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from The Flaming Ship of Ocracoke & Other Tales of the Outer Banks
Some most unusual things continue to happen just off the northern shore of Ocracoke Inlet. Of course, this region is known the world over as a part of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and many are the tales of shipwrecks and sailors lost at sea and of treasures lying buried beneath the shifting sands of the Diamond Shoals. Most of these legends have no recurring manifestations; but the Ocracoke Happening, they say, repeats itself year after year, always under the same conditions and always at the same spot. Many people have seen it time after time, and always on the night when the new moon makes its first appearance in September. Thus, the dates may differ from year to year, but that sliver of new moon is always part of the scene. In the region itself, the most widely accepted explanation is a combination of history and folk memory which has been told and retold by the older fisherman to their sons and grandsons. Many of these old-timers may not be able to name the current
Secretary of the Interior, but they can tell you, with amazing accuracy, of the time when Anne was Queen of Eng-land and many efforts were being made to colonize the Carolinas. This was a time when the continent of Europe was in a ferment. The tiny German Palatinate had been overrun, time and again, by the vicious wars between Catholic and Protestant armies. The people were weary with so-called religious wars, and they longed for peace. In the beautiful Rhine River Valley in 1689, the retreating armies of Louis XIV had brutally scourged and laid waste the entire countryside, leaving everything destroyed and most of the people destitute. Some ten thousand Palatines, as they were called, flooded into England for refuge, and the authorities did not know what to do with them. No beggars, these, but honest and skilled craftsmen, miners, and artisans of the first order. Such an influx of jobless thousands threw the British economy completely out of kilter. The British people, though sympathetic at first, soon began to complain, so the English Queen listened with favor when the Swiss Baron Christophe DeGraffenried, eager to mend his own personal fortunes and to solve the problems of many of the Palatines at the same time, proposed taking several hundred of these poor people to the Province of Carolina in the New World across the sea. England desperately needed colonists, and the Palatines just as desperately needed new homes, so Queen Anne told DeGraffenried to go ahead with his plan. The mass migration, organized and directed by the good baron, was beset by trials and tribulations, but it finally resulted in the settlement of a large portion of land in what is now eastern North Carolina. The settelement was known, at first, by the Indian name Chattoka. Today it is identified as the beautiful city of New Bern (formerly New Berne). Many people know
of these fine Swiss and German folk who have meant so much to the history of North Carolina and of their leader, Baron DeGraffenried, the Landgrave of Carolina. Most people, though, do not know about a later shipload of Palatines whose financial status was much better but whose destiny was not to be so bright. While homeless, they were still possessed of a large amount of gold and silver plate, gold candlesticks, and many valuable coins and jewels, which they had managed to conceal from invading armies. Whereas the earlier Palatines had come to America by means of financing furnished by the British government, these later emigrants paid for their own passage by subscription among themselves. They, too, were looking for a new and better home in Carolina. They had heard good reports of the colony from their friends who had come over with DeGraffenried and were eager to make their own beginnings in that new land. The passage from England was uneventful, as day followed sunny day, and the ship made good time. The hopes of these thrifty Palatines were high as they looked forward to soon joining their countrymen in New Berne. Each of them had been very careful to conceal his precious possessions in the sea bags and chests allowed in the sleeping quarters below decks. So far as could be seen, they were just as poor as their friends who had come before them. At that time, Ocracoke Inlet was the principal point of entry for ships with passengers or cargoes bound for the interior of North Carolina. Ocean-going vessels could negotiate the inlet and sail over the shallow sounds to the inland cities, or they could, and usually did, anchor just inside or outside the inlet and transfer the passengers or cargoes to smaller boats which were bound for New Berne, Bath, or Edenton. Travelers were usually given a few hours in which to stretch their legs and walk about in
