As we approach the height of hurricane season, here is an account of a storm that had a significant impact on Pamlico's past.
It was September 28, 1806. Busy Ocracoke inlet was filled with trading vessels hailing from far away ports found in the Caribbean and along America's northern coast. Many of the mariners in the harbor had little clue as to the maelstrom they were about to suffer.
"Lighters," small vessels more suited to the shallow inland waters of eastern North Carolina, were busy off loading cargos of naval stores and lumber onto larger ships to be transported to distant ports. Others were taking on mercantile goods from such localities as New York and Philadelphia, or sugar and molasses from the West Indian islands to be transported across the sound to the river ports of Washington and New Bern. In addition, there were two Revenue Cutters at anchor in the busy harbor.
The Revenue Cutters were part of the Revenue-Marine, which was established by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1790 to serve as an armed maritime law enforcement service. The service operated under the authority of the U. S. Department of the Treasury, the commanders of the local cutters answering to local customs officials. The service officially changed its name to the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service in 1894, and in 1915, it merged with the U. S. Life-Saving Service to form the U. S. Coast Guard.
Washington, N.C. played a key role from the very start of the history of the Revenue Cutters. On August 4, 1790, Congress passed and George Washington signed a bill authorizing the construction of "ten boats" for guarding the coast against smugglers. The "ten boats" were to be cutter types, speedy heavy keeled schooners carrying an abundance of sail. "Boats of from thirty six to forty feet keel will answer the purpose, each ... armed with swivels," Hamilton told Congress. One of these first cutters was the Diligence, built in Washington, N.C. She was a 40 ton schooner armed with 4 swivel guns and carried a crew of four officers, four enlisted, two boys. She was commissioned on April 25th, 1791 and was commanded by William Cook who was joined by First Mate Joseph Wallace. This first Diligence was replaced in 1796 by a second cutter of the same name, followed by a third Diligence in 1803. It was the third Diligence that had the misfortune of arriving at Ocracoke Inlet to join her sister Revenue Cutter, the Governor Williams, on the eve of a fierce hurricane.
The first signs of the approaching storm were seen at Ocracoke when gales began blowing from the east-northeast around midnight of September 28. By 4 a.m., the winds had increased to hurricane force and had shifted to the east-southeast. The writer for the Wilmington Gazette noted, "...blew the most tremendous storm, ever I believe, witnessed by a human being, until six o'clock, when it got further to the southward, and finally to W.S.W. (west southwest) where it still continues to blow with excessive force. The Cutter belonging to this station (Governor Williams) under the command of Capt. Henderson, upset and sunk at her anchors." Five crewmembers of the Governor Williams were saved, but three crewmen were lost, Frederick Cherry, Jacob (a Russian), and F. G. Romain. Meanwhile, the Diligence was anchored northeast of Shell Castle Island. In danger of foundering at the height of the storm, the crew of the Diligence began throwing her guns overboard and cutting away her masts. Eventually she broke adrift and blew down on a small schooner on a shoal about a mile west southwest of Shell Castle Island and sank. The officers and crew retreated aboard the small schooner, which survived the storm and were taken off as soon as the weather permitted by "Governor" Wallace and Mr. Tuck, the only inhabitants of Shell Castle.
In addition to the two Cutters, the Wilmington Gazette described at least 29 other vessels in the inlet as "sunk," "dismasted," "upset," "ashore," or "adrift." Included in the number were at least four vessels from Washington, N.C.: the ship Capt. McKeel, main and mizzen mast gone; the ship Connelia, ashore; a schooner belonging to Messrs. Marshes of Washington, ashore and sunk; and a schooner belonging to Mr. Eborn of Washington, dismasted, ashore and sunk. The Wilmington Gazette writer continues "..., schooner Mount Vernon, Fisher, of Newbern, lost entirely, but it is believed no lives lost. A small sloop which arrived last evening from Jamaica, with rum, name unknown yet, upset on the east point of Beacon Island, the people are now seen on her bottom, there is some prospect of them and the cargo being saved. - Schooner Horizon, Jerkins, still at anchor above the Swash, main mast cutaway. Sloop Union, Keais, ashore dismasted. In short but one vessel in the whole navigation afloat and all standing, and that a singular instance of preservation; it is a lighter belonging to Mr. James Jones of Newbern, who struck adrift with two anchors a head, at the Castle, and drifted two and a half miles to the Royal shoal, where she brought up, and rode out the storm - only one small black boy onboard."
But the story of these two unfortunate Revenue Cutters doesn't end there. This summer of 2013, the Coast Guard Historian-Atlantic-East, along with several partnering organizations have begun working on the recovery of the two sunken Revenue Cutters. The project has begun with a survey of the area using magnetometers with good success. When located, Governor Williams will be the only Jeffersonian gunboat known to exist, and Diligence will be the only Revenue Cutter dating back to the Age of Sail. In the future, look for additional news about this project.
"1806." Ocracoke Island Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://villagecraftsmen.blogspot.com/2012/09/1806.html>.
Coast Guard History. U. S. Coast Guard, PDF file. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/genhist/CG-213_USCG_History.pdf>.
Portsmouth Village, A Site History. US National Park Service, PDF file. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://www.nps.gov/calo/parkmgmt/upload/CALO%20Portsmouth%20Village%20CLR_Site%20History.pdf>.
Smith, Horatio D. Early History of the United States Revenue Marine Service or (United States Revenue Cutter Service) 1789-1849. Ed. Elliot Snow. NAVAL HISTORICAL FOUNDATION, 1932. PDF file. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/USRCS1789-1849.pdf>.
The Wilmington Gazette. Wilmington, NC: 1806. North Carolina Digital Collections. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://cdm16062.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15016coll1/id/14158/rec/4>.
Thiesen, William H. White Paper: Lost Revenue Cutters Project, Ocracoke, N.C. 26 July 2013.