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Portsmouth Island, North Carolina

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Title: Portsmouth Island, North Carolina  
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Subject: Portsmouth (disambiguation), 1821 Norfolk and Long Island hurricane, Outer Banks, HMS Highflyer (1813), HMS Anaconda (1813)
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Portsmouth Island, North Carolina

Portsmouth was a fishing and shipping village located on the north end of the Core Banks on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The site lies on Portsmouth Island in Carteret County, across Ocracoke Inlet from the village of Ocracoke. The town was established in 1753, and abandoned in 1971. Its remains are now part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.


Ocracoke Inlet was a popular shipping lane during colonial times. Established in 1753, the town of Portsmouth functioned as a lightering port, where cargo from ocean-going vessels could be transferred to shallow-draft vessels capable of traversing Pamlico and Core Sounds. Portsmouth grew to a peak population of 685 in 1860. Though small, Portsmouth was one of the most important points-of-entry along the Atlantic coast in post-Revolutionary America.

In 1846, two strong hurricanes cut Oregon Inlet and deepened the existing Hatteras Inlet to the northeast, making Ocracoke Inlet a less desirable shipping lane by comparison. The waters around Portsmouth's harbor also began to shoal up, hastening its decline as a port. The Civil War was yet another blow as many people fled to the mainland when Union soldiers came to occupy the Outer Banks. Many didn't return after the bloodshed had ended and the Village of Portsmouth continued its decline, sped along by the occasional hurricane. The mammoth 1933 Atlantic hurricane season also served as a benchmark in the island's population decline, though more as a focal point of memory and a symbol of decline than the real cause of it.[1] (These were the same hurricanes that led to the depopulation of the barrier islands on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland.) A further blow was the decommissioning of the US Life-Saving Station there in 1937, and when the post office closed in 1959, it was clear the end was drawing near—the final curtain coming down on the village in 1971 when Henry Pigott died, and the last two residents reluctantly abandoned the town.

Portsmouth Island (including the village) had already been acquired by the National Park Service before the last inhabitants left in 1971. It was then incorporated into the new Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Prior to and for long after the Civil War, much of Portsmouth's population was African American, including two of its last inhabitants, Henry and Lizzie Pigott. Henry Pigott's death in 1971 precipitated the move of the last white inhabitants away from the island (two elderly ladies named Marian Gray Babb and Nora Dixon). Pigott, a fisherman and clammer, was approximately their own age but had been essentially their caretaker. Both Henry and Lizzie Pigott were denied an education by the State of North Carolina. Under segregation, black and white children could not legally attend the one-room schoolhouse on Portsmouth Island together. The state never built a separate school for blacks, so African Americans who remained on the island in its declining years never received the benefits of a formal education.[1] African Americans (most of them slaves) were heavily engaged in fishing and other maritime trades on Portsmouth, piloting and manning vessels, even building a small man-made island, Shell Castle, out of oyster shells for use as a shipping depot.

Portsmouth today

Portsmouth Village
Portsmouth Church
Location North end of Portsmouth Island, Portsmouth, North Carolina
Area 250 acres (100 ha)
Architectural style Bungalow/craftsman, Stick/eastlake
Governing body Federal
NRHP Reference # 78000267[2]
Added to NRHP November 29, 1978

Now, about a dozen buildings, as well as a few out-buildings, are maintained as part of the Portsmouth Village Historic District. Of these the Salter House/visitor center, the one-room school, the Methodist Church, the Life-Saving Station, and the Post Office/general store are open to the public during the summer (soon the Henry Pigott house will be fully restored and open to the public). Now, especially during the summers, people often visit the island and camp out overnight on the beach (camping is not allowed in the village). Facilities are very limited with a compost toilet near the Life-Saving Station and a restroom in the Salter house/visitors center, with no potable water, food, or electricity available.


Portsmouth is reached by a passenger ferry from Ocracoke village. It is also accessible by four wheel drive vehicles, which cross Core Sound by ferry from Atlantic and use the beach and tracks on North Core Banks.[3]


Portsmouth is the location of an increasingly well-known "homecoming," currently celebrated every two years. The island homecoming has its origins in the early trips made back to the island by families who left prior to the 1960s and was originally affiliated with the Methodist and Primitive Baptist churches, primarily out of Cedar Island, North Carolina, where many inhabitants of Portsmouth had resettled. The homecoming began as a church- and family-based event but has become increasingly a secular celebration of Portsmouth's heritage, under the aegis of the National Park Service. Many people who have no direct family connection to the island participate in the homecoming.[4]

Portsmouth Island

Portsmouth Island lies to the west of North Core Banks, to which it is connected at most states of the tide. The limits of the island are not precisely determined and have varied over time. Older maps use the term for the island between Ocracoke Inlet and Whalebone Inlet (which closed in 1961), now the northern end of North Core Banks.[5])[6]


External links

  • National Park Service site
  • A Home Transformed: Narratives of Home, Loss, Longing and the Miniature from Portsmouth Island, North Carolina (M.A. thesis in Folklore, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 2009). Online resource.
  • Portsmouth Island Ferry
  • Google map of the island
  • Portsmouth Island Vehicle and Passenger Ferry

Coordinates: 35°04′11″N 76°03′50″W / 35.06972°N 76.06389°W / 35.06972; -76.06389

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