Portsmouth Town before beginning the final lap of their journey. Thus it was with the ship carrying these later Palatines. They arrived offshore before dawn and anchored in the calm waters just to the seaward from Ocracoke Inlet. The passengers were in a fever of excitement. Lights could be seen from the houses on the nearby shore, and the smell of woodsmoke from the early morning cooking fires in Pilot Town (now called Ocracoke Village) carried across the water to the pilgrims. The children were the most enthusiastic of all as they ran back and forth on the deck, laughing and playing. The perilous sea voyage was over, and they were now only a short distance from their new homes. Among the adults, there was more sober talk of Indians and whether or not they would continue to be friendly, of gold mines, and of the prospect of living without the constant threat of war. It was a time of new beginnings. They believed that they had, at last, found a fresh page on which to write their own personal histories. By the time it was fully daylight, all the Palatines were dressed in their best clothes and were assembled on the deck of the ship. They were eager to set foot on land and to see the sights of Portsmouth Town. Not wanting to risk the theft of valuables, they made the mistake of bringing these belongings up on deck with them. There they stood, their eyes full of hope and anticipation and their hands full of more treasure than the ship’s captain had ever seen in any one place in his entire lifetime. Unknown to his passengers, the Captain had, at one time, been a pirate, but he had taken the “King’s Pardon,” promising to lead a law-abiding life. At the sight of the Palatines’ treasure, however, his new moral code promptly went by the board. Calling a hurried meeting with his crew, the skipper found them all of a like mind to his. This was too easy a chance to be missed. So the plot was laid. The Captain told his passengers that
there had been some delay in arranging their transportation to New Berne, but he promised to take care of that by the next morning. He advised them to return to their quarters below decks and to get some rest against the rigors of the next stage of their travels, as they would not be able to go ashore until the next day. This the Palatines did, taking their belongings with them, not even questioning the fact that the Captain had waved away several small boats and lighters which had come out to get the business of taking passengers and their belongings ashore. The night that followed was the first night of the new moon in that September of long ago. The sun had set some hours before, and the new moon was low in the sky when the crew, led by the Captain and both mates, slipped up behind the few passengers taking the air on deck and silently strangled them with short lengths of line. Then, silently and swiftly, they crept below, knives in hand, and cut the throats of every remaining passenger, children as well as adults. Not one was spared. These brutal murders accomplished, the crew then brought lights into the hold and methodically ripped open all the sea bags and chests belonging to the murdered people, stealing all the gold, silver, jewels, and coins they had so much coveted on the deck of the ship that morning. Pirate-like, they divided their loot on the deck of the ship. Then, lowering the ship’s longboat into the sea, they prepared to go ashore. Just before they left the ship, they spread the vessel’s mainsail and jib and slipped the anchor chain so that the craft could run before the gentle southwest wind. As a final touch, the captain set fire to the large pile of rifled sea bags and chests which had been heaped near the mainmast. This was to make more credible the tale of disaster they intended to tell when they reached the shore. About halfway to shore, the men rested their oars and looked back at the ship. The Captain turned his head, too, and saw that
the fire had spread more rapidly than he had anticipated. Apparently the lines holding the furled topsails and topgallantsails to the yard had burned in two. Now, all the sails seemed to be set, and the ship was driving at full speed, not in a northeasterly direction but almost due west, right toward the crowded longboat. The sails seemed to be solid sheets of flame, and from the hold of the burning ship came long, loud, pitiful wails, filling the dark sea with the mournful sounds of souls in torment. The inferno ship bore down upon the frantically fleeing longboat until, with a crash of splintering timbers, it rolled the doomed little craft over and over under its keel, spilling the murderer-robbers into the sea. Most of them drowned outright. Some, however, were able to cling to pieces of wreckage from the longboat until they were washed ashore many hours later. Amazingly, the burning death ship then came about and, with no living soul at her lashed helm, set a steady course toward the northeast again, her sails still aflame and the mournful wails still emanating from the hold. To this day, they say, that flaming ship reappears on the first night of the new moon in September. Her sails are always sheets of flame and her rigging glows red-hot in the near darkness. Always there is the accompanying eerie wailing, as she sails swiftly and purposefully toward the northeast. Three times she runs her ghostly course on each occasion. She always seems to sail from the water just offshore to a point where she can barely be seen as a small glow on the distant horizon. They say she will sail out of sight; and then, twice again, she will suddenly reappear just offshore and sail toward the northeast. Those who have seen her say you can always smell the odor of burning canvas and hemp, and she always moves northeastward, regardless of the direction and velocity of the wind. So far is known, not one single piece of the treasure be77
longing to the doomed Palatines has ever been washed up on the beach. So far as can be told, the flaming ship will continue to sail her fiery course each year while those betrayed pilgrims continue to look for peace and happiness in that new home to which they came so near.
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