Tales of Knotts Island

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Be aware that the information in these tales is dated and, as expected, may not be as socially, politically, or racially sensitive as current writings.

by Henry Beasley Ansell

from 1907 to 1912

Let me digress for a moment to tell you about the two "great storms" of 1846, which did so much damage to Eastern North Carolina and Virginia. I do this more for the information of the young of this Island and county than as a reminder to the old. For the old of this Island to recall the dire, terrible and still-lasting disaster of that year it could bring nothing but depression; for I believe that this Island suffered more misfortune from these storms than any other portion of this county. The oldest inhabitants of the Island had never before seen such desolation before; and I am sure there has not since been a storm on our coast to compare with either of them; there had been no storm their equal since the Revolution. In the early days of March of that year the wind blew from a north-easterly direction, a stiff breeze, and increased in velocity daily for about a week. The old and knowing ones said: We are going to have a storm after all: Others said: Oh, no; who ever saw a gale after the wind had blown a week from the storm-point, for a storm generally comes after a calm or on the first of a shift! The wind increased, the old Atlantic was plunging on its shore with a mighty roar, as if a squadron of modern war ships were practicing their heavy artillery; its waves were angry and strong, breaking on the shore with a tremendous jar that sent air-waves across this Island tending to put infants to sleep in their cradles. The wind still increased and the storm was upon us. The creaking joints of the house tops and the roaring of the blast in the tall old trees mingled with the ocean's roar were appalling. All stood aghast: This was noon of the first day of real storm. It continued through the night and all the next day and night with increasing fury. During the third and last night the wind veered farther north without abating; it became colder, and the previous torrential rains turned to snow. The next morning found devastation complete--trees uprooted and in confusion; the earth strewn with limbs and boughs, and covered with three inches of snow. The wind now North by East had somewhat abated, but was still blowing a strong gale. The people living in the midland of the Island did not know what had taken place on its water coast, but the news spread that the Atlantic was breaking on the Island shore. The writer went with his father and others to the bay-side; such a sight was never seen before. No marsh, no beach, nothing to be seen oceanward except the tops of the few large, mountain sand-hills, the tree-tops of Fresh Pond Island, and Washwoods.

The great salt waves were breaking at our feet. The sea ebbed and flowed on the Island shore; high water must nave been from six to eight feet higher than the usual high water mark and it had been higher even than now, as could be seen by the sea-drift upon the shore. It was not long before there were a score or more of men with us, each dwelling on the calamitous situation. Hogs, cattle, sheep and all other animals on marsh and beach dead; fences blown flat; and water fences carried with the tide down the sound, to be cast with the dead animals and debris on some distant shore.

The seriousness of the situation was apparent. In canvassing the calamity, there and then, the query arose what had become of Wilson Cooper and Thomas Bowden and their families who lived on the banks opposite the center of the island. Cooper lived on a knoll or Island separated from the beach by a creek where recently lived William Evans; Bowden lived nearby, probably Deals Island and nearer the sea, where Captain Corbell now lives. (Corbel has died since the above was written.)

These two families were really Knotts Islanders but for the better advantages of ducking they had domiciled themselves on the banks. Colonel John B. Jones had, under the cedars at the landing, a large twelve-oared boat used for sea-fishing. At once thirteen men volunteered to launch this boat to try to stem the flood, and, if possible, to rescue the two families, if they were not already drowned, for the water during this gale must have been to the eves of their houses; and it was very likely they were out adrift by the tide.

The boat was manned; the wind was blowing a gale dead ahead; with steady oars these men rowed against waves and flood and gale over marsh and bay to Cooper's house, which they found floating among a clump of live oaks deserted. Over to Bowden's they went, and found his house anchored and tied to the surrounding live oaks, tumbling about, but being kept on its balance by many devices. Both of these men with their families were in the garret of this top heavy house with salt water, at the moment of rescue, near the joist, with nothing to eat or drink. The rescurers took these frantic families out of the one garret window and in a jiffy landed them safely on Knotts' Island. These men soon purchased homes on the Island and bade the banks, as a permanent homes farewell.

Besides the losses above named, the people of the Island had not yet foreseen their main loss, and did not do so till some months thereafter. This Island is bordered on its west side, almost its entire length, by a swamp or low woodland which was then set densely in good timber of heart pine. When it came time for these trees to commence their summers growth they died, together with all the fire wood and rail-timber on the adjacent knolls; from this loss the Island to this day has not recovered, nor can it ever recover.

This timber produced large quantities of lightwood; such needed in those days; and, after these storms, it grew scarcer and scarcer as the years rolled on, and at present little can be found.

