A small map published in late 1795 holds a special place of distinction in North Carolina’s cartographic history. Occacock from Actual Survey. By I. Price 1795 was the very first map drawn, engraved, and printed in North Carolina.*
The map was bound into an eight page pamphlet that provided sailing directions for the delicate passage through Ocracoke Inlet. The full title of the pamphlet is A description of Occacock [i.e. Ocracoke] Inlet : and of its coasts, islands, shoals, and anchorages, with the courses and distances to and from the most remarkable places, and directions to sail over the bar and thro’ the channels adorned with a map, taken by actual survey, by Jonathan Price.
The Outer Banks have a fascinating and ever-changing history. Inlets between the ocean and Pamlico Sound may open, close, and even migrate. One constant has been Ocracoke Inlet. It has remained stationary, open, and navigable since discovery in 1585. The importance of Ocracoke inlet is revealed in the first paragraph of Price’s pamphlet: It is the only one which admits vessels of any burden, bound to any of the ports of entry or delivery of the State of North Carolina, excepting those on Cape Fear river and those of Beaufort and Swannsborough.
At times, the village of Ocracoke was on the southern tip of a continuous sand bank peninsula that extended all the way north to Virginia. (The currently well-known Hatteras and Oregon inlets were opened by a hurricane in 1846.) Such was the case at the time Price wrote, Occacock was heretofore, and still retains the name of, an island. It is now a peninsula; a heap of sand having gradually filled up the space which divided it from the bank. As a result, the towns of Edenton, Bath, Washington, and New Bern, as well as ports further inland on the Roanoke, Tar, and Neuse Rivers, were dependent upon Ocracoke Inlet for maritime commerce.
Shell Castle, the reason for this map and pamphlet
Recognizing an opportunity for profit in the region’s maritime commerce, John Gray Blount of Washington partnered in 1789 with John Wallace of Portsmouth, NC, to purchase a “rock of oyster shells” just inside the inlet, “half a mile in length and about sixty feet in width.” This shoal was developed into a bustling commercial center which they named Shell Castle. According to Price, it contained John Wallace’s dwelling-house and its out-houses, which are commodious, here are ware-houses for a large quantity of produce and merchandize, a lumber yard and a wharf, along side of which a number of vessels are constantly riding. These late improvements contribute much to the usefulness of the establishment, and give it the appearance of a trading factory. A notary public’s office is kept here.
In addition to all the features described by Price, Shell Castle eventually supported a ship chandlery, a gristmill, a windmill, a general store, and a tavern.1 In 1794, thanks to an amendment introduced by Thomas Blount (John Gray’s brother and a U.S. congressman at the time), Congress authorized the erection of a lighted beacon at Shell Castle instead of at Ocracoke.2 The scale of Price’s map of “Occacock” did not allow a full delineation of all the improvements on Shell Castle, but a few are seen in this magnified close-up:
A contemporary illustration of Shell Castle was included via transfer print on Liverpool creamware manufactured circa 1805, one example of which is in the North Carolina Museum of History:
There are several additional examples of the above Shell Castle transfer print in private hands. If someone has one for sale, please use the “What’s on your mind?” comment box below to contact us.
Occacock from Actual Survey
I am desirous for yours as well as my own Interest to See the Chart of the Sea Coast Completed as I want about 20 to Send to the different Sea Ports of Europe to give an idea of the importance of Shell Castle[.]
John Gray Blount to Jonathan Price, May 1797
The above quote was in reference to a chart of the NC coast published by Price and Strother in 1798. However, it also illustrates the purpose of Price’s survey and description of “Occacock.” John Gray Blount had drawn a rough sketch of Ocracoke Inlet in early 1794; he sent it to Thomas Blount for the latter’s use in promoting Shell Castle as a site for a lighted beacon. John Gray Blount then assigned to Jonathan Price the task of creating a more formal map/chart of Ocracoke by actual survey, and of writing an attractive description. The 1795 map of “Occacock” was drawn by Jonathan Price from his own surveys, engraved by New Bern silversmith William Johnston, and printed in New Bern by Francois Xavier Martin. As such, it was the first map drawn, engraved, and printed in North Carolina.
Occacock from Actual Survey was a well-executed map by Price. The engraving quality was sufficient for its purpose, but certainly not up to the standards available in Philadelphia at the time. The local silversmith in New Bern was likely chosen for expediency and economics, though that is pure conjecture. Information pertaining to the timeliness and cost of the engraving and printing is not available.
The pamphlet was advertised for sale in several newspapers, the earliest being in December 1795
An internet search reveals few extant copies of the “Occacock” pamphlet containing the map, not surprising since the publisher advertised availability of only “A few copies”. The State Archives in Raleigh has the pamphlet with map. The Duke University Library possesses a copy of the pamphlet, lacking the map. In addition to the State Archives, one extant copy of the map (without pamphlet and with a New York provenance from the early 19th century) is known. If you confirm the survival of other copies, please let us know via the “What’s on your mind?” comment box below. The pamphlet was reprinted in the October 1926 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review, available on line via this link. It is also available for download as a pdf through JSTOR.
As alluded to earlier, Jonathan Price also participated in a survey of the NC coast in 1797, leading to the 1798 publication of this chart:
The above chart was also engraved by the New Bern silversmith, William Johnston.
Shell Castle had a prosperous but brief existence. In his pamphlet, Price wrote, It was thought by many, when this place was first improved, that the neighboring element would soon assert its right, and wash away the castle; but since the great storm in August, 1795, which hardly did any damage to it, their fears have vanished. Unfortunately, the “neighboring element” eventually did assert its right. Two hurricanes in 1806 caused severe damage from which Shell Castle never fully recovered. Jonathan Price was at Shell Castle when the second hurricane made a direct hit. Although Price survived both hurricanes, he lost most of his notes and equipment for another coast survey performed that year. By the War of 1812, the channel had shifted away from Shell Castle and maritime commerce shifted to nearby Ocracoke and Portsmouth.
Further reading: What is likely a treasure trove of information on Shell Castle can be found in the library of East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. It is an unpublished master’s thesis:
MCGUINN, PHILLIP HORNE. Shell Castle, A North Carolina Entrepôt, 1789-1820: An Historical and Archaeological Investigation. M.A., ECU, 2000. 452 pp.
Help wanted: Energetic hard-working individuals capable of providing corrections or additions to the above information. Submit application via the “What’s on your mind?” comment box below.
*Ok, time for a confession for benefit of the purists out there. Occacock from Actual Survey was not the first map printed in North Carolina. That distinction goes to a Plan of the City of Raleigh, also printed in New Bern by F. X. Martin, and first published as a separate in 1793. However, that rather unsophisticated plan was pieced together by typesetting; it was not printed from an engraved plate. An image, courtesy of Cohen & Taliaferro, is available via this link.