Harkers Island, NC Brief History

The Ca'e Bankers and their Brogue

James Newman Willis

Out of the grey mists of time and the vast expanse of sand and sea of the Outer Banks of North Carolina there arose a people whose origin was lost in the depths of history unrecorded. They were fiercely independent and suspicious of all authority, yet they lived together in settlements and worked together in crews.

These people stood out from all their neighbors in three main ways. They were whalers, pursuers of the great leviathans of the briny deep in little rowboats, which they launched from the shores of their home island; they were loon eaters, consuming with relish a bird that others would not even shoot at, much less eat; and they were speakers of an ancient dialect of English so different from that of other Americans that even some of their Mainland neighbors could not always understand them.

In the 1700s they were recorded as living on the sandbanks, which at that time extended as one continuous island from Old Topsail (now Beaufort) Inlet on the south to Old Drum Inlet on the north and included Cape Lookout. This island of sandbanks was named Cape Lookout Banks, but they called it "Ca'e Banks" and called themselves by "crowds" according to the settlement they were from, such as "that crowd from Wades Shore." They were the Ca'e Bankers, my ancestors. The dialect of English they spoke was the Ca'e Banks Brogue.

In the mid-1800s many of the Ca'e Bankers moved across Beaufort Inlet to Bogue Banks in pursuit of more room and better fishing, whaling, and hunting. Toward the end of the century, however, storms and blowing sand took their toll and forced all of these Bankers to move their homes.

Many from Ca'e and Bogue Banks moved to the Mainland, actually taking their homes with them across the sounds. They settled all along the shore from one end of Carteret County to the other. Their main settlements were at Broad Creek, Marshallberg, Stacy, and the Promise' Land in Morehead City. Only two crowds retained their isolation from the Mainland, one group that settled on Harkers Island between Ca'e Banks and the Mainland, and another that moved a short distance to the east'ard on Bogue Banks to a new home at Salter Path. So you see, a great many of the people of Carteret County are descended from this timeless people of Cape Lookout Banks, and much of the modern speech of the county has come down to us from this dialect out of the distant past, the Ca'e Banks Brogue.

The Undertaking

Since 1975 I have given many short talks on the Ca'e Banks Brogue, but have never covered all aspects of the dialect. To do so would have taken much longer than a one-hour talk. So, I have decided to embark upon a great undertaking. In a series of articles, I shall try to outline the story of our Brogue and of how I think it descended from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon. This story will not be another glossary or dictionary, since we already have The Cousin Shamus Dictionary of Down East Words & Sayings, Island Born and Bred, and Carteret Love Song. Instead it will be a description of the structure of the dialect and of how our language grew in one direction, while that of "proper" America and Britain grew in another. In this undertaking I shall not only defend our Brogue, but shall advocate its acquisition by those who would speak "a more perfect English."

The Qualifications of the Author

Some of you will probably want to know my qualifications for this undertaking. I am not one of the "experts" from upcountry, and was not formally educated in the linguistics of the "Brogue" at any of the prestigious upstate universities. These establishments offered no programs for the study of our dialect when I was in college. However, although I lack the above, by inheritance and by the help of my kith and kin, I have acquired another kind of background and education, which should help me qualify for this endeavor.

I am descended from the Ca'e Banker families of Lewis, Hancock, Mason, and Moore, and my great-great-grandfather, Manaen Mason, was Keeper of Cape Lookout Light in 1870. In 1934 I was born in Morehead City and raised thereafter on Bogue Banks at Atlantic Beach.

In the "off" season (for tourists) we lived in the Atlantic Beach Hotel where my father had been caretaker since 1931. But, until I was nine years old, in the summertime, in order to make room for the "summer" crowd, we moved over to my grandparents' home in Morehead. They lived on the periphery of the Promise' Land at 1008 Evans Street, right across the street from "Uncle John" Lewis, the whaler from Ca'e Banks, and only a block and a half to the east'ard of Kib Guthrie's store. Every summer, I was exposed to a whole passel of Promise' Landers and their expressive and almost drawling version of the Ca'e Banks Brogue. It was a wonderful learning experience.

