When it comes to events that can’t be explained, the Outer Banks region is special. It has one of the biggest mysteries of all time, famous characters who led fascinating lives, and some things that simply can’t be rationalized. Discover some of the facts behind the stories that have been passed down by generations. These tales are based on actual events. How they ultimately transpired or ended—we may never know.
The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island
One of America’s greatest mysteries is also one of the nation’s oldest stories. Over 100 travelers set sail from England in 1587 bound for the New World. They arrived at Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina and started making new lives for themselves. The colony’s Governor, John White, returned to England for supplies, leaving behind his wife, daughter and the first English baby born on North American soil, his granddaughter, Virginia Dare. When White was finally able to return to the colony in 1590, he arrived to find that every one of the colonists had completely vanished. All that remained that could indicate their story was the word “Cro,” possibly short for Croatan, carved into wood.
We may never know what happened to these adventurers, but theories surrounding their fates are plentiful. Upon previous visits to Roanoke Island, English soldiers and some of the indigenous Indian tribes had developed tense, perhaps hostile relationships. On the other hand, the settlers may have been absorbed into the cultures of other supportive tribes. Diseases or storms may have plagued the colonists to the point of decimation. There is also the belief that they unsuccessfully tried to sail back to England. To this day, new ideas emerge and archaeologists continue their search. Perhaps in the future, the answer to their disappearance will be revealed.
Missing: Theodosia Burr Alston
Another mystery relates to the story of Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston. Also the wife of South Carolina’s governor, Joseph Alston, Theodosia was sailing north aboard the Patriot to see her father, the man who served as vice president under Thomas Jefferson and who infamously shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Because she was a governor’s wife, she believed she had safe passage despite the ongoing war with the British in 1813. When the schooner never arrived in New York, it was presumed that the Patriot was lost at sea.
It’s possible that the ship was sunk by enemy forces. Stories of Outer Banks pirates overtaking the ship and forcing Theodosia to walk the plank also abound. The most plausible explanation for the Patriot’s loss is that a winter storm with strong gales swept up the coastline, causing the small ship to capsize. Whatever the case, her whereabouts became a mystery due to the many reported sightings of Theodosia in North Carolina. Supposedly a painting of her that she was carrying to New York surfaced on the Outer Banks following her disappearance, giving further credit to the thought that she may have survived. Nevertheless, rumors surrounding her fate have continued to circulate for two centuries.
Carroll A. Deering Ghost Ship
It was in 1919 that the beautiful 5-masted schooner, the Carroll A. Deering, was christened with flowers and embarked on a voyage to South America. Her mission was to deliver her cargo of coal to Rio de Janeiro. Due to illness, the ship’s captain and his son, the first mate, disembarked in Lewes, Delaware. Replacing them was a retired veteran of the seas, Captain W. B. Wormell, and Charles B. McLellan was hired as first mate.
While in port after delivering the cargo, Captain Wormell met with an old acquaintance. He purportedly confided that he neither trusted the first mate, nor some of the crew. In 1921, the Carroll A. Deering left Rio and sailed north where she happened upon an American lightship. Someone on her decks called out to the lightship to report that they had lost their anchors and asked that the owner of the vessel be notified. The crewmember of the lightboat thought it bizarre that it was not the captain or the first mate who communicated with him. He also noted that there were crewmembers in the captain’s quarters—which is never allowed. That was the last time anyone saw any of the men who served aboard the Deering. The vessel ultimately landed on a sandbar off the coast of North Carolina while still in full sail. Her crew had disappeared, leaving prepared food on the stove and personal effects behind. Only the lifeboat, ships logs, and crew were missing.
Was the disappearance of the Carroll A. Deering the result of mutiny? Maybe the vessel was hijacked by pirates or Prohibition era rum-runners? Even foreign politics have been blamed for the abandoned ship since many thought the communist party was somehow involved. A year later, after exhaustive efforts by a handful of government agencies to find the crew of the Carroll A. Deering, the search concluded. Because the skillfully crafted vessel could not be saved and was also a threat to other ships in the Diamond Shoals of the Outer Banks, she was eventually destroyed with dynamite. Her mystery, however, continues to live on in maritime lore.
Pirates and Treasure
Many are familiar with Blackbeard’s presence in the Outer Banks and even today, his death continues to be instilled in local lore. It’s been said that following his beheading, the rest of his corpse swam around his ship a few times before succumbing to the deep. Others say that he still haunts the Outer Banks in search of his head… But he is not the only seafarer in the region to captivate imaginations centuries after their last expedition.
Due to the hazardous conditions off the coast of the Outer Banks, it is still possible to find treasure that has been lost for hundreds of years. In addition to the thought that pirates may have buried their treasure in the sand dunes throughout the region, a Spanish fleet from the mid-1700s was caught in a devastating storm and five ships were sunk. Records indicate they were carrying gold and silver back to Europe, but are assumed to have broken up off the coast of North Carolina. Many would-be treasure hunters have searched in vain for the lost fortune, but none have succeeded. Maybe the treasure is still out there waiting to be discovered!