In the following summer, by some freak of nature, a lone pine here and there could be seen dressed in living green standing like a solitary sentinel guarding his dead comrades under a flag of truce, waiting for the burial party. Six feet of salt water had stood among these trees, as could be ascertained by the drift lodged upon their trunks. So the injury could now be seen to be complete:--hogs, cattle, sheep, fences, and timber, all gone, and the "chub" with them. It was said there were enough chub (welchmen) run up by salt water into Dennis Simmon's "Peter Tract" to load the old Pennsylvania, a government receiving ship, then lying at Gosport Navy Yard. This ship was the largest in the Navy at that day. She had so many decks above water, she was found top-heavy and unfit for the sea; hence she was used as a training ship. Every one within one hundred miles of this ship had seen or heard of her, for every night she bellowed forth the nine o'clock gun, and a day-break one the next morning, which guns could be heard in calm weather to Roanoke Island.

People in Currituck who had no time-piece knew by this gun when bedtime had come; indeed, clocks and other time pieces were regulated by these guns.

Before this storm the beach opposite the Island consisted of high sand-hills and ridges. The height of these ridges had greatly increased since the war of 1812. This I ascertained by the following facts. This storm tide had cut these ridges away and in their stead, at a certain point on the beach, appeared, to the great wonder of the young, a large thicket of dead cedars, whose giganic arms stretched impressively heavenward.

Uncle John Beasley knew all about these cedars for he had boiled salt under these trees in the war of 1812. Their thick foliage had screened him and others from the view of the British as they passed up and down the coast. He said he had left his salt pans there; they had been sanded up and the cedars with them; now he could get them. He got some help and went over, the writer along with them. He pointed out an old stooping cedar upon which he had sat when boiling salt, and pointed out the place of the pans. Two of the pans three feet by six feet, and ten inches deep, were found a little below the surface at the place pointed out. He carried them home after they had been buried over thirty years. These cedars were dug up by the industrious ones, prepared for vessel timbers, and sold to B. T. Simmons and Wallace Bray for that purpose.


On the 8th day of September, of the same year, another storm arose. It blew stronger, it was said, than the previous one, and would have done the same damage, if there had been anything left to damage. The few cattle and hogs put on the marshes and beach from the high land and gotten during summer from elsewhere were swept away as before. This storm had the same staying quality as the former one, and blew with more force, but the wind ranged farther north, consequently the tide lacked two feet being as high as it was in former one. Also, the former was in spring-tide the latter in neep-tide; so said the believers in lunar influence. The Sound, and especially the Island bay, kept salt and saltish for years thereafter, so much so, that small oysters were found on the bay shore.

Schools of porpoise promenaded daily the Island channel and all kinds of salt water fish were abundant. The day before the night the storm set in, the writer caught six flying fish with hook and line, the first I had ever seen.

John Ansell, larger than myself, was with me. We tried Island sloughs and channel and did not get a bite. We then decided to stem the head wind to a slough under the beach of Martin's Point where fish were generally found. To do this we had to cross a great shoal the depth of which ranged from one to two feet of water. Often at low tides small boats would have to be pulled over this shoal. The tide at this time was about two feet. In crossing this shoal we saw that the water was very thickly stirred by something; not only was this unusual but we had never seen that hard, clear-bottomed sand bar in such commotion before; further, who ever saw fish on this hard sand shoal, except occasionally a mullet? John said this stir was caused by fish. We bored pole down into this hard bottom and tied our boat. We found the water teeming with fish, and such biting we had never enjoyed before. We soon caught more than enough, and then played with the fish for fun. We soon dispensed with the bait for it was not needed. We could draw hooks swiftly through the water and hook them in all manner of ways and bring them in. While using bait John caught two in one draw--one in the mouth, the hook protruded out far enough to hang the other in its abdominal regions. The fish were so numerous in that shoal you could seldom miss one in drawing the hook threw the water. This fish swarm was the fore-runner of that swiftly approaching storm.

Stingers were now plentiful in the bay, and many fishermen were stung by them. When thrust into a person's leg, these sharp and back-barbed stings would often break off thus rendering a surgical operation necessary.


When such storms come the ocean waves,
Jar this Island when they break,
Their air-waves cross this Island swing,
That puts the cradle babe to sleep.

In eighteen hundred & forty six,
This Island was ne'er in such a fix,
Never 'd been such desolation
Wrought upon the Island's rations.

The ocean rushed across the beach,
And plunged upon the Island shore,
Its tide swept fence, chub, hogs and sheep,
And down the sound with current flowed.

In salten sea the Great March lay,
'Twas left in drift, mud, mire and slime,
A paradise for 'skeeter braves
Where millions bit both calf and kine.

"Skeeters in tune in rhythmic time,
Sucked the blood of human kind,
All but future crops had faded,
The Island's rations to be aided.

But next September came along,
And brought with it a tidal storm,
And swept away what March had left,
Which added more to its distress.

Away such storms as well its floods,
The Island now may rest content,
It takes a hundred years or more,
To provide for such events.

(Some Astronomers say.)

The sun brings storms, he's losing caste,
A million years may end his task,
The Earth around the sun doth whirl,
The sun grows colder as earth runs.
Let's see next July!

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