Learning maritime history, including the history of the Outer Banks, is essential to the growth of our youth, our future. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum does its part through its Shoal Survivor’s Club designed for elementary school children. It provides an opportunity for students to express themselves — explore and create — within a context of maritime history and culture. Ensuring each learning experience is relevant on a personal level engages the students and makes each lesson meaningful and memorable.

In the Shipwreck Challenge lesson, man-made and found materials were re-purposed to create decorative and useful objects. As they worked on their projects, students discussed how generations of their families used structural elements and fittings from shipwrecks to build houses and how they depended on shipwreck auctions to obtain goods not available on an isolated island. They related these historic actions to current practices of recycling and repurposing.

Students also learned about the Ocracoke brogue, a vanishing dialect with English, Irish and Scots-Irish roots rarely heard on the Outer Banks today. With this as a model, they created and defined new, personal words and expressions that related to their island life and the world at large. All the words were compiled in an illustrated dictionary.

In making personal and collective communicative choices, they were encouraged to express themselves and discovered the dynamic, interactive force of language in a community. Further, they became more aware of ever shifting lifeways and modes of expression, which characterize the history of the island and its people and discussed the similarities and differences in how they live now as compared to the past.

Generally, people understand the study of history as an invaluable life tool — an analysis of the continuum of recorded human endeavor — accomplishment and failure — over time and space. It provides a reference point for present and future generations by which they gain perspective on the challenges and opportunities, which face them. In order to study and comprehend history, we divide it into various geographical, thematic, and chronological units. Of these, the field of maritime history has great potential for holistic understanding.

Seven tenths of the world’s surface is covered with water and humankind’s relationship with rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans touches cultures across millennia. Long before there were farmers, there were seafarers — waterborne explorers, migrants, and traders connecting and affecting people, places, and things.

Incorporating global exploration, trade, war, harvesting and transporting food and commodities, economics, the reciprocal impact of the marine environment, industry, shipbuilding, marine-related technology and science, international relations, literature, art, social and intercultural relations, labor, and recreation, the maritime cultural landscape provides a unique perspective on a shared world heritage for educators and students.

North Carolina maritime history is characterized by extremely significant local, national, and global aspects. Paleontological evidence suggests Paleoindian exploration and settlement during the Pleistocene. Outer Banks inlets provided passage from the sea to the sounds for early explorers. English colonists sailed to Roanoke Island in 1584, where the first English child in the Americas was born three years later.

In the 1700s, pirates skulked the coast looking for ships to plunder. Global and domestic commercial vessels plied the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream off the Tar Heel coast to save time on their voyages. Ships from around the world met their end in the Graveyard of the Atlantic due to piracy, dangerous shoals, weather, war, and human error — sunken vessels — there are over 2,000 off the Outer Banks — are underwater repositories of history that teach us about past technology, people, and places.

The Outer Banks also played a major role in maritime history during the early months of the Civil War. The amphibious assault on and subsequent control of Hatteras Island resulted in the first Union victory. Need and advancing technology spurred the growth of fishing in coastal areas and the erection of lighthouses and life-saving stations to aid mariners.

Our windy clime had the Wright Brothers taking to the sky achieving the world’s first powered flight. The Graveyard of the Atlantic was the scene of German attacks during WWI and WWII. Today our seafood finds its way onto dinner plates in distant, landlocked regions, and our beaches and coastal waters offer a vacationland for people around the world.

As the Shoal Survivors study their North Carolina coastal history, they will open a door to the past, if even just a crack, and discover the beauty and breadth of history leading to what historian, Peter N. Stearns, calls “historical habits of mind” that can last a lifetime. Stearns believes real life skills are developed with the study of history including the “ability to access evidence,” “make coherent arguments based on a variety of data,” “the ability to assess conflicting interpretations,” and gain “experience in assessing past examples of change.”

Calling the past the “laboratory of human experience” where we can experiment in the present, he feels the study of history is essential to function in adult life. As we study the maritime cultural landscape, it is increasingly apparent we are exploring an essential piece of the world’s history and culture.

The study of maritime history is essential if we are to gain a more holistic understanding of our shared past and develop discerning life skills that can be used in everyday life.

Mary Ellen Riddle is the education curator at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. Her latest book is “Outer Banks Shipwrecks: Graveyard of the Atlantic,” published by Arcadia Publishing, is available locally at bookstores, Muse Art Gallery, The Bird Store, Frisco Market, and other Outer Banks shops, as well as online at Amazon.com and arcadiapublishing.com.

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