Occacock from Actual Survey

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.*

Occacock from Actual Survey by Jonathan Price

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 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.

Background

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 open, relatively stationary, and navigable since discovery in 1585.1 In his pamphlet, Jonathan Price described Occacock as follows:  


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.


Although this blog writer originally thought Price was referring to the entirety of what we now call Ocracoke Island, Price was referring only to the small area of present-day Ocracoke village near the southern end of Ocracoke Island. This is readily apparent from the subsequent statements by Price:


It continues to have its former appearance from the sea; the green trees, that cover it, strikingly distinguishing it from the sandy bank to which it has been joined. Its length is three miles, and its breadth two and one half.


Those dimensions are a much closer match to the region of Ocracoke village than to the island of Ocracoke.
2 One can see the broad based peninsula that is home to Ocracoke village on this satellite view:

 

 

Shell Castle, the reason for this map and pamphlet

The importance of nearby 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.

Recognizing an opportunity for profit in the region’s maritime commerce, John Gray Blount of Washington partnered in 1789 with John Wallace of  Portsmouth, to purchase a “rock of oyster shells…  half a mile in length and about sixty feet in width,” just inside the Ocracoke Inlet. 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.3 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.4 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:

Close-up of Shell Castle, just inside Ocracoke Inlet, as depicted on Jonathan Price's Occacock from Actual Survey, 1795.

Close-up of Shell Castle, just inside Ocracoke Inlet, as depicted on Jonathan Price’s Occacock from Actual Survey, 1795.

 

A contemporary illustration of Shell Castle was included via transfer print on Liverpool creamware manufactured as early as 1797,5 one example of which is in the North Carolina Museum of History:6

 A north View of Gov'r Wallace's Shell Castle & Harbour North CarolinaPanoramic view of Shell Castle transfer print
Upper left, A north View of Gov’r Wallace’s Shell Castle & Harbour North Carolina, from the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History. Upper right, panoramic view of the Shell Castle transfer print.

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.

Let’s return to the map: 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

1795 ad for A Description of Occacock Inlet

From the December 26, 1795, issue of the North-Carolina Gazette, page 4, column 3. Image provided by the State Archives of North Carolina. http://cdm16062.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15016coll1/id/14651/rec/6

Only two extant copies of the “Occacock” pamphlet have been located. The State Archives in Raleigh has the pamphlet with map. The Duke University Library possesses an example 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 of the map and/or pamphlet, 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:

Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library Map Collection.

Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library Map Collection.

The above chart was also engraved by the New Bern silversmith, William Johnston.

Epilogue

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” did assert its right eleven years later. 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 an updated coastal survey he was performing 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. Unfortunately, it has not been made available on line.

*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 the antiquarian map firm of Cohen & Taliaferro, is available via this link.

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.

References

  1. If you want to read more about the history of inlets on the Outer Banks, try the following:
    • Dunbar, Gary Seamans, “Historical Geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks” (1956). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. Accessed 22 September 2017 at http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1166&context=gradschool_disstheses. See digital page 292 of 301 (original text page 281) for a chart showing historic inlets on the Outer Banks.
    • Mallinson, David J., et al, “Past, Present and Future Inlets of the Outer Banks Barrier Islands, North Carolina”, (2008). Department of Geological Sciences, East Carolina University. Accessed 22 September 2017 at http://www.ecu.edu/cs-acad/icsp/upload/PastPresentAndFutureInletsDec2008.pdf. Digital page 10/28 has a nice chart showing not only documented historic inlets, but also previously undocumented inlet channels discovered using ground-penetrating radar data.
  2. The author is indebted to Philip Howard of Ocracoke for providing this information and clarification. Philip lives on Ocracoke Island and writes a blog (https://villagecraftsmen.blogspot.com/) about daily island life, history, and traditions.
  3. See http://ncpedia.org/shell-castle
  4. As a result, a lighthouse at Ocracoke was not constructed until 1823 – see https://www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/ols.htm
  5. “I send you a small pitcher with the map of Shell Castle on it.” – postscript to a letter from John Wallace to John Gray Blount on November 26, 1797, as quoted by Bradford Rauschenberg in “Success To The Tuley…” MESDA Journal, vol. 2, no. 1 (May 1976): 1-26; online: https://archive.org/details/journalofearlyso21muse
  6. The NCMH web site does not seem to maintain permanent URLs for their objects; try searching for “H.1933.12.51” (include the quotation marks) on their collections search page…which I hope is a permanent link

