Monday, March 02, 2009

An Historical Note

It was 172 years ago yesterday that Justice of the Peace, Jacob Gaskill, and his cousin & local tavern owner, Willis Williams, were involved in an altercation on a foot bridge that spanned the "Ditch," the narrow channel that connects Cockle Creek (Silver Lake Harbor) with Pamlico Sound. When it was over Williams lay mortally wounded from a musket ball to his neck. Gaskill was tried on the mainland and convicted of "felonious slaying." His punishment was the letter "M" branded in the palm of his hand.

Many of the details of this event are lost to history, but one can't help but wonder what the dispute was about, why it escalated as it did, and what the jury learned that kept Jacob Gaskill from the gallows, convinced them to return a verdict of less than murder, and led them to impose a relatively light (light, considering the alternatives...but admittedly barbaric) punishment. We will probably never know.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is Lou Ann's story of participating in the 2008 Christmas Bird Count on Portsmouth Island. You can read it here.

To read about Philip's new book, Digging up Uncle Evans, History, Ghost Tales, & Stories from Ocracoke Island (which includes the story of the Jacob Gaskill & Willis Williams), please click here.


  1. Anonymous1:43 PM

    If North Carolina entered the statehood in 1789 that is 220 years ago. Would not there be a public record of the trial that occurred only 172 years ago?? somewhere in a state law library?. A case tried previously can be used as a precedent. I wonder if the lost to history is a matter of doing some research for the answer to be found.

  2. Ocracoke native, Ellen Marie Cloud, has done considerable research on the murder of Willis Williams. In her manuscript, From Whence We Came (now out of print, I believe), pages 28-34 she includes transcripts of the court records in both Carteret and Hyde counties (both from the court houses and from the archives).

    Ellen Marie comments, "The strange thing about this case is the fact that he did not go to prison or was not 'hanged by the neck until dead' [the typical punishment]....Nowhere in the court records is there any information on WHY Jacob killed Willis Williams....In [the] 1840 census he is back at Ocracoke, listed with all his children....WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? We may never know. It was something the locals 'never talked about.'"

  3. Anonymous3:24 PM

    Murder is a charge. first degree second degree or manslaughter. I think Ms Cloud researched the Williams homicide. If he, Gaskill, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge through a plea bargain--perhaps this explains his appearance in the census. Also, Is the accused the same person who sold the two acres for $50 dollars for the light house location. Is this Gaskill related to the Bodie island Vernon Gaskill. Were the Gaskill Clan large landholders ? sounds as if there were. With all due respect to the descendants, ain't history somethin'

  4. Anonymous3:30 PM

    If nothing else a google search of the name Vernon Gaskill lands a link to the Ethnomusiclogist Karen Helms Pressley archive of Outer Banks ballads at a NC state library

  5. Jacob Gaskill is, indeed, the same person who sold the land where the lighthouse now stands. I'm not sure how Jacob Gaskill and Vernon Gaskill are related, but I can't imagine that they are not kin somehow, however distant. According to Ellen Marie, "The local Gaskill name goes back to a William Gaskill of Portsmouth Island...[who] wrote the will of George 1745."

    Jacob Gaskill, by all accounts, seems to have been an upstanding and prominent citizen, in spite of what happened on March 1, 1837.

    Ellen Marie concludes her chapter on the Gaskills this way: "Jacob Gaskill is the ancestor of the Ocracoke Gaskills, and what a fine group of people they are."


  6. Ella Williams Sessoms10:54 PM

    Willis Williams was my great great grandfather and this story was told to us by our father and WHY has haunted me for years. I would say we will never know or it would have been told by now. What ever the reason, I'm sure there were two families destroyed by this horrible act. Maybe that is why I am drawn to Ocracoke Island, oh if only the land could tell us the whole story.

  7. Ella, please stop by the Village Craftsmen on your next visit to the island and ask the clerk at the counter to call me. I'd enjoy chatting with you.