Pamlico's Past

Exploring the History of the Pamlico River and Sound

Windmill at HatterasWindmill at HatterasWindmills, much like those found in Holland, once stood along the Outer Banks and the banks of the Pamlico and Pungo rivers. Records indicate that at one time or another over the last 200 years as many as four existed along the shores of these rivers, and mainland Hyde County, including Ocracoke, had as many as 24. On the Outer Banks and along the sounds and rivers of eastern North Carolina were built upwards to 155 over that same period. Of that total, Carteret County had the highest number at 65. Hyde County was second and Dare County came in third with 21. By the late 19th Century, most coastal communities had at least one, some as many as two or three. In his book The Long Roll, Union Civil War soldier Charles Johnson declared about eastern North Carolina windmills "...there are a greater number than I supposed were in existence in the whole country." George Nowitzky, while sailing the Pasquotank River in 1887, stated in his narrative Marine Metropolis of Virginia, and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina "A powerful marine glass ... showed me plainly the lonesome looking banks of the opposite shore, and revealed, to my surprise, a number of mills with large sweeping arms." Reaching their peak following the Civil War, the number of mills declined until, by 1900, only a handful remained along the entire coast.

Millstone in AvonMillstone in AvonThese coastal windmills were almost all of the "post mill" variety. Post mills were constructed by mounting the housing that contained the mill works on a massive central post allowing the entire structure, including the sweeps or "sails," to be turned so as to face into the wind for maximum efficiency. The gears and mechanisms used to transfer the power from the turning sweeps to the millstone were made from readably available wood, and the numerous sail makers found in these maritime communities easily fabricated the sails. The two millstones, one stationary and the other turning, were acquired during trading expeditions to the West Indies, most often from the island of Martinique. Because windmills were so numerous along the Outer Banks, relic millstones can still be found in many of the old villages. On your next visit to Ocracoke, visit the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum to see one on display. For the most part, Outer Banks windmills were used to grind grist (wheat or corn) that fishermen on the islands procured from mainland farmers in exchange for oysters and salted fish. In some locations, mostly along North Carolina's southern coast, a few mills were operated to pump water for coastal salt works.

In Beaufort County, at least four windmills have been documented. Two were located in the eastern part of the county, one on the south point at the mouth of Pungo Creek and a second one further south on the western shore of the Pungo River. A third windmill was situated along the south shore of the Pamlico River in what today is known as the Goose Creek State Gameland.

Hyde County WindmillHyde County WindmillThe fourth windmill in Beaufort County was located on the north shore of the Pamlico River on a spit of land once known as Windmill Point at the mouth of a stream once called Windmill Creek. Today that stream goes by the name of Jack's Creek. Where East Main Street in Washington, NC crosses Jack's Creek, there once stood a windmill next to the river not unlike the mills that dotted the coast. Ample evidence of its existence can be found in the historical record. A passage in The North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register describes the1788 tomb of Captain John Bonner, son of Washington founder James Bonner, as being located on Windmill Point. An early 1826 deed describes the corner of a plantation belonging to Benjamin Runyon (for whom Runyon Creek is so named) as "...Beginning at a hickory standing on the side of a small creek which empties into the river at the windmill," the small creek being today's Jack's Creek. In his November 24, 1939 Washington Daily News column, John Bragaw quotes Mr. Henry Blount discussing Windmill Point, "Years ago, I asked my father why the point was called Windmill Point. He said he had been told by older people that there used to be on the point a windmill that ground corn for the public. He told me the creek was also named Windmill Creek. In later years, in talking about the land grants in that section from the King of England, he again called it Windmill Creek, stating that it was so recorded in the county records at the court house." Blount continues by recounting an 1890 deed describing a property adjacent to the creek as "the Windmill Point land bounded on one side by Pamlico River, on another by the McNair land and on the east by Windmill Creek." So it appears that a windmill did exist at the mouth of Jack's Creek and it's quite possible that it was built around the beginning of the 19th Century, making it one of the earliest in North Carolina.

See a Post Mill in operation in Holland

By the start of the 20th Century, the people of Washington had begun to refer to Windmill Creek as Jack's Creek. In the 1903 act to incorporate the City of Washington, the description of the boundary of the town starts with "Beginning on Pamplico River at the mouth of Jack's or Wind-mill Creek, and running up said creek to the mouth of the Cool Spring Branch..." So one last question remains. Why is Windmill Creek known today as Jack's Creek? John Bragaw posed the question in a 1939 column and received several responses. Mr. J. B. Sparrow, a banker in town and a member of an old Washington family, recalled a little hut that once stood where East Main Street crosses said creek. He stated that the hut was occupied by a "venerable" African-American named Jack and that the creek was frequently spoken of as "Jack's Creek." As an aside, Sparrow added, "Just in front of Jack's hut, nearer the point, stood an old windmill, its long arms still intact..." Washington businessman J. B. Fowle is cited as corroborating Sparrow's story. It seems a plausible explanation but we may never know for sure. But, as John Bragaw stated, "Windmill Creek is the more euphonious name, is the more fitting name, and above all, is undoubtedly the correct name."

Map by Tucker R. Littleton (click to enlarge)Map by Tucker R. Littleton (click to enlarge)


Brawgaw, John G. "Now and Then." Washington Daily News [Washington, NC] 24 Nov. 1939: N. pag. Print.
Brawgaw, John G. "Now and Then." Washington Daily News [Washington, NC] 04 Dec. 1939: N. pag. Print.
Dunbar, Gary S. "The Banks in the Federal Period." Historical Geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1958. 32-33. Print.
Johnson, Charles F. "Chapter VI." The Long Roll. East Aurora, NY: The Roycrofters, 1911. 53-54. Print.
Littleton, Tucker R. "When Windmills Whirled on the Tar Heel Coast." The State Oct. 1980: 8-12. Print.


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