Outer Banks Firsts

 In Back In The Day

Photo Above Provided by Roanoke Island Festival Park

There have been several well-known firsts on the Outer Banks, many of which make up lengthy chapters in history books. Two of the more memorable ones include the first attempt by the English to colonize America (aka The Lost Colony) and the Wright Brothers first powered flight in 1903. While both are hugely significant for the Outer Banks, beneath the headlines are many other fascinating firsts this tiny strip of sand can claim. Here are just a few.

First Visit to England by Native Americans
When English explorers Philip Amadas and Master Arthur Barlowe anchored off Roanoke Island in 1584, they were met by friendly Native Americans of the Algonquin tribe. When they returned to England, two tribal members volunteered to go with them, a Croatoan named Wanchese and Manteo, a Roanoke.

The word “volunteered” is important here. There had probably been Native Americans in Spain by the 1580s, but it is doubtful if they traveled voluntarily.

Spain’s policy at the time included taking land by force and enslaving the population. “Sent” is how Native Americans would have arrived in Spain.

Photo Provided by The Lost Colony

Photo Provided by The Lost Colony

While biographical information about the two travelers is scant, it appears that Manteo was close to the royal family of Chief Wingona, who ruled the area around Roanoke Island. The exact nature of the relationship is unclear. Wanchese does not appear to be related to the royal family although evidence indicates he was widely respected within the community.

Living for a year at Sir Walter Raleigh’s London residence, Durham House, the two guests came to vastly different conclusions. Manteo became a staunch ally of England and was given a land grant for what is now most of mainland Dare County. It is unclear if he was ever able to exercise his grant. Wanchese on the other hand refused to learn English during his stay in the country, ultimately developing a distrust for the British, fearing the Algonquin lands would be taken and their culture destroyed. Soon after returning to Roanoke, he fled to his village and began speaking out against the colonists.

First True Radio Transmission
In the early days of radio, Marconi got all the press, but Reginald Fessenden proved that sound could be carried over long distances through the air.

He proved it on the Outer Banks.

His list of patents is impressive—everything from early sonar to work he did with Edison and lightbulbs. At the end of his life in 1932 it was television. But in 1900, Fessenden was working on voice transmission through the air. He believed the human voice could be sent, received and modified into a recognizable sound—a process called amplitude modification or AM.

In 1900, at his Maryland lab, he transmitted a barely audible voice message for about a mile through the air. His experiments caught the eye of Weather Bureau chief, Willis Moore. The Weather Service had a problem. Or two problems—telegraph and Morse code.

Morse code is a one-way communication. It is received, translated and then a response comes. More significantly though, it requires transmission wires, and no one could afford to put wires into the bureau’s stations in remote locations.

So, the Weather Bureau made Fessenden a remarkable offer—$3,000 per year to develop his wireless transmission. That’s a little north of $90,000 in 2020. He moved his family to Manteo and, for the next year and a half, worked tirelessly on his theory that voice could be transmitted over long distances. Much of his time was spent in Buxton on Hatteras Island, where the weather station was located.

In March 1902, success. A 127-word message clearly transmitted from Buxton to Manteo—a distance of 50 miles.

After the success of his experiment, a conflict erupted with the Weather Bureau, which employed Fessenden as a paid contractor. Unable to claim ownership of his ideas, the inventor resigned from the bureau in August 1902 to continue his research independently.

First National Seashore
With over 2.6 million visitors in 2019, Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CHNS) racked up one of the best years it’s ever had. Not bad for a park that almost was not.

The story begins in the 1930s, when artist and Outer Banks resident Frank Stick envisioned a national park that would stretch from South Nags Head to Ocracoke.

Writing in 1933 for the Elizabeth City Independent, he observed that there was,“…opportunity at hand to acquire one of the most charming coastal areas in America at little expense, for the satisfaction of the esthetic and recreational needs of the people…”

There was agreement the idea had merit, but during the height of the Great Depression, neither North Carolina nor the federal government could buy the land, no matter how cheap.

WWII intervened and no one thought about a park. After the war, Stick hoped to revive interest in the project, but major oil companies thought there could be oil in the waters of the sounds. Protecting the seashore became secondary to the possibility of oil revenue. In 1945, the N.C. state legislature passed a bill prohibiting any purchase of or transfer of land to the National Park Service (NPS).

But the NPS wanted a national seashore. At the end of 1948, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Girard Davidson wrote to Stick stating, “the department has never lost interest in this worthwhile seashore project.”

The winds of change blew over North Carolina. A new governor was elected in 1948 and oil was never discovered. There were still hurdles to overcome, including passing federal legislation that gave the State Highway Commission a right of way to build a road on Hatteras Island, along with purchasing additional land. But by Jan. 12, 1953, NPS secretary, Conrad Wirth, felt that the 1937 law permitting a national seashore on the Outer Banks could be activated.

Six years of land acquisition followed creating the official opening date of Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Jan. 12, 1959.

Photo Provided by Outer Banks History Center

The construction of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore dune line was one of the most noteworthy and labor intensive government projects. Photo Provided by Outer Banks History Center

Outer Banks Firsts, At A Glance

1585First Native American Visit to England: Chiefs Manteo & Wanchese

1587 Roanoke Colony: First English colony in the New World (aka The Lost Colony)

Aug. 18, 1587First English Child Born in the Americas: Virginia Dare on Roanoke Island

1840First Beach Resort in N.C.: Nags Head Hotel

Aug. 28–29, 1861Battle of Hatteras Inlet: First Union victory of the Civil War

May 1863Freedman’s Colony on Roanoke Island: First such colony for freed slaves
in the Civil War

1880Richard Etheridge: First African American to command a lifesaving station at
Pea Island in Rodanthe, on Hatteras Island

March 1902First Radio Transmission in the World: Reginald Fessenden from
Buxton, on Hatteras Island, to Manteo, on Roanoke Island

Dec. 17, 1903Wright Brothers: Achieved the first powered, sustained and
controlled airplane flight

May 14, 1908First Airplane Passenger Flight: Charlie Furnas joined each of the
Wright Brothers; one of the flights reaching a distance of two miles

Aug. 11, 1909First Use of SOS in American waters: S.S. Arapahoe off Cape Hatteras.

Jan. 12, 1959First Coastal National Park in the U.S.: Cape Hatteras National Seashore, stretching 70 miles from South Nags Head to Ocracoke Island

Kip Tabb
Author: Kip Tabb

  • Jason Morgan

    Great history notes. More effort should be made to teach these firsts in school.

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