Friday, April 30, 2010


[This early 1900s story was told by Alexander Hunter.]

Cap'n Joe Peyton lived down on Currituck Sound, North Carolina. He owned a big house, a long seine, one hundred acres of land, a thousand or more acres of marsh, a couple of double-barreled guns, a Chesapeake Bay dog, a brier-root pipe, and he had a very fine-looking wife.

"Cap'n Peyton," as he was called by his acquaintances, and just plain "Joe" by his intimates, was a man somewhere in the fifties, over six feet tall, with a form which, in spite of its decided embonpoint, indicated great strength and vigor. … Cap'n Peyton was also the owner of a small sloop, named the Sally Lunn, in which he offered to take a party along the North Carolina coast, as far down as they might wish to go, and to remain as long as they desired to stay.

"I don't want no pay for myself, or for the boat," he wrote, "but you may furnish the solids and the liquids, and pay my boatmen and a cook. I would enjoy a little cruise; so get your party together and I will meet you at Van Slyck's landing.

[Alexander Hunter gathered a party consisting of Bill Cracklin, Tom Pilcher, Dick Long, Jack Yates, and Charlie Ransom and on August 26, year unknown, they left Norfolk on the paddle-wheel steamer Comet. Only Alexander and Bill had experience and the others were called the "Innocents." The Comet transported them through the Dismal Swamp to Currituck Sound. Hunter described the trip.]

The canal is only a few feet wide, and it required skillful steering when the steamer rounded the sharp bends. She had to shave the points very closely to keep her nose out of the opposite bank, and when another steamer was met each had to hug its respective bank until its bilge was in the mud and the branches of the trees overhanging the canal swept across the deck, causing the passengers to "lie low " to avoid being brushed off into the black waters beneath.

It was, however, when the boat met a raft of cypress logs,—a raft sometimes three thousand feet in length,—drawn by a wheezing, asthmatic tug, that the steersman got in his fine work. There was a clanging of bells on the Comet, backing and filling, sudden bumps which indicated that the yielding logs had been struck, and a general commotion on both sides. Frequently the roustabouts of the steamer would jump onto the raft and struggle desperately to keep the logs from becoming lodged in the paddlewheels. But all were in good humor; there were no oaths and no quarreling. Perhaps it was as well, for hidden on the raft somewhere was a gun, which was used to shoot muskrats, or to obtain a mess of blackbirds for supper, and the steersman on the Comet had a double barrel standing conveniently near with which to knock over a summer-duck or a flock of shorebirds. It does not do to swear at a man down there, where a curse is equivalent to a blow.

[They reached Van Slyck's Landing, now Poplar Branch, also known as Currituck Narrows, where they met Cap'n Peyton.]

We all went to the only store in the place, to provision our craft. We were not sparing; every man had a suggestion as to what he would like, and if the article of his choice was in the store it was bought. When it seemed likely that we would forget something, the storekeeper would kindly prompt us until we had nearly exhausted his stock, and it seemed as if we had enough to feed a regiment for the summer.

[They reached Captain Peyton's after dark.]

We were up betimes, however, and took a survey of the premises. It was a sporting-club-house of which our friend was the keeper. The building was as large as a town hotel, and elegantly furnished. The club numbered some twenty-five sportsmen from New York. The shares were worth five thousand dollars each. The preserves embraced three thousand acres of swamp land and water, and was considered the best place for common ducks in Currituck Sound.

[This was probably the Currituck Club, the oldest Duck Club in America.]

I visited the wild-fowl pond in which were confined the live decoys. There were two swans, eight or ten wild geese, and quite a number of common ducks; some, like the geese and swan, were originally wild, but had been crippled and then captured. … The fowls were fed every night with corn.

The Cap'n [told me]: "The wild geese I let loose early every morning, and they sail about the sound, but always return in the evening to get their feed; but I have to keep them penned up in May and November, for their instinct then asserts itself, and they would migrate and return no more. I have lost many that way."

"Do the geese understand their business?" I asked.

"Just as well as I do," he answered. "Why, there are some geese in there that do not require to have gyves [a shackle or fetter] on to be anchored; they stay of their own accord, and seem to enjoy luring their brethren to their death; and some even swim alongside the boat as it returns in the evening."

[The next morning they started their voyage. The Captain had replaced the ballast with watermelons.]

[We] made our first stop at Nag's Head [Dare County], a celebrated resort in the olden days, but at this time far on the down grade. The hotel, or tavern rather, was built after the dry goods box style, in which there are no curves, or any attempt at architecture. Three porches ran around it, and the whole structure, being destitute of paint or color, looked like an infirm poorhouse which would some day fall from sheer age and weakness.

