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