For more than 500 years, the strand of barrier islands that ring the North Carolina coast have been the scene of innumerable Atlantic Ocean shipwrecks and strange tales of piracy, murder, and even ghost ships. The Outer Banks of North Carolina and its waters are known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."
The very geography of the region lends itself to nautical disasters of all sorts: even the Gulf Stream helps the Graveyard by pushing ships from points both north and south to their watery doom. To this day, it is known as one of the most dangerous places in the world to sail, and among the places with the most shipwrecks anywhere on the planet.
Just look at any map of North Carolina's Outer Banks. It can't help itself. A long, narrow strand of small islands stretches out into the Atlantic and curves around, hugging the North Carolina coast. Even the breakwater between the string of isles and the mainland area of the coast is replete with hidden coves and lagoons, perfect places for skulking pirates and other watery criminals.
The entire region has served as a wrecking magnet for watercraft, from the earliest years of European exploration right through WWII, and to this day, boaters and sailors cannot fully count on even the most modern RADAR and SONAR to protect them from the dangerous Graveyard of the Atlantic.
It's the storms - some coming from as far north as New England - that push vessels off course and sweep them down to the Outer Banks, where they are beaten by waves, or scuttled onto rocks, sometimes leaving survivors, but often times not.
Was a beautiful and wealthy 19th-century socialite a victim of the Graveyard of the Atlantic? Perhaps.
Theodosia Burr Alton's life and mysterious death are the stuff of legends. Born into a privileged world as the daughter of the third US Vice President, Aaron Burr, Theodosia was beautiful, educated, and by the time of her disappearance, a woman overcome with personal grief. While still a teenager, her famous father encouraged her to marry a wealthy South Carolinian, Joseph Alston, who would one day become governor of that state. The couple lived on Alston's large plantation. The isolation and humid Southern weather had little appeal to Theodosia, but she loved her husband, his family, and especially their only son and child, Aaron Burr Alston.
Then her life changed from one of boredom and dissatisfaction to one of grief and humiliation. As the only child of Aaron Burr, Theodosia was shocked and embarrassed by the duel in which her father shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. Then her child died suddenly, as well.
Grief-stricken, she made plans for a long visit to New York, where she would be among family and old friends. Her husband and her father both counseled her against the trip: after all, the War of 1812 was raging and the American coast was unsafe as a result. Always a strong and independent woman, Theodosia went ahead with her plans. Her husband made sure the small ship that transported his wife was sound, and the captain and crew sober. Several other passengers accompanied Theodosia on her journey. On New Year's Eve 1812, she boarded the schooner Patriot and headed north.
Neither she nor the ship were ever seen or heard from again.
Unless....unless one counts the fine oil portrait of Theodosia that mysteriously showed up in a poor man's home on the Outer Banks, later in the 19th century, as evidence.
There are many legends and even ghost stories concerning Theodosia's demise, but only one has ever presented actual evidence connecting the young woman with the Outer Banks.
In the mid-1800s, a doctor was summoned to an old beach shack at Nags Head, on the Outer Banks. It was owned by a poor man, whose elderly mother was ill. A number of poor people lived along the chain of tiny North Carolinian islands, among them some who made their living scavenging wrecked and scuttled vessels just off shore.
The old woman, Molly Mancarring, and her son had no money to pay the doctor, but offered him a high-quality oil portrait of a lovely young woman. The doctor accepted the painting as payment, and noted that other luxurious items were in the possession of the poor family, including early 19th-century silk dresses. All of these were items were far beyond the family's means.
The doctor asked where in the world the family had acquired the painting. Molly responded that when she was a newly married young woman in 1812, her husband (who was a "wrecker") had found the portrait, the dresses, and other items on a scuttled ship.
The portrait now hangs in the Walpole Library at Yale University. It has never been positively identified with Theodosia Burr Alton, but the existence of the portrait, the place, the timing, and the resemblance to known portraits of the young woman make this story among the more plausible legends surrounding the lost woman, who many think was attacked by pirates.
Whatever became of her, it is likely that at some point between South Carolina and New York, Theodosia came to her end somewhere in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Everyone has heard of Blackbeard the pirate. He was a real person called Edward Teach. He actually lived on one of the islands along the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The site was perfect, what with its endless, hidden coves, lagoons, and inlets. A pirate could slip in and out of the area swiftly, particularly when there was a need to hide. He was born and grew up in Bristol, England, and at first went to work as a "legal" pirate - or as the English government then called it, a "privateer." He soon, however, realized that he could make much more money as an illegal privateer; or, pirate. He crewed on several ships before obtaining his own, which he named the Queen Anne's Revenge.
The Carolinas were somewhat accustomed to the proliferation of piracy on their shores, and for some time the activities of Blackbeard and other pirates were tolerated. He even maintained a home on shore, along the Outer Banks, taking breaks before venturing out again to wreak and plunder. One of his favorite pastimes was to attack any passing merchant ship, relieve it of its goods, and then sell the goods to townsfolk along the Outer Banks. This helped to stimulate the local economy, which is probably why the local officials turned a blind eye to it. It was a good life.
But, in 1718, Blackbeard went too far. He kidnapped several South Carolina government officials and held them for ransom. Once he received payment, he let the men go, but this set government leaders astir across several states. Enough was enough for Blackbeard and his ilk.
But the Carolinas, even working together to rid themselves of the piratical scourge, were not powerful enough. So, they asked Virginia's powerful governor, Alexander Spotswood, to help. He was eager to do so, as he despised all pirates. A colonial Navy was organized under Virginia leadership, and it sailed to the Outer Banks in short order. Blackbeard, who was utterly comfortable cruising along the Carolina coast, was caught completely off guard. A battle ensued, with losses sustained on both sides.
Blackbeard did not go down without a bitter fight. Before he finally collapsed on the deck of his ship, he had received more than 25 wounds, five of which were from gun shots. The victorious colonial forces cut off Blackbeard's head and hung it upon the foremast of a warship.
"Bankers" is the term given to the people who lived along the edge of the Graveyard of the Atlantic for hundreds of years. These days, the strand is dotted with numerous, often luxurious vacation homes, hotels, and condos. But for the first 300 years of Outer Bank settlement, the region held no interest for the wealthy or the vacationing tourist. Property values were low, and the barrier islands could boast only of worn out, often broken down shacks. Not much could withstand the regular storms and fierce winds that roared up and down the coast. Most of the inhabitants lived there because they had nowhere else to go. Property values were low and poverty was common.
Except - sometimes this was not the case. There was one employment along the Banks that was often quite profitable, albeit at least somewhat illegal. It involved salvage. Bankers were notorious for watching boats and ships founder and wreck, then retrieving and claiming whatever washed up or what they could scrounge from the wreck. Now, salvage law is a little murky, then and even today. It is difficult to prove outright theft when items - however valuable - wash to shore or are abandoned in the shallows. Bankers regularly collected useful and valuable items for their homes, or to sell. Some items included furniture, expensive cloth, barrels of wine and spirits, luxurious clothing, artwork, and decorative objects.
Even if the Bankers took the items they found legally, they and their neighborhoods were looked down upon. Indeed, they were often referred to as "land pirates."