It stood upon a strip of land about a hundred yards distant either way from the ocean and Roanoke Sound; but the wind had reared huge mountains of sand on the beach, which were much higher than the hotel, completely shutting out the view of the ocean as well as intercepting the salt sea breeze. Only the shallow sound was visible to the guests, and a wharf, run out several hundred yards into the channel, was their favorite place for exercise.

The interior of the hotel was unique, to say the least. The house was erected upon piles in the shape of a square, with a courtyard in the center, covered with black mud and some four inches of water, wherein reposed a huge hog, while around him ducks were swimming. The scene was very much like that of the rear of an Irish tenement house in the suburbs of some great city.

[In the bar,] the standard drink, but every now and then some ancient, white-headed fellow will totter up to the bar and call for the once famous "whiskey toddy."

Our next stopping-place was Manteo, a small town opposite Nag's Head, the oldest settlement in North Carolina. …

[In Manteo they hired a man, Wise, to act as their guide at the cost of $2 per day and "found."]

… The sunlight was barely sufficient to enable us to see to cast off the line which held the Sally Lunn to the wharf. There was a fine breeze blowing and the sloop sprang along like a bounding horse. It was a delightful sail and the night was salubrious. The "Innocents" were at their best; they sang, or tried to sing, laughed, joked, and were in the best possible spirits.

[The NC coast was desolate. There were lifesaving stations every 5 miles, and an occasional club house, but little else. There were five sounds separated from the ocean by the Outer Banks— a narrow strip of land a hundred miles long and from a hundred yards to a mile wide. See map at the end of the story.]

[They reached their destination a little after midnight.]

A lantern was lighted, and we saw a rough plank shanty which had been built upon a platform close to the shore. Wise said it belonged to a fisherman who used to stretch a gill-net across the channel in the spring and summer, and that we were to bunk there for the night, as the sloop had neither cabin nor shelter. Wise might have saved his breath, for the mosquitoes, attracted by the light, began to swarm around us; then there was the murmur of profane language, and the sound of whisking of clothes and handkerchiefs through the air. It was a hopeless fight, for they came in armies—millions, waves upon waves. Then we scrambled out onto the creaky, rickety old platform.

"Cap'n, for Heaven's sake keep that lantern in the boat!" sang out Bill Cracklin, who was balancing himself on a loose plank, fearing every minute to break through and tumble into the water.

"If he does, how can we see to get into this old shebang?" called out Tom Pilcher. "Pass that lantern up here, somebody!"

"If I do, all the mosquitoes will come too," said Bill.

"Will come?" said Tom sarcastically. "They are eating me alive this minute."

"God Lord, let's do something!" howled Jack Yates. "These insects sting like wasps."

Striking a match we found that the door of the shanty was barred, but the only window in the house was open, so I crawled in and unbarred the door, and the crowd rushed in and shut the door and the window. Another match's wavering gleam enabled us to take a fleeting view of the interior.

It was a mere shell, used for storing fish, although two bunks with some tattered bedclothes showed that it was a bedchamber as well. But, ye gods, the odor! It was simply horrible, sickening! The bugs! Pah! We felt our blood run cold.

The lantern was brought, and the details became clearer and more loathsome. Evidently no one had been in the place for months, and a barrel of weak brine which stood in one corner contained decayed fish. Jack Yates rushed outside, and we heard him having an attack of sea-sickness in its worst phase.

In another corner was a tub with the remains of spawn, offal and odds and ends of every kind of fish and crab that swims. This was thrown into the stream by Sam, the cook, but that was all he could do; then we took the lamp and looked around for a place to sleep.

To most of the "Innocents," who couldn't sleep without two sheets, a hair pillow and spring mattress, the sight of those moldering, loud-smelling rags was not conducive to good temper, and grumbling broke out afresh.

"Well," said Yates, "I have slept in the cabins of the Canadian trappers, but they were fine hotels compared to this."

"A roustabout's pallet on board a canal-boat is heaven to this!" cried Dick Long. "I'm going to lie down on the floor."

We had brought with us a heavy, padded coverlet and one blanket to each man. It was Hobson's choice as to where we were to lie. The odor still remained; nothing short of burning down the shanty would destroy that. The bugs were still there, and plenty of other insects that had established headquarters in the place were no doubt waiting to make our acquaintance.