6 thoughts on “Occacock from Actual Survey

  1. very interesting that shell castle….
    I have the first two of three volumes of the john gray blount letters…
    i will have to go back revisit those pertinient, if any, correspondences
    thanks as always for the great posts…
    I quite enjoy them
    just as a side note….
    I had a rustic rural home (some might call cabin) in Surry county
    that a few years ago I sold to a young fellow named Will Cumming
    Will was a friend of my late son for whom I bought the cabin for…
    the home was built by Oscar Jenkins who was a local banjo player who had a unique
    two finger picking style and who recorded and somewhat “toured” with Tommy Jarell and Fred Cockerham and in fact one of the album cover photos of that trio was taken out at the cabin…
    Wills dad, I believe, is a professor at Washington and Lee in Lexington Va.
    and I didn’t know, and hadn’t had a chance to ask Will himself since I signed up for this blog, if there was any connection.
    thanks

  2. Is it possible to purchase a facsimile or copy of the Price map of 1795? I’m writing a novel set on Shell Castle and Portsmouth, and I’d love to have a copy. You seem to have a great deal of info on Blount and Wallace — I’ve tried in vain to obtain dissertations from ECU on Shell Castle — I’d appreciate any help you can give me.

  3. Greetings!
    I live on Ocracoke Island and write a blog (https://villagecraftsmen.blogspot.com/) about daily island life, history, and traditions.
    When I first learned of Price’s “Description of Occacock Inlet” I was puzzled by the sentence you quote in this post (“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.”) In what sense had Ocracoke, heretofore an island, become a peninsula, I wondered. I believe I now understand that sentence, and it differs from your explanation.
    You write, “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….”
    I doubt that when Price wrote there were no other inlets north of Ocracoke. David Stick lists the “Principal Outer Banks Inlets” on page 9 of his book, The Outer Banks of North Carolina. Stick writes, “Between the Virginia line and Cape Lookout there have been 25 different inlets which remained open long enough to acquire names and appear on printed maps, and there have been dozens of others which were only temporary cuts.”
    Looking down Stick’s list I note the following inlets which opened before 1795, and may have still been open at the time of Price’s description. They are:
    New Currituck (just south of the Virginia/North Carolina boundary) 1730s – 1828
    Caffeys 1790s -early 1800s
    Crow 1790s – 1790s
    Roanoke pre-1657 – 1780-1810
    New (Chickinacommock) 1730s – 1930s (periodic)
    Of course, it is possible there was “a continuous sand bank peninsula that extended all the way north to Virginia.” New Currituck Inlet would qualify as the northern limit of the Banks; Caffeys may have formed after 1795; Crow may not have existed in 1795; Roanoke may have been closed in 1795; and New Inlet, because it is “periodic,” may not have existed in 1795. Knowing the dynamic nature of the Outer Banks I find it difficult to believe no other inlets (other than Ocracoke) existed at the time of Price’s writing.
    I think Price is using “Ocracoke” to describe, not the entire island, but only the area of the present-day village. This must have been, at one time, an “inside island” much like Roanoke Island is today, separated from the “sandy banks.” I am no geologist, but I believe the village area of Ocracoke Island is of a different geological formation. Price even describes “the green trees, that cover it, strikingly distinguishing it from the sandy bank to which it has been joined.”
    So “Ocracoke” (the village area) was “heretofore a [separate] island” which became joined to the “sandy banks” as sea levels rose and “gradually filled up the space which divided it from the bank.” In this sense, in 1795 it had become a “peninsula.”
    I remember older islanders talking about “Nigh Inlet,” which periodically cut Ocracoke Village off from the rest of the island. Even as late as the 1970s and early 1980s the area between the edge of the village and the National Park Service Campground was a tidal flat that periodically flooded during high tides.
    If I am correct, and sea levels continue to rise, the area of Ocracoke Village will, in some distant future, form a cape, and eventually become offshore shoals.
    An explanatory note: As sea levels rise the Outer Banks “migrate” to the west as sand is swept over the islands during storms. A more stable inside island would not migrate. Thus, the “sandy banks” will eventually bump up against an inside island, merging the two.

    Thank you for your blog!

  4. One more comment on Price’s description of Occacock: After writing that Occacock “continues to have its former appearance from the sea; the green -trees, that cover it, strikingly distinguishing it from the sandy bank to which it has been joined,” he adds, “Its length is three miles, and its breadth two and one half.” That description corresponds very closely with both the appearance and approximate size of Ocracoke village today.

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