Portsmouth Village History Timeline


Pre-Columbian and Colonial Periods

1800 BCE

Artifacts indicate that the North Carolina coast was inhabited at this time.

Circa 400

Nomadic Coree Indians, a tribe which may have been part of the Algonquian language family, hunt and fish seasonally on the Outer Banks.

section from 1590 map by Thomas Hariot_Roanoke Island
1590 map of Roanoke Island by T. Hariot


The first English colony in North America is established on Roanoke Island in modern day North Carolina. However, because supply ships failed to reach the colonists, the entire population of the colony decided to return to England with Sir Francis Drake when his expedition landed in the area.

This site and the site of 1587 Lost Colony are now protected by Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

June 1606

The Virginia Company is granted a charter which allowed them to establish settlements between the 34th and 41st north latitude lines--an area which extends, approximately, from Cedar Island, NC to slightly north of New York City and the southern tip of the state of Connecticut.

May 1607

The first permanent English settlement is established in Jamestown in modern-day Virginia.

March 24, 1663

King Charles II, in a charter, grants eight Lord Proprietors the land of Carolina for development. The Carolina province covers what is now North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

1775 map by Henry Mouzon et al - excerpt
Detail from a 1775 map by Henry Mouzon et al.

April 12, 1753

The bill "appointing and laying out a Town on Core Banks, near Ocacock [Ocracoke] Inlet, in Carteret County" passed in the North Carolina colonial assembly. The bill was introduced just 8 days prior.

The town, Portsmouth Village, was established as a transfer and storage site for goods passing through Ocracoke Inlet. A fifty acre plot of land was divided into half acre lots. The town was named after Portsmouth, England.


The first lots in Portsmouth Village are sold to John Tolson, John Tweton, William Denham, Joseph Tweton, Charles McNair and Valentine Wade, respectively.


By this time, Portsmouth had become the largest English settlement south of Virgina.


Records show eight structures in the village.

April 19, 1775

The American Revolution begins.

The British Navy would set up blockades all along the North American coast, but local colonists were able to carry supplies through Ocracoke Inlet.


The village has a recorded population of 229 individuals.

John Wallace and John Blount begin operation of their trading center on Shell Castle Island.


British troops land at Ocracoke and Portsmouth in preparation for attacks on New Bern.

October 19, 1781

Fighting between British and American forces ends with the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, but the war would not end officially until 1783.

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A Thriving Port Town

lightering sketch
Cargo from large sea-going vessels was moved to smaller boats which could navigate the shallow sounds.


John Wallace, of Portsmouth, and John Gray Blount purchased Shell Castle Island in Ocracoke Inlet and began developing a shipping and trade center. By the end of the century, the enterprise on Shell Castle Island would have a 300 foot long warehouse, grist mill, lumber yard, chandlery, tavern, and wharves.


Approximately 165 white villagers and 98 slaves lived in Portsmouth.


A Customs Office is established to prevent smuggling. However, little revenue is collected by this office because most of the trade is with American cities.

A map of the village includes a two-story "academy" and a windmill among the structures on the island.

June 18, 1812

The United States declares war on Great Britain. The following year, a British fleet of with several dozen vessels and 2000 men would attack Portsmouth and Ocracoke, occupying Portsmouth for five days.

February 17, 1815

The War of 1812 officially ends with the American ratification of the Treaty of Ghent.


Following the death of John Wallace (1810), damage from hurricanes, and the shallowing of the channel, the Shell Castle Island enterprise ended.


Approximately 265 whites, 92 slaves, and 4 free blacks were living in Portsmouth.

Marine Hospital Service logo from flag
Marine Hospital Service Logo

National Institutes of Health


The Marine Hospital Service contracted with Dr. John W. Potts to establish a hospital at Portsmouth. Dr. Potts rented a small house for the purpose.

September 30, 1835

A letter by A. Swift to Gen. Charles Gratiot notes that Ocracoke Inlet is "the outlet for all the waters of North Carolina, excepting the Cape Fear and its tributaries."


A deed record from the Methodist Church indicates the congregation has existed since at least 1828.

The post office is established.


1400 vessels pass through Ocracoke Inlet, including more than two-thirds of the state's exports.

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Shifting Sands and Civil War

September 7, 1846

A storms cuts open an inlet around the village of Hatteras. The new, deeper inlet draws trade north--away from Ocracoke Inlet and Portsmouth Village.

Architectural plans of a marine hospital
Archetechural sketch of a marine hospital

October 1, 1847

A new Marine Hospital opens with a doctor, a nurse, and three slaves. It is the most elaborate structure ever built at Portsmouth: a 50 foot by 90 foot pitch pine building with a plastered and whitewashed interior and an exterior covered with cypress shingles. There is a wooden cistern built at both ends of the compound. A fence is built to keep livestock out of the compound.


The census records 65 dwellings and a population of 505, including 27 pilots, 37 mariners, 7 boat men, 3 fishermen, 5 merchants, 4 carpenters, 2 farmers, and a teacher with 77 students.


The census shows 685 residents. Approximately 85% were employed in sea-based industry.

The Marine Hospital closes, but the building continues to be used for various purposes.

April 1861

500 Confederate troops are stationed in the Marine Hospital in Portsmouth. This station is designated Camp Washington. Troops stationed at Portsmouth also monitor Fort Ocracoke, established in May on Beacon Island in Ocracoke Inlet. To learn more about the Civil War in Portsmouth, visit the War Comes to Portsmouth webpage.