Some of the party were lying on the floor; Jack Yates and I had squeezed into one of the bunks, and it was quiet for about five minutes, as each man tried to sink peacefully into slumber; no sound disturbed us save the hum of the mosquito. Suddenly came the sound of Jack's quavering voice: "It's hot enough to roast a pig in this hole; can't somebody open the door?"

"No! Somebody nor nobody is going to open the door; there are enough mosquitoes in here now," Bill Cracklin, who was lying against it, growled out.

"Boys, it's hot; fearfully hot!" said Pilcher. "I can't sleep; I feel now like a lobster boiled alive."

"Oh!" said Dick Long, "their sufferings are nothing compared to mine. I'm roasted and my carcass has been sucked dry by the cursed insects."

Then followed a slap and a hearty malediction.

"Fellows," wailed Jack, "can't we light the lantern? If I must die I want my glazing eyes to rest on my friends' loved faces; this Cimmerian darkness is torture—oh, confound the mosquitoes!"

"The lamp—the lantern—let's have a light!" from several. Then up spoke our Quintus Curtius, otherwise Portly Bill: "Light the lantern! Boys, are you crazy? Why, this old shebang is full of knot-holes, and if a light shines there will be a million mosquitoes."

"There are that many in here now! " howled Tom.

"No, there ain't," responded Bill soothingly. "The few that are in here now will soon get full; let them alone, and they will let you alone."

"Just listen to him," cried Charley, the infant. "He knows they won't tackle his tough old hide so long as they can feed on me."

"For my part," said Long, "I don't know which is the worst, the heat, the stink, or the mosquitoes."

"Oh, the heat," said Jack. "I feel like the old man who died unconverted. Shall I tell you about it?"

"Yes, go ahead," cried several.

"Well, there was an old couple, very poor, who lived near a large city. The woman was a firm believer, but the man had no faith to speak of. At last the old fellow fell sick, and grew steadily worse. Despite the grief and admonitions of his wife, he held stubbornly to his disbelief in hell. Several weeks after his death his aged wife went into the city to sell some chickens and blackberries. While there she heard of a clairvoyant who could put people in direct communication with the dead. So she hied herself to the ghostly go-between and asked to have speech with her husband; and the following conversation was held: "John, are you happy?"

A gruff "No," mingled with a strong smell of sulphur, was the reply.

"If there is anything I can do for you, John, call on me."

"All right; please send me by express a palm leaf fan, a suit of summer clothes, and a barrel of ice-water."

When the laughter had died away after this narrative, somebody inquired where the Cap'n was.

Bill replied that he, Wise, and the cook were on the boat, and he added, "By George, listen to that! Why, dem my buttons if it ain't a camp meeting hymn; they will be asleep soon, for that hymn business is the last stage."

"Say, has any fellow got a match?" queried Charley Ransom.

"What do you want it for?"

"Oh, I want it for fun," sarcastically. "Say, Bill, lend me your tobacco-bag."

He filled his pipe, struck a match, and sitting cross-legged, declared he enjoyed this smoke more than any he had ever had. That stirred up the sufferers, and soon match after match was ignited, showing each man with his face swathed in some garment. Soon little dull gleams shone here and there, and the room was rapidly filled with smoke. It must have made the mosquitoes "sit up and take notice," for they tortured us no more that night, and soon the snores of the "Innocents " indicated that they were at peace with the world and mankind for the time being.

The sun was showing its broad disk over the ocean brim when, yawning and gasping, the crowd came out of the cabin. Some disrobed and plunged into the water, and the salt bath acted like an elixir; others commenced fishing from the platform, but caught nothing save crabs.

[The party enjoyed a breakfast of coffee, crabs, fried fish, oysters, ham, roasted tomatoes and potatoes. After breakfast, they prepared to fish. They took their positions where the inlet made a sharp curve.]

Each man had a cord about thirty yards long; the hook was of large size, protected y a shank of copper wire, and a half-pound sinker was attached; the bait used was clams, crabs, or a strip of flesh cut from the sea trout. We stood in a line about ten feet apart. The bank was about two feet above the swelling tide and sloped at an acute angle. Nearly all the "Innocents" were novices at hand-line fishing. …

Bill had tied one end of his string to his suspenders. He shot the lead and away it sped heavenward; and as Bill stood watching it with a gratified smile he felt a twitch; his suspenders jerked from the button, and away went the line and disappeared under the waves. Bill stared with his mouth open for fully a minute, then went back to the sloop to hunt up another line. … In the mean time, the slingers were having all sorts of mishaps.

