jr. 750 acres near the same.(21). The above four were given the same date and on September 10, 1664 William Basnett of Lower Norfolk City received 510 acres, all that remained, on the north branch of Curratuck.(22).

Others were given land by the Lord Proprietors of Carolina and the fourth group utilized the popular custom of squatting on the land desired. The logical step to follow would be to trace the names of the grantees receiving land on Knotts Island, but, alas, their dispersion of the land can not be found and we can only be satisfied with the original grants. As early as 1622 settlers flocked to Carolina‘s coast to escape the Great Massacre of the Virginia colony by the Indians.(23). The newly granted colony was swiftly populated due no little to a Carolina law stating that no one could be arrested for debts owed before coming to the Albemarle settlement.(24).

In 1664 the first governor, William Drummond, was appointed and a council of twelve was then created. The first legislature met in 1665 and the Established Church of England was named the official place of worship. The Albemarle section was soon fully settled and the colony was consequently divided into precincts one of which was Currituck, the county containing Knotts Island.

Knotts Island does not appear by name in recorded history until March 16, 1692 in the report of Thomas Milner to the lieutenant-governor and council of state in regards to the boundary line between Virginia and Carolina.(25). For this reason much of this narrative deals with the closely surrounding area for which records are available.


The activities of the Indians of the Currituck area range from a peaceful voyage to her majesty's throne room to one of the bloody massacres of American history. No history of an early settlement is complete without some facts alluding to its Indians, for it is they who unfold much of the geography of the region. How regrettable it is the savages did not leave to the historians an account of the white man's activities. It would be quite refreshing to partake of their view of American history as a welcome change to the continual rewriting now experienced in the country's histories.

Captains Amadas and Barlowe were warmly welcomed upon their arrival in the enclosed sea. Riding at anchor off Roanoke Island, they cautiously received a delegation of Indians who went out of their way to extend hospitality. Upon the departure for England the ship carried to the queen‘s court Manteo and Wanchese, natives of the New World and enclosed sea.(26).

The voyage the following year, 1585, of Richard Grenville and Ralph Lane uncovers the Indian province of Weapomeiok on Knott's Island ruled by Okisco.(27).

Hawks' History of North Carolina discloses, without reference to a source for the statement, that the "Poteskeet or Currituck Indians lived on the banks that form the eastern part of the county of Currituck,...."(28). The records lead to the conclusion that the Island was not always inhabited by Indians, but served rather as a hunting reserve and a wealthy source of fish and oysters. John Lawson's description of North Carolina in 1700 reports the red man preferred to live at the head of rivers that emptied into some larger body of water.(29).

By 1700 the Indian was very scarce in the extreme eastern section (Currituck) of North Carolina. The Tuskerruros, largest tribe in the colony, numbered only sixteen men on the Sand Banks.(30).

The Reverend James Adams, minister for the Established Church in Currituck, reported 2000 people in that country and Pasquotank in 1707 with 70 or 80 Indians most or whom spoke English.(31).

The Indians of the region were clean cut, straight people tall in stature with their limbs well shaped. Their eyes glowed with a black or dark hazel while the skin was tawny beyond its natural color since they constantly daubed with oil. They had no hair on their faces and were not as robust as the white man. Since they mastered handicrafts with amazing rapidity, they were of frequent use to the English who purchased their services for a mere nothing.(32).

All was not total peace in the Albemarle between native and white intruder, for with the increase of the latter friction naturally developed. The matter was intercolonial with Virginia affected as well as the colony to her south. As early as December 15, 1651 constables were ordered to notify all men to fix arms in preparation for sudden Indian raids.(33). These notices were more than occasional and seemed routine to the settlers. Not so commonplace was the event that was destined to come.

No doubt William Drummond foresaw it when as governor of North Carolina (1664 - 1667) he pressed (drafted; compelled) people in east Currituck as a result of Indians killing some English living on the "So. (Shore) of Currituck Inlet in Carolina ...."(34).

