Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Nags Head

A persistent legend on the Outer Banks is that the town of Nags Head obtained its name from the activity of "wreckers" (unscrupulous bankers who would lure sailing vessels close to shore by tying lanterns around horses' heads or necks, thus suggesting a safe anchorage; when the ship wrecked it would be plundered).

This is surely an "urban legend." Roger Payne, in his book, Place Names of the Outer Banks, writes, "There is no historical evidence to support this story, and hanging a smoking lantern around a horse's neck is not a task easily accomplished."

On this subject, Wikipedia makes reference to the work of John Viele, retired U. S. Navy officer and author of a history of wrecking in the Florida Keys (The Florida Keys: The Wreckers. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc., 2001). Viele states that the use of "false lights" to lure ships close to shore simply would not work.

According to Wikipedia: "[Viele] points out that mariners interpret a light as indicating land, and so avoid them if they cannot identify them. Moreover, oil lanterns cannot be seen very far over water at night, unless they are large, fitted with mirrors or lenses, and mounted at a great height (i.e., in a lighthouse). In hundreds of admiralty court cases heard in Key West, Florida, no captain of a wrecked ship ever charged that he had been led astray by a false light."

Payne writes that "The most plausible explanation of the origin of the name is that an Englishman who had moved to the Albemarle area of North Carolina purchased a sizeable tract of land in 1832 in this area. Since it reminded him of an area in England named Nags Head he named his purchase Nags Head."

Payne's explanation does seem plausible, but I have been unable to locate any place in England named Nags Head that might remotely resemble the Outer Banks. For example, one Nags Head in England is a 2,224 ft / 678 m mountain peak. Can any of our readers shed any light on this subject?

Our current Ocracoke Newsletter is a 1938 article about Capt. Gary Bragg, waterfowl hunting, and wooden decoy carving. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous8:50 AM

    The ship wreck would be plundered... what happened to the crew?? What would the crew have to say about plundering the wreck, that is if they made it to shore alive would their tongues be cut?

  2. Is it possible he named his track of land in honor of his favorite pub?

  3. Marie from PA8:19 AM

    Naming Nags Head after a favorite pub - now that sounds plausible! It was a long trip in those days and the folks would be mighty thirsty. :-) Thank you, Philip, for your wonderful blog. Informative and enjoyable, I look forward to reading it every day. Happy Thanksgiving to you and all the terrific folks on Ocracoke.

  4. The is a point of land on the south end of St. Kitts called "The Naggs Head" on the 1753 Baker map