Core Sound Stop 8: Portsmouth
At the apex of Portsmouth’s history, around 1860, this village was the second-largest town on the Outer Banks, a bustling deepwater port already a century old and home to nearly 700 residents. The population included over 100 slaves, many of whom worked on the docks. Portsmouth was an important lightering station, a place where cargo was transferred from deep-hulled, seagoing ships to vessels of shallower draft that could navigate the sounds and inland waterways. Portsmouth was a way-station for two-thirds of North Carolina’s exports and was, at various times in its nearly 250-year history, the home of a Coast Guard station, an academy, and a hospital. Its importance is underscored by the fact that it was captured by the British in 1813, and by the Federals in 1861.
Today, following a series of transformative events, Portsmouth is uninhabited (other than by Park staff and visitors). An 1846 storm created Hatteras Inlet, to the north, diverting much of the maritime traffic upon which Portsmouth depended.
By the time of the Civil War, the town was already in decline, and after residents evacuated in 1861, less than half of the population returned. With the town’s role in the shipping industry greatly diminished due to the shifting inlets and the abolition of slavery, upon which the lightering trade was dependent, the population turned to fishing as its mainstay and, after a lifesaving station was built in 1894, to maritime rescue. A handful of residents kept the village alive through the twentieth century, until the 1970s when the last two, Elma Dixon and Marion Babb, moved to the mainland.
Today the Methodist Church and a handful of other buildings remain, carefully maintained by Park Service volunteers. Once a year, however, the village bursts forth with activity, when hundreds of visitors – former residents, descendants of islanders, and tourists – arrive to celebrate the Portsmouth Homecoming. (To view a slideshow of Jan Eason's photographs of Portsmouth Homeocming, visit the website of the North Carolina Folklore Journal, and scroll to the bottom of the front page.)
Homecoming begins at the 1914 church with a morning hymn-singing and the ceremonial tolling of the church bell. During a dinner on the grounds, the visitors reconnect with old friends and kinfolk, and then for the rest of the afternoon they roam the village, visiting their ancestors’ homeplaces, tending family graves, and strengthening the heartstrings that tie them to this remote island where few of them have ever lived.
The Portsmouth Homecoming exemplifies a core value of Down Easterners – their devotion to the memory, and the living traditions, of their ancestors, who for centuries worked the water and built communities that have withstood the eroding forces of time and weather.
Photo credits: Jesse Babb, Jessie Lee Babb, and Mildred Dixon. Portsmouth, 1942. Photo from Marion Gray Babb Collection, National Park Service. Modern North Carolina shrimper culling his catch.