Friday, February 10, 2017


Following is a reprint of a 2011 blog post, with a few additions:

In 1715 the North Carolina Colonial Assembly enacted a statute to establish pilots at Ocracoke Inlet. Masters of sailing vessels needed pilots with local knowledge to guide their ships through the inlet, across the bar, and into the ever-changing channels that led to deeper water in Pamlico Sound, and from there to mainland ports, in the vicinity of which four-fifths of the colony's residents were living.

Island Road Sign Remembering Ocracoke's Pilots

In spite of the 1715 legislation, pilots of record do not appear until almost two decades later. In 1731 the Governor of North Carolina, George Burrington, wrote that other North Carolina inlets had become so dangerous that most sailing vessels were forced to use Ocracoke Inlet. In 1734 Miles Gale became the first captain to make a formal request to be appointed as a pilot at Ocracoke Inlet (however, see for more information about an early Ocracoke Inlet pilot).

For many years Ocracoke Inlet pilots then played an important role in the history of eastern North Carolina. In addition to providing safe passage to mainland ports, the pilots were required to notify port commissioners of incoming vessels carrying persons afflicted with contagious diseases.

There is no comprehensive list of Ocracoke Inlet pilots. However, David Stick, in his book The Outer Banks of North Carolina, lists the following early pilots:

• Miles Gale
• James Bun
• David Wallace
• John Dixon
• Francis Jackson
• George Howard
• Lorable [probably Zora Bable] Gaskins

Stick lists the following Ocracoke Inlet pilots as of February, 1773 (they had petitioned the legislature to prevent what they considered unfair competition by unlicensed black slaves and freemen):

• John Williams
• George Bell
• John Bragg
• William Bragg
• Adam Gaskins
• Richard Wade
• William Styerin
• Simon Hall

A Frenchman, Pierre Auguste [Augustus] Cabarrus (1758-1819), is also known to have been a pilot during the early period (See our July, 2016, Ocracoke Newsletter).

Twenty-seven pilots are recorded in the 1850 census, the first census to list occupations:

• Oliver Bragg
• Nathaniel Bragg
• Benjamine Gaskins
• Jacob Gaskill
• Richard Gaskins
• Robert Gaskill
• Robert D. Gaskill
• Thomas Gaskill
• Abner Howard
• Wallace Howard
• Benjamine Jackson
• George W. Jackson
• Benjamine G. O'Neal
• William O'Neal
• Martin O'Neal
• John O'Neal
• Simon O'Neal
• Howard Jackson
• Thomas O'Neal
• John Gaskins
• Amasa Simpson
• Wallace Simpson
• William S. Tolson
• Caswell Williams
• John Williams
• Francis Williams
• Lemuel Salter

Hatteras Inlet opened in 1846. Because the new inlet was more navigable than Ocracoke Inlet, most of the pilots soon moved to Hatteras. By 1900 only two Ocracoke residents, Samuel Bragg & James Bragg, are listed as pilots.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is Ellen Marie Cloud's first-person account of the Great Ocracoke Lighthouse Window Heist. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous8:49 AM

    Looks as if a career as a ship pilot, the gateway to it , one needed a family member with both a boat and a job as a pilot. It seemed All in The Family. A Union and or civil service exams kinda sort of but not really not so much helped unrelated out of work upwardly mobile self starters find work in a what was once a closed network these days. However, The internet has allowed for job seekers to find work where the jobs are out of state etc and they B willing to move.

  2. Anonymous6:29 PM

    Philip, any insight as to whether the skill (as opposed to "job" proper) of "pilot" is still a factor in the waters around the island these days? I suspect you may be able to provide some insight via your own experiences traveling on the waters, as we've read about here over the years. I presume the Austins might be considered the closest to modern pilots, with their Portsmouth Island tours. And I would presume the waters are still shifting and dicey enough to warrant extra care--if not a knowledgeable guide--even considering the benefit of modern technology to aid navigation. Just curious if you might be able to share any insight as to how folks get around these days. As always, thanks.

    1. Anon. 6:29 -- without a doubt, "piloting skills" are important for navigating Ocracoke Inlet. I am not a commercial fisherman, but I have been present while a local fisherman was explaining to an out-of-state captain of a sailboat the intricacies of sailing through the inlet. The captain decided not to risk it.

      For boaters not familiar with the local waters, even just traveling between Ocracoke and Portsmouth can mean running aground on a shoal, especially at low tide or in rough, windy conditions.