On a sunny and breezy Saturday, a crowd of
hundreds cooled off under a shaded tent in front of the Portsmouth
Island Methodist Church as history professor and grandson of Dot Salter
Willis, David Quinn, shared his grandmother’s thoughts on life in
“My grandmother did not like Portsmouth Island to
be called a ‘ghost town,’” said Quinn. “She said it is the ‘Paradise of
the Outer Banks’ – It is not a ghost town; it is alive.”
On this day, this was undeniably the case.
The Portsmouth Island Homecoming is a tradition
that occurs every two years in April. During this event, hundreds of
descendants, friends, volunteers, and anyone with a fascination with
the deserted island just south of Ocracoke descend on the island to
celebrate this rich heritage, and to rekindle the island’s inherent
sense of community.
Friends of Portsmouth Island (FPI), which was
formed in 1989, sponsored its first homecoming event on April 25, 1992.
(Although similar Homecoming gatherings have occurred since 1973.)
Since then, the biennial gathering has attracted hundreds of family
members as well as newcomers, who tend to return year after year.
“This is our second Homecoming,” said Marcia
Miller of Statesville, N.C. “We were always fascinated with Portsmouth
Island, and signed up as members of Friends of Portsmouth Island. And
when we went to our first Homecoming, we knew we were going to come
The history, as well as the enticing aesthetic of
the small Portsmouth village, is indeed what attracts many visitors who
have no direct familial ties with the residents who carved out a hard
life on the island for generations.
Established in 1752, Portsmouth Island was once
the biggest port community along the Outer Banks. At its peak in 1860,
Portsmouth village had roughly 700 residents, which included 200
enslaved African Americans, 100 school-aged children, and two teachers.
“Portsmouth Island was the metropolis of the Outer Banks,” said David Quinn.
But a series of events in the following years
after this peak would signal the village’s downfall. The Civil War led
to two invasions of the island – first by the Confederates, and then by
the Union forces – which in turn caused the temporary abandonment of
the village. After the war, only one black family – Rose Ireland Pigott
and her children – returned to the village.
A number of hurricanes that followed also
hastened the decline. As new inlets opened on Hatteras Island and the
northern Outer Banks, and a 1933 hurricane drove away many residents,
the village dwindled. The U.S. Coast Guard Station was decommissioned
in the 1930s, the school closed in 1943, and only the Post Office
continued to function.
By the late 1960s, the village had just three
residents: Henry Pigott, (grandson of Rose Pigott), Marian Gray Babb,
and Nora Dixon. Henry ran the mail boat from Portsmouth to Ocracoke,
and took care of the last two elderly ladies, until he fell ill in
1970. He moved to Ocracoke Island and passed away in 1971, and the
women moved away soon after.
But despite the fact that the village has been deserted for nearly 50 years, its legacy is still very much alive.
This year’s theme was “A Step Back in Time,” and
focused on the simple times and activities that were common to the
people of Portsmouth. Legendary resident Henry Pigott quietly took
center stage at the event, as an image of him rowing his mail boat back
to the village, with his original pink house in the background, was the
logo for the event’s biennial pin, as well as the special postmark that
is activated, stamped, and used every two years via the village’s post
Though there is no headcount available yet on the
total number of attendees for 2018’s event, volunteers who manned the
sign-up sheets reported that was never a pause in activity since they
started working at 7 a.m., as visitors streamed into the island via
boat shuttles from Ocracoke.
2016 was the Homecoming’s biggest event yet with
450 attendees, and the crowd at 2018’s event looked to be of a similar
stature, as visitors wandered around the dozen or so homes and
buildings open to visitors, and looked for clues to their familial
“That’s my great grandfather!” said Carly Smith
of Greensboro, N.C., after seeing a class portrait hung on the wall of
the Portsmouth School House, and recognizing Charles Salter.
Most of the descendants have attended many
Homecomings in the past, like Russ Carter, who is Henry Pigott’s
cousin. “I have been coming since 1998,” he said, noting that he
previously came with his dad, Rudy Carter, until he passed away last
year at the age of 95. “There are 19 of us here, with folks coming from
as far away as California. One year, we even had someone come here from
France - It’s just a great reason to gather as a family.”
Henry Pigott’s nephew Spencer, who first started
coming to the event while in college eight years ago, agreed. “I came
down from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “It’s a long drive, but I feel
invigorated as I get closer to Portsmouth Island.”
Russ Carter also noted that his sister and
Henry’s cousin, Debbie Carter Fontaine, had been coming to the
Homecoming since 1996, and was the unofficial keeper of the family
history. “She’s the one who is decked out with all the Portsmouth
Island pins like a General,” he said.
Debbie explained that her family had ties to the
island that date back to 1820, when Dorcas was born as an enslaved
person. “She was the original matriarch,” said Debbie, confirming that
her family had roots on the island that extended for 161 years. “We
were the only black family that stayed after the Civil War, and we have
a great history here. Lizzie, Henry’s sister, was the town barber, and
Henry was the last man to live on the island. This is our family home,
and we always have a great time every time we come to [the Homecoming.]”
“It’s quite an honor to have Henry’s family here,
and the park is so appreciative that they come” said Ed Burgess, a
Homecoming volunteer for 18 years from Burlington, N.C. “Henry had such
a major impact on the village. On Sundays, he would ring the church
bell, and the pin and postmark are replicas of a photo of him by famous
photographer, Bruce Roberts.”
And in an appropriate tie-in with the past,
Henry’s cousin Russ Carter stepped up to ring the Methodist Church bell
on Saturday morning to indicate that it was time for the day’s program
The schedule for the Homecoming event is fairly
flexible, with folks touring the varying buildings during the morning,
followed by a program / service, and then a huge potluck lunch that
requires countless tables and coolers to contain. Signs indicating
“veggies,” “pastas,” “meats,” and “desserts” helpfully marked the
barrage of dishes, and volunteers worked tirelessly to set up more
tables and drinks as dishes rolled in all morning long.
But the highlight of the event is arguably the
Homecoming Service, where everyone gathers in the giant shaded tent in
front of the church to honor the village and its families.
Colt Goodwin, the great, great, great grandson of
Annie Salter, led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. Connie Mason
shared a beautiful rendition of her original “Marian’s Song,” and
various speakers, like Cape Lookout Park Superintendent Jeff West and
Rev. Richard Bryant of the Ocracoke United Methodist Church, addressed
David Quinn, who noted that it was the fourth
time someone else had delivered the history of Portsmouth Island at the
service since his grandmother Dot Salter Willis passed away, gave an
insightful overview of Portsmouth’s story – as Dot had done for years.
“I’m not here to fill her shoes, but to continue her tradition,” he
A roll call of the families was also
orchestrated, and roughly 30 different families were represented at the
event, with lots of applause as their names were called.
After the service, the crowd steadily moved to
the outdoor banquet stationed behind the church to dig in, and to meet
and greet with family members and friends that they hadn’t seen in
years, or that they were just meeting for the first time.
After a long and lingering lunch, people shuffled
back to the line of boats waiting to make the roughly 15 minute ride
back to Ocracoke Island, and back to civilization. But nevertheless,
for a few hours on Saturday, April 21, Portsmouth Island was most
certainly alive, and it remains vividly alive for the hundreds of
people who attended, and who have deep ties to the small island
“Thomas Wolfe said you could never go home
again,” said Master of Ceremonies, FPI Board Member, and Gilgo
descendent Jim White. “But once again, we prove him wrong.”
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