When I was little, my family visited relatives Downeast about once a year. I would usually tag along and listen to all the tales told by my Ca's Banker kin to the east'ard. I learned by just listening. Over the following years I became acquainted with many Salter Pathers on my visits to their fishing crews and to their settlement up the Banks to the west'ard. I listened to them intently, learning to speak their rapid version of the Brogue to a tolerable degree. In school at Morehead I had friends who were from Broad Creek, Salter Path and Promise' Land, and I learned much from them about our Brogue.

Around 1939 I came under the tutelage of my maternal grandfather, "Uncle Howard" Lewis of Gales Creek, whose father was born and raised on Ca'e Banks. I studied the "Brogue" under him until he died when I was 30 years old.

In the mid-1940s I joined "The Continuing Workshop on Ca'e Banker Culture" directed by Fred Royal, great-grandson of Marmaduke Royal, the shipbuilder of Cape Lookout in the 1700s. The Workshop was held daily at his barbershop on 8th street in Morehead. My attendance was regular over the years whenever I needed a haircut, and my enrollment continued until "Director" Royal retired. I was very fortunate to have been present on the day of the "Great Debate" over the question, "What is the difference between Shackleford Banks and Ca'e Banks?" My more formal and lengthy study of the Salter Path version of the Brogue commenced in 1944 under that eminent scholar of Salter Path, "Little George" Smith. I studied under him for eight years, learning much of what I know about the Salter Path version from him and his associate educators.

In 1947 my intensive studies of the Promise' Land version of our Brogue and of the history of Bogue Banks began under the master of Bogue Banks history, Bryant Guthrie, of the Promise' Land, and I studied under him for six years. This gentleman knew more about Bogue Banks and its history than any other person I have ever known.

Over the following years I studied the various versions of our Brogue under many Ca'e Banker descendants from all over Carteret County, the names of whom, if all were published, would fill volumes. The knowledge I gained from these speakers could never have been gained from any book or Ph D college professor. And so, I claim qualification to write and speak about the Brogue by virtue of my education by the very people who spoke it.

My Formal Involvement with the Brogue

In the fall of 1975 Steve Benton of East Carolina University organized a series of talks on all aspects of Bogue Banks, which were given at the Marine Resources Center (now the Aquarium) in Pine Knoll Shores, and he asked me to give a seminar on the cultural history of Bogue Banks. I told him that I would try, provided he would let me return after all the experts on the physical and geological history had their say, to correct the many mistakes I knew they would make. He agreed.

I had never done such a thing before, so I began to organize the material I had at hand on the cultural history of my home island, Bogue Banks. As I did, I reached the point in time of the coming of the Ca'e Bankers to Bogue Banks in the mid-1800s, and soon realized that they played such a dominant role in its history, that I would have to cover their culture extensively.

When I came to their brogue or dialect, I realized that no published material was available on this particular aspect of their heritage. So, I made up my own outline of what I would say from knowledge gained during my education over the years by so many Ca'e Bankers and their descendants and from information I had learned studying Old English.

Over the years since that time, I have noticed that many people are intrigued by the language of the Ca'e Bankers, and many of the speakers themselves are fascinated by and proud of the fact that their "Brogue" has grammatical rules of its own and retains much more Old English grammar and vocabulary than does the "proper" American English spoken on today's television. In fact, if closeness to the Old English tongue is a measure of how "correct" a dialect is, then I would venture to say that the language of my ancestors, "the Ca'e Banks Brogue", is the most correct English in use in America today.

One of the most important words in the Ca'e Banks Brogue is the term, "Ca'e Banks," since it is the term by which both the Banks and the Bankers are called. Since there has been confusion about this term for as long as I can remember, I thought it might be a good idea to cover it now at the start of this series.

There is no tradition among the "Ca'e Bankers" of how the term "Ca'e Banks" arose. I am familiar with four possible theories as to its origin, which are suggested by the three ways I have seen and heard it spelled. One is that the term is simply a contraction of "Cape Lookout Banks." This would give us the spelling, "Ca'e Banks." Another is that these Banks were named the same way as were the "cays" or "keys" in the Bahamas or Florida keys. Here the spelling would be "Cay Banks." A third possible origin is that the Banks were named for "Kay" giving us "Kay Banks." The last theory is that they were named "Kay Banks" for something unknown, the spelling of which is also unknown, and "Kay" is only the phonetic spelling of that unknown term.

