Diamond City, NC History

The Ca’e Bankers of Carteret

Josiah W. Bailey, Jr.

The first literate settlers began venturing into eastern Carteret County between 1650 and 1700. They found white people already living in the vicinity of Cape Lookout, westward along Shackleford Banks, northeastward along Core Banks to Portsmouth Island, and Ocracoke. Harkers Island and Cedar Island were populated; other islands was well. There likely were many more tenable islands in the sounds then than now. Sea Level was significantly lower; it has risen some eight inches in only the last century.

There was also a substantial native Indian population living in these places, more or less as neighbors. Apparently, a certain degree of friendship and cooperation prevailed; there are no folk tales or other indications of hostility. The white population spoke English, but could neither read nor write.

That was an uncommon accomplishment even among less isolated people. They did not own land individually but used it as a common asset like the air and adjacent waters. They lived by hunting and fishing, often moving there simple one room dwellings to be near productive hunting or fishing areas according to the seasons.

When asked how they came to be here, and where they'd come from, their answer was, "we've always lived here." Their origins remain an enigma today, and the subject of much local conjecture; the appealing explanation of descent from the fame Lost Colony is voiced occasionally, particularly on Cedar Island. The truth may be more complex.

In any event, Cape Lookout figured prominently in their story, and, in time, many of them came to refer to themselves as "Ca'e bankers;" obviously a contraction of Cape Bankers? Or was it "Cay-bankers," referring to the Spanish word "cay," a low sandy Island?

Cape Lookout is the central cape of the three great coastal promontories which punctuate the "outer banks" of North Carolina. This chain of sand banks stretching from the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Cape Fear River forms what the late Gretchen Guthrie, "Banker" poet, aptly termed a "chancel rail" enclosing a sanctuary, the Carolina tidelands. Midway, these "banks" converge in a near right-angle jutting into the North Atlantic, Cape Lookout. North of this Cape, the coastline trends northeastward; south of it, the trend is westward. On the westward side if this abrupt juncture, nature has contrived the best natural, deep water harbor between Charleston, South Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay. One result of this is that Cape Lookout is not merely a prominent geographical feature, it is a point of major historical interest.

In 1524 when Verrazano sighted these banks, somewhere north of Cape Fear, he noted the land trended toward the east. Only between Cape Lookout and Cape Fear would he find such a trend. He also found a friendly native population of significant numbers. It is not known how long before him, they had been living there. A fair guess may be thousands of years.

Sixty years later Arthur Barlow reported to Walter Raleigh that he found among the natives, children with "very fine auburn and chestnut coloured hair," compelling evidence that north European adventurers had been "fraternizing" with the native women at least thirty years earlier. It may have begun, indeed, with Verrazano's visit in 1524.

The arrival in 1585 of Ralph Lane and over a hundred men for the purpose of exploring and establishing a colony for Raleigh produced a quantum leap in the Europeanization of the natives. Lane's first landing in "Florida" was reported as follows:

"On the twenty-third (June), we were in great danger of a wreck on the Cape of Fear. The next day, we anchored in a harbor where we caught so much fish as would have brought us twenty pounds in London."

Cape Lookout is about eighty-five miles northeast of Cape Fear, a relatively easy day's sail. It was the only harbor in the vicinity. Furthermore, Lane did not describe the usual practice of putting out small boats to explore anchorages of uncertain depth, such as inlets and river mouths. They just sailed in and anchored in obviously deep water. Only Cape Lookout Bight (i.e. harbor) afforded the seaman such luxury. Cape Lookout, therefore, has the practically certain distinction of being Lane's first landing site in North America.

The second day following, these first colonists sailed up the coast to "Wococon" (perhaps, Ocracoke), put out their small boat to explore the inlet, entered it, and set up their base for exploring the Pamlico Sound area. Once the base was established, Lane adopted the practice of keeping a lookout party "down the beach" to warn of possible Spanish attack (Spain claimed this coast at the time) or other approaching ships. Cape Lookout is the logical point for such a lookout post. It is reasonable to infer that, indeed, its name was acquired from this practice. These colonists, over a hundred men, remained in these parts for practically a full year.

Francis Drake, with a fleet of twenty-three ships, arrived unexpectedly and fortunately in time to rescue them from the growing hostility of some of the mainland natives... Two years later, the famous "Lost Colony" arrived in the Pamlico area...

By the end of the seventeenth century, the "Banks people" were not distinguishable in appearance from other Europeans. Their customs, however, reflected native Indian culture. Their boats were dug-out canoes (locally known as "log-canoes"). Some had fire-arms, but ammunition was scarce and expensive; they frequently stalked and captured small game and waterfowl bare-handed, a talent sometimes employed into the twentieth century by local hunters following the stealthy techniques handed down from father to son.