Jack Yates had lassoed himself helpless. He did accidentally, in one throw, what it would take a man ten minutes' hard work to perform. His arms and legs were bound fast by the encircling line, and Wise had to use time and patience to get him loose again. Tom Pilcher had swung the lead around his head and let it go. It started all right, but the line became entangled in a knot, and Tom was sitting on the ground picking away to get it untwisted. Dick Long sent his missile straight, as did Wise; but I was cutting a hook out of my pantaloons, a hook that had gone through beyond the barb.

Bill had returned by this time. He had obtained a line and hook, but in his hurry he could not find the box wherein we kept our tackle, although he discovered an old rusty iron ring-bolt, about six inches in diameter, which he used for a sinker. He came running down, and hastily baiting his hook, launched the line into the air. It caught, and the sinker, describing a parabolic curve, struck me on the back of the head, making me see more stars in a second than I had observed in all my lifetime. I mildly reproved him as I rubbed my head and then bathed it in the stream. I told him if he ever caught me close enough to him hereafter he was at liberty to knock my brains out with his old junk-shop line. Bill snickered and said that I did not have enough brains to bait a fishhook.

[Eventually, the fishermen had a good catch. By noon, they were exausted; they gave up fishing and feasted on iced watermelon. In the evening, they decided to move further south to New Inlet. Here they found a solid island and the New Inlet life-saving station. They pitched their tents and Parker, the cook, prepared supper. Capt. J. W. Westcott, keeper of the life-saving station, paid them a visit.]

He had just returned from Bodie's Island, one of the places that President Cleveland was so fond of visiting, and where the shooting of both wild fowl and bay-birds was very good. The first day's shooting at this place resulted in the President bagging one hundred and sixty baybirds and four curlews. … One of the coast guards, who was with Mr. Cleveland, told me that the President tumbled over nine out of every ten birds he fired at. …

[After supper, Capt. Westcott invited them to the station where they spent the night in the sleeping apartment which had camp cots and screened windows. The next day, they continued fishing with great success.]

"Well, boys," said Cap'n Peyton the next morning after breakfast, what's the plans for to-day?"

"I'm going a-fishing," said Dick Long.

"So will I," spoke up Bill, Tom and Jack.

"That's all right. Here, Wise," he shouted, "get the bait and carry these gentlemen to the best fishing-grounds."

"Well, Cap'n, what do you intend to do?"

"Oh, I reckon I'll lay around."

"If that's all you have to do, suppose you send a boy, and telephone to Bodie's Island Life-Saving Station. You know them, don't you?"

The Cap'n laughed.Know 'em?" he said. "Why, I know every man, woman and child from Currituck to Hatteras."

"Who is the keeper of the Bodie's Island Station?"

"Oh, he's an old darky, named Jake, who used to wait on me during the war. It is the only station manned by a colored crew on the Atlantic Coast, I believe."

"That's exactly right. Send Sam to the New Inlet and let him telephone Jake to meet us with a cart; I want to go over Bodie's Island."

Two hours later we made a run across the inlet and found "Uncle Jake," as he was called, awaiting us with a cart and two strong mules. The keeper … was, "before the war," the valet of a rich man who lived on Roanoke Island, who taught him to read and write. Jake was a splendid waterman, and when the station was established in 1870 he was chosen chief. His establishment was as neat as a pin, and his crew were a fine, lusty set of men.

[Jake gave them a tour and told them stories about Blackbeard and his many marriages. Supposedly, there were half a dozen Dare Co. residents who were descendants of Blackbeard.]

I examined the houses of the wreckers, who lived and pursued their calling prior to the year 1870. Some of the dwellings were large and roomy, and if walls could talk, what tales might they not tell of dark conspiracies, the dividing of plunder and the heavy drinking of old liquors and wines that had been saved from the various wrecks. I counted the remains of seventeen vessels lying upon Bodie's Island. This coast is the most dreaded by mariners of any in the world. Even now, with all the appliances of steam, weather bureau, and life-saving station, scores of ships are wrecked on the hundred miles of coast from Cape Henry to Hatteras.

Before the establishment of the stations and the erection of the light-houses, this coast was like the vortex of hell to sailors. The insidious current inshore, the frequent storms, the dense fogs and the sandbars, all combined to make the wrecks frequent and complete. Nowadays, a greater portion of the freight is carried in the vast, roomy iron steamers that rarely are driven ashore. But in the olden days all merchandise went on wooden bottoms, and then the wreckers flourished on this island. They had their own way then, for the canal connecting the North Carolina sounds had not been constructed, and this section was as isolated as an island in the Pacific Ocean.