Of all these theories and associated spellings I like "Ca'e Banks" best for the following reasons:

1. I have never seen any map or chart that labels the Banks in question as "Cay Banks" or "Kay Banks," but I have seen three maps that label these Banks as "Cape Lookout Banks."

2. If the name is "Cay Banks," then to the best of my knowledge there are no other islands named "Cay" in North Carolina, which would seem to indicate that "Cay" was not a very popular word in this state, and may even be incorrect here.

3. These Bankers and their descendants had a strong tendency to contract and shorten words, and it would be very logical to contract "Cape Lookout Banks" to "Ca'e Banks." I think that the term "Ca'e Banks" may have evolved in the following manner. First, "Lookout" was omitted, since everybody knows that there is only one Cape in this area, namely "Cape Lookout." Next, the "p" in "Cape" was left out and the word contracted to "Ca'e," completing the process. We were left with "Ca'e Banks."

As an analogy let's look at the shortening of the Salter Path term, "Confederate crab." First, "crab" was left out, since everybody knows that all Confederates (originals that is) except crabs are long gone. Next, "Confederate" was shortened to "'federate" by omitting the initial "Con-." Finally the "-erate" was left out leaving only "'fed'." The term has been shortened by four whole syllables. Just think about how much unnecessary talking has been saved over the years by this one contraction.

But, perhaps the most important reason of all for the omission of the "p" from "Cape" in "Cape Banks" was pointed out to me by Capt. Josiah Bailey. The Ca'e Bankers have a passion for not having two consonant sounds back to back. In other words they don't like to end one word with a consonant sound and immediately follow it with a word that begins with another consonant sound. The speech just doesn't flow as it should with all of these consonant stops. Take for example the word "just" (pronounced "jest"). When it is followed by a vowel sound, the final "t" is retained, however, when followed by a consonant sound, the "t" is omitted. In "just another one," "just" ends with a consonant sound and is followed by the vowel sound of the "a" in "another," so it retains its "t." But, if "just" is followed by a consonant sound, the ending "t" is omitted, as in, "jus' right."

Similarly in the term "Cape Banks," although "Cape" is spelled with a final vowel, "e," it ends with a consonant sound and "Banks" begins with a consonant sound; therefore, it is improper usage to place the two words back to back. So, the expression is corrected by leaving out the "p" in Cape. This omission changes "Cape" to "Ca'e" with a vowel sound ending. Now "Ca'e" and "Banks" may be joined together back to back, since harmony has been achieved. Not only has harmony been achieved, but the expression is now even shorter, flows much better, and can be said even faster, which is very important in some versions of the Brogue.

4. Cape Lookout Bankers and their descendants, when speaking, used "Cape Banks" (whenever they did use it) and "Ca'e Banks" interchangeably, suggesting to me that the latter is merely a contraction of the former.

5. Placing the two words "Cay" and "Banks" together forms a redundant expression, since "Cay" (from the Spanish word, cayo) means a small low island and "Banks" (from the Middle English word, banke) means a long narrow sandy island. So, when you say "Cay Banks," you are really saying the same thing twice, that is, "Island Island." This doesn't make any sense if you are trying to name a place. You can logically say "Cay Lookout," "Lookout Cay," or "Lookout Banks," but not "Cay Banks."

6. To the best of my knowledge there has never been any tradition of any of the Banks or any place on the Banks named for a woman called "Kay" or a man called "Kay" either for that matter.

7. If there is something unknown that is pronounced like "Kay," and from which the term "Kay Banks" arose, then I have never found any evidence of it. So, for the above reasons I will use the spelling, "Ca'e Banks," and everybody else can spell it the way they want to. The important thing is that we always let the reader know precisely to which Banks or people we are referring.

Acknowledgements: I should like to express my appreciation to Karen Amspacher, Josiah Bailey, and Alida Willis for reviewing this article.


Reprinted from “The Mailboat,” Vol. 2 No. 4 & Vol. 3 No. 1
The Ca'e Banks Brogue, The Language of the Cape Lookout Bankers

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.

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