Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On This Date... 1889 the steamship "Pioneer" wrecked on Ocracoke beach. It is an interesting wreck because, unlike most commercial vessels of the time which hauled lumber, molasses, rum, or some other single commodity, the "Pioneer" was carrying general cargo. The following (unattributed) article was written some years later:

"It was like manna from heaven when the vessel 'Pioneer,' a heavily loaded wooden freight steamer, was wrecked off Ocracoke in a violent storm back in August, 1920 [actually it was October 14, 1889, as I know for certain from my great-grandfather's shipwreck report, and from other reliable sources]. Everything from Bibles to cabbages floated ashore. Hams, bananas, barrels of flour, casks of alcohol, bladders filled with snuff and a great deal of canned food came into the Island, which was flooded by the tide, and everywhere folks were knee-deep in water sweeping up valuable debris as things washed by them.

One old fellow threw away his old shoes when he spied a new pair drifting toward him, only to find the new ones were both for the same foot. One woman gathered up enough bladders of snuff to fill a barrel which she proudly kept upstairs in her house for all to marvel at. She happily contemplated a future with a plenteous supply of snuff.

The entire crew of the 'Pioneer' was saved, and they joined the islanders in rescuing the cargo. 'Come on over to my house--there's plenty to eat' was the cry of the generous native to any stranger around, for the wrecked cargo had yielded more than enough to supply the island with a day's rations.

The late Theodore S. Meekins, prominent Manteo real estate and insurance man, saw the wreck of the 'Pioneer' and remembered these incidents concerning it. He believed the 'Pioneer' was the last wooden steam vessel seen in these parts, and when it hit it went into pieces and sank almost immediately. The ship struck during the daytime and was plainly visible from the shore. The observers on shore could see the boat break into pieces and disappear into a raging sea.

Mr. Meekins recalled the auction held in connection with that part of the cargo not taken by the natives during the storm. There were only two magistrates on Ocracoke and both were fighting each other for the privilege of selling the cargo. A 50-gallon container of alcohol to be auctioned off had been considerably decreased by the frequent visits of natives down to take a little drink or two.

Finally, a few days before the auction, Captain Jim Howard stopped them by planting himself firmly on top of the barrel and guarding it with his life. When the barrel was brought up for sale at the auction Captain Jim was astride it, and he was sold with the barrel. He bought it himself for five dollars.

So keen was the auction that one barrel of flour brought six dollars. And after the sale the strangers who had come down to Ocracoke for the auction were treated grandly by the natives before time to depart."

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a reprint of an article Philip wrote about sailing aboard the historic two-masted schooner, Mary E. It was originally published in the Washington Post in 1976. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous4:23 PM

    Can you put these dollar amounts into some perspective? In 1889 5 dollars was equivalent to half a years salary?? Do you have a clue? it seems that these amount seemed to be bargains even to the winning bidder

  2. In 1889, if my memory serves me correctly, my great-grandfather, Capt Jim Howard (the keeper who purchased the barrel of rum for $5.00), earned $700.00 per year. Thus the $5.00 purchase would be roughly equivalent to $425.00 if a keeper were to earn $60,000 today.

    Today you can buy a 750 ML bottle of Bicardi Rum for about $15.00 or so. This means you can buy about 28 bottles of rum for about $420.00.

    I'm guessing there was more than the equivalent of 28 bottles of rum (that's not even 6 gallons) in the barrel.

    (Correct me please if my math is mistaken!)

  3. Anonymous10:34 PM

    Good work Mr. Howard. I love when people speak before they think! It was good to see you "correct" this person in a polite and accurate way. By the way, the post was extremely interesting.

    Have a good day and thanks for taking the time to post.


  4. Anonymous7:53 AM

    Wait a minute. I was citing/inquiring 5 dollars as a half years salary for example --- For example -- did you not see the ???????I was asking is 5 dollars a half years salary half year six months ???????? it was a starting point-- to ask a question --I was not assuming anything . I have no idea what income levels were back then. But I will research it and let you know. In 1899 the income tax existed, as it was enacted to help pay the debt of the Civil War.

    Mr Howard thank you for ELABORATING on the topic regarding 1899 income levels. If Ocracoke taxpayers claimed the items they "found" on the shore as income -- perhaps their income levels would be larger than their official paychecks. If these items were bought and sold on a Blackbeards market so to speak such habits die a slow death. I just went to a "flea" market this weekend and all the signs reminding us sales tax is collected they had a strange way at calculating that at the register.

  5. Anonymous8:28 AM

    Oh gosh 1889 1899 would there be a difference-- my research continues. Studies regarding One hundred years of poverty and well that is why income levels are studied to determine poverty rates . Google is a fascinating tool all matter of statistics at ones fingertips. To revisit the cost analysis: $700 annual salary divided by 52 weeks equals $15.30 weekly salary if my calculations are correct--5 dollars is roughly 33.3% of a weekly salary for that annual income rate. . If one takes into consideration the Gettys the Guggenheims, the Sinclairs, the Strawbriges, the Campbells, the railroad magnets, the disparity of income --- the richest get richer and the poor get poorer.

  6. Joe Mobley, in his book, "Ship Ashore," reports that "Colonial governor Gabriel Johnston referred to the Outer Bankers as a 'set of people who live on certain Sandy Islands lying between the Sound and the Ocean, and who are Wild and ungovernable, so that it is seldom possible to Execute any Civil or Criminal Writs among them.'

    Even by 1889 (or 2009??) Outer Bankers were still of a decidedly independent spirit, often suspicious of mainlanders' rules and regulations. Reporting as income items salvaged from the beach would have been unthinkable.

  7. Anonymous2:20 PM

    According to an article published in the New York Times edition Sept. 29, 1907-- the annual average wage of $835 for a fifteen year period of 1890-1905. This article , based on statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Labor estimated an 1890 family spent $330.35 for food. Another statistic from this article the annual cost of living for the period 1890-1893 was $882.61.