Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Visitors to the Outer Banks (and even residents) often refer to Ocracoke as a "traditional fishing village." Surprisingly, this was not generally true for the first 150 years of the island's settlement. Our posts for the last two days explored the island's primary early occupations, piloting and seafaring.

Following are the number of fishermen listed in the census records on Ocracoke for the years 1850 - 1880:
  • 1850............5 fishermen living on Ocracoke
  • 1860............1 fisherman living on Ocracoke
  • 1870..........16 fishermen living on Ocracoke
  • 1880..........32 fishermen living on Ocracoke
The figures for 1850 and 1860 are explained by our previous two posts: piloting and seafaring were the primary island occupations during those periods. Without ice to preserve fish, or gas boats to carry fish to mainland markets, large scale commercial fishing was simply not practical. Of course, small scale fishing to supply local markets and family, friends, and neighbors was a long tradition on the island.

But what accounts for the increase in fishermen in 1870 and 1880? The short answer is oysters. In 1858 the North Carolina state assembly, responding to an increase in harvesting oysters on a commercial level, passed a law establishing a procedure to create private oyster beds in coastal Carolina waters. Oyster harvesting became such an important economic enterprise in Pamlico Sound that it led to what became known as the 1890 "Ocracoke Oyster War" (see our account here).

The number of watermen remained steady for several decades. Census records for 1890 have not survived, but 35 fishermen are listed in the 1900 census. Again, harvesting shellfish accounts for this number.  In 1897 James Harvey Doxsee moved his commercial clam canning operation from New York to Ocracoke Island.  Local watermen were now harvesting clams.

In 1938 Ocracoke village was electrified, and an ice plant was established. At about the same time islanders began converting their sail skiffs to gas boats. Commercial fishing blossomed. Today Ocracoke is home to two fish houses and several dozen full- or part-time commercial fishermen and fisherwomen.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about Old Christmas in Rodanthe. You can read it here:   


  1. Anonymous7:26 AM

    If a local church had a church directory this would serve as a source for population numbers. If this church was washed away in a hurricane the paper records may have been lost. Is it suggested that the National Archives has no Census data for 1890? It is my understanding that each state has a University library designated as a census depository site - now this is before the digital age but records are on microfilm or microfische. Certainly some site has this census data otherwise someone can extrapolate from geneology records I suppose or wait, Does not the Church of Latter Day Saints have a thing for geneology records. I know, contact that PBS guy who lost his key to is Harvard housing unit and see if his TV show can help OI find their Roots

  2. Anonymous12:10 PM

    The Census of 1890 was destroyed during a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, Dc on 1/10/21. A large percentage of the census was actually ruined more by the water putting out the fire than the fire itself. Unlike other census's, each family was enumerated (counted) on it's own sheet of paper that year. No other census has been taken this way since. For those of us who do family history research, the loss of the 1890 Census is huge. LSD does have an awesome (and free) collection of records from all over the world. Some 6,000 records did survive and if you go on Ancestry, they are listed. None from Ocracoke. Hope this helps.

    NJ Reader