The acme of friction, wrote Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood to Lord Dartmouth on October 15, 1711, broke with the dawning of September 22 upon the heads of the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers (near the Virginia line) when the Tuscaruro Indians began their massacre.(35). This was the famous Tuscaruro War, but the tribe was joined by other nameless nations of smaller number.

The outbreak had been mounting for years and entered the bloody stage when John Lawson, Surveyor-General of North Carolina, attempted to lay off land for new settlements.(36). The offensive war by the Tuscaruros was a defense of their domain. Governor Spotswood sent the Virginia militia to prevent the Virginia Indians from joining the massacre while North Carolina reeled before the severe savage blows.(37).

Many unsuspecting settlers fell victim to the sudden attack and among them was Lawson for whom the Indians nursed a special hatred. Governor Edward Hyde called forth the North Carolina militia which was soon joined by 600 troops and 360 Indians furnished by the legislature of South Carolina. The main body of the hostiles was fortified in Craven County where it sufrered attack and defeat with 300 of the Tuscaruro killed and a hundred captured.(38).

The war affected Knotts Island directly as the sworn testimony of George Bullock proves. This statement was made June 8, 1711 before Edward Moseley and John Lawson, surveyors, who were investigating the boundary controversy and it tells of Samuell Stephens, Carolina governor, pressing the people of "Knotts plane,... Back Bay..." and to the "Northward of Currituck Inlet" into service.(39). As remote as it was, Knotts Island was called upon to send its men on a march to New Berne in Craven County to meet the foe.

The part the Indian portrays in local history should never be underestimated!

1. To Leif Ericsson, a Norseman, America can give credit for its discovery. In the year 1000 he explored the coast of the present United States as far as Rhode Island and recent findings lead to the conclusion that the Scandinavian reached Northern Virginia.
2. Richard Hakluyt, The Voyages of The English Nation to America, II, 292.
3. Francis L. Hawks, The History of North Carolina, I, 87. Even though Hawks recounts the history of North Carolina, he includes in his volumes reprints of the original documents which are used in this paper, taken from Hawks, because of their accessibility and readability.
4. Hakluyt, op. cit., II, 292.
5. See frontispiece.
6. Hakluyt, op. cit., II, 292.
7. Ibid., II, 302
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Hawks, op. cit.
11. Infra, 49.
12. Samuel A'Court Ashe, History of North Carolina, I, 31
13. Hakluyt, op. cit., I, 302. Today there is a distance of eighteen miles from Virginia Beach to Norfolk.
14. William L. Saunders, Colonial Records of North Carolina, I, 18 reprinting from Thurloe State Paper, II, 273.
15. Virginia Historical Register, VI, 97.
16. Hakluyt, op. cit., II, 303.
17. This author, like many historians, has his beliefs as to the fate of the Raleigh colony left on Roanoke Island. The colonists left the fort to seek food and protection from the hostile Indians. What more can the lettering on the tree mean other than the goal of their departure? Without a doubt their ancestors are living in eastern North Carolina even today.
18. Colonial Records of N.C., I, xii.
19. Ibid. I, 19.
20. Nell Marion Nugent, Cavaliers and Pioneers Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 1623 – 1800, I, 425.
21. Ibid. 427, 428.
22. Ibid. 434.
23. John Oldmixon, History of the British Empire in America.
24. Colonial Records of N.C., I, 181-182.
25 Ibid., I, 385.
26. Hawks, op. cit., I, 88.
27. Hakluyt, op. cit., II, 303.
28. Hawks, II, 91. 29. John Lawson, Lawson's History of North Carolina, 180. 30. Ibid., 255. 31. Colonial Records of N.C., I, 734.
32. Lawson, op.cit., 181- 183. The author is tempted to devote numerous pages to a treatment of the Indians but fearful of losing sight of the goal, Lawson's History of North Carolina is highly recommended as a 1710 description.33. Lower Norfolk County Records, Wills and Deeds, 12.
34. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1900, No. 4, VII, 348.
35. R. A. Brock, The Official Letters of Alexander Spotwood, I, 116.
36. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, intro.
37.Letters of Spotswood, I, 119.
38. J. H. Wheeler, History of North Carolina, 37.
39. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1900, No. 4, VII, 345.