Throughout the seventeenth century European ships increasingly availed themselves of the Cape Lookout harbor. It was the ideal departure point for vessels returning to Europe from the "Indies". The Gulf Stream sped them northward to that fine harbor where it was possible to heave the ships down for bottom maintenance, where there was plentiful fresh water, and where game and fish were cheerfully provided by a friendly native population, many of whom were, for all intents and purposes, "kinfolk". Furthermore, from Cape Lookout, the course was due east to the Azores and Gibraltar; no need to round the treacherous Cape Hatteras. Other shipping developed between the Chesapeake Bay communities and the Caribbean Islands. This shipping also found Cape Lookout Bight a convenient refuge to await suitable weather before the northward rounding of Cape Hatteras prior to entering the Bay. Occasionally a sailor "jumped ship" and settled with the native "bankers". Others remained involuntarily, survivors of shipwreck.

In l7l8 Captain Edward Teach, the notorious "Blackbeard", marooned seventeen men at or near Cape Lookout. By l723, New England whalers were appearing regularly. From them, the "Ca'e-bankers" learned to catch whales, using methods very like those used to the present day in the Azores. In the meantime, European settlers, moving by river from the north and west, had established the community of "Fish Towne", now Beaufort, at the juncture of Old Topsail Inlet (Beaufort Inlet), Newport River, and Bogue Sound. Though still relatively isolated across the sounds, the "Ca'e-bankers" now were in much more frequent contact with the increasing population of Europeans than with the banks natives. Assuming the native women bore their first children at age sixteen (probably younger), some twelve to thirteen generations bearing European genes had been produced, all the while mating with one another and the ever increasing population of European settlers. By mid-century, genetic absorption was complete. Cultural absorption was a slower process on the isolated sand banks.

Certain "banks" communities gradually evolved into permanent villages. Among them were Ocracoke, Portsmouth, Cedar Island, Diamond City, Bell's Island, Harkers Island, and Wades Shore. Not until the last decade of the nineteenth century did the "banks people" begin moving to the mainland in significant numbers. Access to the railroad at Morehead City for shipping their game and fish to market and access to schools for their children were the principal attractions of the mainland. The inconveniences of too frequently recurring hurricanes were also a factor. By l900 most of the "banks communities" had vanished. Among the few remaining today are Ocracoke, Portsmouth, Cedar Island, and Harkers Island. Of these, Portsmouth has no indigenous population; it is a "museum village". Ocracoke and Harkers Island have been so compromised in recent years by tourist and resort interests that their original character has been gravely obscured. Cedar Island is, perhaps, the best remaining example, in spite of being the southern terminal of the ferry to Ocracoke and many other concessions to modern ways.

Yet, in the midst of seemingly overwhelming modernity, it is still possible to find intriguing echoes, here and there, of the receding past. In one of the old communities, a family still maintains and jealously guards their "sacred ground" among the live oaks and myrtle bushes; there they reverently hang "totems" (in this case, whelk (conch) shells) from the branches to "ward off" evil spirits from the graves of their forefathers. It is not a tourist attraction, and its specific location is a secret to be respected. Banker poet, Gretchen Guthrie's "Graveyard on Shackleford Banks" poignantly sings of Indian ancestry in the following lines:

"Unmarked are the burial mounds
Of those -- bare-waisted and bronze-faced
Who roamed the Outer Banks before
Our fathers' way their way replaced.

Tribal chief meets family head
In time rolled back through many doors
Ancestral Bankers talk tonight
The trees are silent on the shore."

Following their migration to mainland locations at the beginning of the present century, the "Ca'e-Bankers" continued to pursue fish and game for their livelihood; the children enrolled in the local schools and the process of a graceful merging into the life of the mainland began. In less than a century, the "Ca'e-Bankers" have vanished in much the same way as they originated, absorbed into a more dynamic culture. Few of their present day descendents are aware how literally their ancestors had spoken when they said: "We've always lived here." Yet many of them experience a primal excitement when the roe mullet schools in October, when a wild goose honks on a moonlit night in late November, or when, in the early spring, a finback whale breaches with a great sighing sound in Cape Lookout Bight. Some feel a "hankering" now and then to go back to the banks, not as tourists go to the beach to frolic in surf and sand, but to stay for days -- even weeks -- at a time, living off nature's abundance, relishing the isolation, the primitiveness; stirring memories remaining only in the blood, incarnating nameless bronze-faced ancestors; figuratively, to tend the totems over their sacred grounds, and so to renew their spirits.

* Josiah Bailey was a local historian and storyteller and Captain of the Diamond City sailing ferry to Cape Lookout. He possessed a love and respect for Ca’e Banks that he shared with all who was fortunate enough to know him. He will be missed always. —KA

Reprinted from "The Mailboat," Vol. 1, Nos 1&2

From "Our Shared Past" prepared for the Diamond City & Ca'e Bankers Reunion, August 1999 as a collection of writings, research and recollections to tell the story of the Banks communities.
Copyright 1995, Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
All rights reserved.


"The Ca'e Bankers of Carteret" was written by Josiah W. Bailey, Jr. rather than Sr. JWB, Sr. was a US Senator from Raleigh who dies in 1948 and was the father of the author. His grandson is a former teacher who still lives in the county and is named JWB, III. — Sammy Hughes

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