I saw the house of the most noted wrecker on the coast, Captain Jesse Etheridge. The dwelling was originally well made, of plank, with a huge fireplace. For more than a score of years no hand had touched the house; the planks and the weather-boarding had dropped from their fastenings, and the whole house had a tumble-down appearance. The quaint furniture was just as the last occupant had left it. I took a sketch of the place when I left.

[They next day was Sunday and the fishermen took the day off. On Monday, they planned to provide a magnificent dinner for themselves. Hunter and Yates were rowed to Bodie's island to hunt birds. By mid-day Hunter had 3 dozen snipe and two curlews and Jack had 4 dozen birds and 5 curlews. While they waited to be picked up, they fished and for a while caught large sea trout to add to the feast. The day was a typical August day, blistering hot.]

Upon our return we had a banquet fit for the gods. … We had eel and catfish stew, a famous Dare County cured ham, broiled baybirds, sheepshead, trout, clam chowder, roasted drumfish, soft crabs, and sweet potatoes; and the entertainment wound up with a tureen of real diamond-back terrapin stew. It was a jovial evening we spent.

The next morning Cap'n Peyton was in high glee. He had gone down to the beach to take his morning swim, and had heard and seen drumfish in the breakers. … The keeper fortunately had enough lines to go around. They were exactly the kind used for catching codfish, about an eighth of an inch in diameter, with a large hook tied to a wire leader, the sinker weighing nearly one-half pound.

"Now," said the Cap'n, "we have got to catch some sand crabs and fiddlers for bait."

We burst out laughing, for we had all tried to catch this white, ghostly looking crustacean that had its hole a short distance from the high-water mark, but although we could see hundreds within a pistol shot distance, we could not capture a single one.…

"You catch them, Cap'n, and we will eat them, claws and all—and eat them raw, too."

"I'll take you at your word," he said.

So he fell to work with a spade that we had not observed, and after digging about two feet found the astonished crab, took it up, and, handing it to Bill Cracklin, told him to "chaw it up."

Well, we had to acknowledge the corn, and confess that our skipper knew more of fishing than all of our party put together. We caught a basketful of bait, and then strung out along the surf and proceeded to take off our lower garments, while some went "the whole hog," and kept nothing on but their hats. I had not forgotten my experience with the handlines, and I knew that if one of those huge sinkers should hit me it would be my passport to "Kingdom Come," so I went away up the shore, and there entered the surf. I gave the line a sling that ought to have sent it to its utmost length, but it only tangled up and dropped a few feet off. I then tried the scientific way and got it out at last.

It is indispensable that the sinker shall be shot beyond the breakers, and to do this the thrower must stand up to his hips in the water and cast the lead fully ninety feet. To accomplish this feat the line must be coiled in the left hand, the right hand gives the lead a twirl and lets it go, and it hums through the air at an angle of forty degrees. The coil, following the sinker in a long, arching spiral, finally straightens to a parabola, and disappears with a loud splash far in the blue, heaving billows.

Drum-fishing is… the most exhilarating kind of fishing to be found on the coast. …

I baited and made a beautiful throw, and the bait was seized at once. I turned to the land, put the line over my shoulder and ran. It was a good pull, and I did not stop until the fish was floundering on the sand above the high-water mark. It was a beauty, and would weigh, Cap'n Peyton judged, at least twelve pounds. I stood panting, but flushed and thrilled with delight, as I viewed the lusty fellow, his scales flashing back the light and changing from golden sheen to silver and emerald. …I caught three more drums, the largest a fifteen pounder, and I was pretty well tired out with whirling the lead, drawing in the long line and re-baiting the hook, as well as making my way through the water.

[By the end of the day, they had 31 drums, the largest weighing 35 pounds.]

The one we had for dinner was larded and put into a pan half full of water, then it was roasted in a hot oven. It weighed a little over seven pounds, yet furnished the entire party. …

[A couple of days later, Hunter and Jack Yates visited Roanoke Island and the light-house there. They spent the day visiting with the keeper and his crew who gave them tips about sporting matters in the area. They spent two days on Roanoke Island and when they returned they found the rest of the party ready to return to civilization.]

We [Alexander Hunter and Bill Cracklin] determined to go to Cape Hatteras by getting each station to furnish us a mule team. The next morning we bade good-by and bon voyage to our friends, and watched the Sally Lunn as she sailed away in the distance.

Source: The Huntsman in the South, Vol. 1 by Alexander Hunter 1908. This is a Google book and the story can be read in its entirety on Google.

Hunter does not tell us the year of his trip, but it must have been prior to 1908.

No comments:

Post a Comment