Fort Ocracoke from UNC archives folder
Dipiction of the distrcution of Fort Ocracoke

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

July 1861

The Tar River Boys, stationed at Camp Washington, mutinied and barricaded themselves in the Marine Hospital. They eventually surrendered.

September 1861

Upon hearing of the defeat at Hatteras Inlet, Confederate troops were ordered to abandon Fort Ocracoke. The soldiers at Camp Washington, and many of the villagers, also left for the mainland.

Circa 1866

Excelsior Oil and Guano Company, a Rhode Island stock company, built a menhaden plant on Haulover Point.


The Customs Office closes due to the significantly reduced trade through Ocracoke Inlet. The Ocracoke Customs District became part of the Pamlico Customs District, based in New Bern.

July 4, 1868

North Carolina rejoins the United States of America.

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Antebellum through Two World Wars

April 1876

U.S. Government grants permission to Army Signal Corps to use two rooms in hospital as a Weather Bureau Station. Other rooms were rented out to local residents.


A telegraph connection to the mainland is established. It is in operation until December 1883. It reopens briefly in 1885 until it is permanently abandoned in May 1885.


The Marine Hospital mysteriously burns down.

Portsmouth LSS 1917
Portsmouth Life-Saving Service Station Complex, 1917.

June 1894

The Portsmouth Life Saving Station, built in the northeast corner of the Marine Hospital property, is completed. The station is fully manned by November. Two years later, a stable was built. To learn more about the lives of Surfmen, visit the Surfmen of the U.S. Life-Saving Service webpage.

August 1899

A large hurricane destroys the Methodist Church in Portsmouth. It is rebuilt in 1901.

May 8-9, 1903

The 605-ton brig Vera Cruz VII, hailing from the Cape Verde Islands, ran aground on Dry Shoal Point in Ocracoke Inlet with 22 crew members and approximately 400 passengers. Keeper Ferdinand G. Terrell employed all the local men and skiffs available along with his crew and their lifeboat to rescue these shipwreck victims. To this day, the rescue of the 421 victims of the Vera Cruz remains the largest rescue from a single vessel.


Both the Methodist and Primitive Baptist Churches are destroyed in during a hurricane. The Methodist Church was rebuilt in 1915.

January 28, 1915

The Life Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service merge to become the U.S. Coast Guard and the LSS Station becomes a Coast Guard Station.

Circa 1917

Portsmouth Fisheries Company operates a menhaden factory on Casey Island.

September 16, 1933

A major hurricane does extensive damage to the communities on Portsmouth Island, particularly the Sheep Island community. Many families relocate to the mainland following this storm.


The U.S. Coast Guard Station at Portsmouth Village is deactivated.

December 7, 1941

Japan attacks United States forces at Pearl Harbor. The following day, the U.S. enters World War II and the military moves to re-establish coastal defenses.

coast guardsman on horse
Coast Guards patroled the beach in search of German U-boats.

Spring 1942

German U-boats target shipping off the Atlantic coast, including North Carolina. Following heavy losses through May, blackouts are instituted in coastal towns.


U.S. Coast Guard Station operates during World War II as part of the Coast Watch System. Coast Guard, Marines, and Army personnel were stationed at this location.


Following a hurricane, many residents of Portsmouth leave for the mainland.


World War II ends. However, some coastal defenses, including Fort Macon, had already been deactivated.

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The Fishing Hamlet becomes a Historic Village


A postage stamp is the only item which can be purchased in Portsmouth Village.

Regular church services are discontinued around this time.


Post Office closes after 119 years of service. The last two postmasters were Annie Salter (from 1926 to 1954) and her daughter Dorothy Salter (from 1954 to 1959).

The state of North Carolina begins purchasing land on Core Banks, including Portsmouth Village, for the purpose of preserving the natural barrier islands.


The village has only three permanent residents--Henry Pigott, Marian Babb, and Elma Dixon. Other buildings serve as vacation homes or hunting and fishing clubs.

March 10, 1966

Cape Lookout National Seashore authorized for Core Banks, including Portsmouth Village.

Marian Babb and Elma Dixon
Marian Babb (left) and her aunt, Elma Dixon, were the last two permenant residents of Portsmouth Village.

January 5, 1971

Henry Pigott, the last permenant male resident of Portsmouth Village, dies after falling ill and moving to Ocracoke under the care of friends. After his death, Elma Dixon and Marian Babb reluctantly agree to leave Portsmouth and move to the mainland.

November 29, 1978

250-acres of land in Portsmouth Village are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Portsmouth Village Historic District.

April 25, 1992

The Friends of Portsmouth Island sponsor the first Portsmouth Homecoming. Seven people who were born on Portsmouth Island were present. Since that time, the Homecoming celebrations have been held in Portsmouth Village once every two years.

1998 - 1999

Significant damage was done to the village and several buildings were lost during Hurricanes Dennis (1998) and Floyd (1999).


The Theodore and Annie Salter House Visitor Center, Post Office, School, and Life-Saving Station house new exhibits on life in the village.

April 24, 2012

The Henry Pigott house opens to the public at the 10th Homecoming. The Friends of Portsmouth Island restored this house and furnished in the the style of the period of significance for the historic district.

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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