I came late in my life to the North Carolina coast, a place of salt marsh and black water rivers, barrier islands and sounds, storms and stifling summer heat, and solitude, vast swaths of solitude where few people live.
It’s a coast of wind and sky and water, salt water, fresh water, brackish water, water snaking through lowlands and swamps, water flowing down rivers, vast sheets of water reflecting the sky, and the imposing presence of the Atlantic Ocean beyond the thin defense of the Outer Banks.
The Carolina coast remains largely as it has always been because few people found a use for it. The coastal lowlands, scoured flat by a retreating ocean in geologic time, is as much water as land. It has been populated historically by people too poor to live elsewhere, mostly marginalized blacks. Because there were few ways to extract wealth from the marshy landscape on an industrial scale, it remains much like it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand. There are few towns on the coast and only one city, Wilmington, a small city by modern American standards, a city being slowly submerged by the rising sea.
I live now on the shore of Chocowinity Bay, an indentation in the shoreline of the broad Pamlico River several miles before it meets the sound. Chocowinity was named by Tuscarora natives after the river otter than once lived in the creeks and the bay.
The first attack of the Tuscarora War (1711-1715) was made on John Porter’s house in the village of Chocowinity. He managed to defend himself. Neighbors at the mouth of Blounts Creek weren’t as successful.
A man named Nevil was shot, then laid on the floor of his cabin “with a clean pillow laid under his head, his stockings turned over his shoes, and his body covered with a new linen. His wife was set upon her knees, and her hands lifted up as if she was at prayers, leaning against a chair in the chimney corner, and her coats turned over her head. A son of his was laid out in the yard with a pillow under his head and a bunch of rosemary laid to his nose.”
It seems an oddly specific way to treat the dead, almost reverential. Other stories were more horrendous, some probably colonial propaganda, but the Tuscarora attitude toward death seems significantly different than the colonists, and likely their attitude toward life.
There are no more Tuscarora or otters on Chocowinity Bay.