By Phil Housel
It seems more and more communities are coming up with ghost stories to help attract visitors. Ocracoke resident Amy Howard has no need to fabricate tales.
Amy Howard is a direct descendant of William Howard — her 6th great-grandfather — who most historians believe served as Blackbeard’s quartermaster in 1717 and 1718. It’s a mantle she wears with pride, while acknowledging the rather nefarious notoriety of that legacy.
“If you think about what pirates did, you’re not sure you want to be associated with it, but it is part of our family history and our local tradition,” she says. Howard has come to appreciate her heritage, and she uses s it to educate people about the history of the area while sharing a broader perspective on the role of privateering during that era.
“Traditionally, those pirates started out as privateers, hired by countries to go out and capture opposing vessels and use those for the country’s own good,” she says. “The privateers would get decommissioned, but were used to the lifestyle — that was the only life they knew. They didn’t have home or family and were always on the go.”
Pirates were often granted pardons by kings. In 1687, Great Britain’s King James II issued a proclamation granting all pirates full pardons if they surrendered within the year. In the 18th century, Blackbeard and other pirates began attacking and pillaging merchant ships of their own nationality. In an effort to deal with the problem, Britain’s King George I issued a proclamation on Sept. 5, 1717, granting a full pardon to any pirate who surrendered by Sept. 5, 1718. Howard’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was among the buccaneers who saw the king’s offer as an opportunity for a new life — but he very nearly wound up on the scaffold with a hangman’s noose around his neck.
Before news of the pardon arrived, Alexander Spotswood, the Virginia colony’s governor, ordered William Howard seized and put on trial for piracy. Howard was found guilty. He was within hours of execution by hanging when the pardon arrived from the king.
Records show that, after that all-too-close brush with death, William Howard was a reformed man. He went on to purchase Ocracoke Island and helped build it into a bustling 18th century port. It’s that legacy that brings pride to Howard’s descendants.
Former director of the Ocracoke Preservation Society, Amy is often called upon to speak on the history of Ocracoke and her family’s connection to the Golden Age of Piracy. Philip Howard, Amy’s father, is a local historian and past-president of Ocracoke Preservation Society. He leads nightly ghost tours of Ocracoke, which is considered to be one of the most haunted locations in North Carolina.
Reports of paranormal activity include:
- Sightings of a tall, bearded apparition at Springer’s Point Nature Preserve and nearby Teach’s Hole, where Blackbeard and his crew of marauders were known to gather;
- Visitors at Ocracoke Light claim to have witnessed a beautiful spirit wearing a long, flowing gown and carrying a lantern, as well as the spirit of a former lighthouse keeper, a bearded man wearing black and grey striped pants and a white shirt, with his long hair held back with a string; and
- A ghostly couple — elderly and dressed in 19th century attire — have been spotted strolling through a local cemetery.
Ocracoke is not where Amy Howard expected to spend her life, but there’s something about Ocracoke that casts a spell. Perhaps that’s why so many spirits refuse to leave the island.
“As a teen I couldn’t wait to get away. I was going to live in a city and not look back,” she says with a laugh. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
Now, small town life suits her fine. In fact, she embraces it, and so do a lot of other people.
After Ocracoke was slammed hard by Hurricane Dorian in September, financial donations for the recovery effort — hundreds of thousands of dollars — poured in to the community to help it rebuild. Some donors had visited the island, some had not, but those who have walked on its sandy beaches hold it close to their heart.
“We hear it over and over — ‘I just feel like I’m coming home.’ To me, that’s what Ocracoke is all about; making you feel like you belong here and are welcome here. That makes people more interested in keeping our history alive.”
And that’s a tale worth telling.