Island Lore

Island Lore

Moonshine, pirates and shipwrecks

One of the most popular questions visitors ask is the origin of the name Kill Devil Hills. Several versions of the story circulate on the Outer Banks. One legend suggests the pirates who once called these shores home are to blame. Apparently, one night while taking a "shore leave", a surly lot of buccaneers were sitting amongst the sand dunes that towered over the landscape, drinking moonshine that was "strong enough to kill the devil." Another version holds that in the 1700's William Byrd of Virginia, apparently no admirer of the Carolinas, wrote that "most of the rum they get in the country comes from New England, and is so bad and unwholesome that it is not improperly called "Kill Devil." Other lore suggests the town received its moniker from an old brand of rum that washed ashore at the dunes here, the only surviving cargo from a nameless shipwreck.

The legend of Nags Head takes us back to days of piracy, when tales drifted ashore about the wonderful treasures traveling at sea being plundered by "rogue businessmen" like Blackbeard, that one of the original Outer Bankers got the inspiration, which brought about the equine moniker. A lantern was tied around the neck of an old gentle horse, and then this old "nag" was led up and down the tallest of the sand dunes, Jockey's Ridge, so that the light shone out to sea. As a ship's captain saw this gently bobbing light, it seemed to be from a ship riding at anchor in a sheltered harbor. As the Captain tried to put in to this "safe" harbor, his ship would pile up on the treacherous shoals that constantly writhed and changed shape beneath the surface. The "land pirates" made the crew walk the plank, looted and burned the hapless ship, and made away with the bounty.

The roots of another Outer Banks place name can be either ominous or dubious depending on which history you choose to embrace. Pronounced "body" when rendered properly off the tongue, (but understandably used phonetically by first-time visitors) Bodie Island was once known as Body's Island on old maps. Even the architectural keystone of the lighthouse there refers to itself as Body's Island Lighthouse in 1871. Popular local lore describes shipwrecks as common as today's car accidents, with human casualties washing ashore at frequent intervals in the days before modern navigation at sea. Other folks claim there was a local landowner whose surname was Body, and it was his island. Not a true island today, it was once separate from the peninsula it now shares with Nags Head and the other northern beach towns. At some point in history, the maps began to reflect the spelling this place of interest enjoys now, whether by propagation of misspelling or just propaganda.

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