They have been collecting the dead here for almost 270 years, before the colonies became a country, before the country was shattered by war. The dead in St. Peter’s graveyard were safeguarded even as civil war raged above them, as artillery riddled houses, cavalry charged through the streets, and the church burned down to the ground to meet them.
St. Peter’s has been holding the dead for a long time. There are three Revolutionary soldiers, 17 Confederate dead, and far too many children.
Massive trees have grown to shadow the graves — magnolia, oak, cypress, dogwood, birch, even a Ginkgo. Palmetto palms surround the graves like bayonets planted in the ground. And sunlight flows like water, ebbing and flooding among the headstones.
In the shadow of a massive magnolia tree lies the grave of Colonel James Bonner. He named the town Washington after his friend and fellow soldier, George Washington. Beneath a cypress tree, Thankful O’Cain and her babies are buried. Nearby the relatives of film director Cecil B. DeMille are encrypted, waiting for the resurrection that was promised.
In 1890 they stopped burying the dead in St. Peter’s. Townsfolk were concerned the dead would contaminate their well water.
After the storms, wreckage accumulates not only ashore but on the water, on the rivers and sands, the bays and wetlands of North Carolina. The Coast Guard removes the most harmful materials, the oil and fuel, but the wreckage is the responsibility of local governments, often the poorest counties in the state.
An abandoned sloop on Chocowinity Bay.
So the derelict hulls remain, rotting slowly. Steel and fiberglass take a long time to rot. The wreckage remains for years, sinking slowly into the muck, the earth rising to meet it, dark water lapping in dark places.
There’s something especially tragic about the wreckage of a boat, more than an old house or a collapsing barn. The boat is utterly abandoned, cast out of its element, exiled from the sea and discarded on the shore.
Someone once slept inside that hull, like a mollusk in its shell, rocked by waves, and dreamed of distant places beyond the curve of the horizon.
Boats weren’t made to be motionless.
Aground on the banks of the Pamlico River near Washington, North Carolina, after Hurricane Dorian.
Castle Island is only a stone’s throw from the Washington waterfront. It’s a few acres of sand in the middle of the Pamlico River named for the crenelated chimneys of lime kilns that once occupied the island. The chimneys resembled medieval towers. The kilns rendered lime from oyster shells to make cement.
History is piled on Castle Island like oyster shells. There was a shipyard once and a sawmill, Union troops and an artillery battery. Much later there was a whorehouse.
Through the years old boats were left to rot on the shore or burnt to the waterline for their metal fittings. The hulls settled into the mud like time. They piled up like cordwood upstream of the island, a ship’s graveyard. The bones of an oyster shell barge jostled a sharpie schooner, a motorized fishing boat from the early 20th Century, a bugeye schooner, and a barge or ferry boat. In all, 11 vessels were researched by the Eastern Carolina University’s Maritime Studies staff in 1998 and 1999.
Castle Island, Pamlico River in the fog. Boats moored up-current are near the location of the ship’s graveyard.
Then Hurricane Floyd struck in 2000. The Pamlico River rose 24-feet above flood stage. Houses, buildings, farms, even small towns were swept away. The river spilled onto the 500-year floodplain. And the current scoured the ship’s graveyard.
The remnants of vessels up current of the island are gone now. They may have been carried downstream or broken up and shot downriver by the force of the flood. Whatever more we may have learned from them is lost.
Boats are still being lost to hurricanes. The sloop Rebecca aground after Hurricane Dorian.
A Great Blue Heron regularly roosts overnight in a neighborhood tree on Chocowinity Bay. Sometimes it squawks indignantly and flees when I paddle too close. Sometimes it tolerates my approach.
The frayed feathers on the heron’s chest are called “powder down.” The birds can crush these feathers into a powder with a fringed claw on its middle toe and apply it to the feathers on its underbelly. The powder keeps those feathers from becoming fouled and oily wading in the swamps. The swamp slime clumps on the feathers and the heron brushes it off with its feet. They also powder oily fish before eating.
The disapproving gaze and crouched shoulders of a Great Blue Heron remind me of Groucho Marx.
Herons stalk shoal water for hours, waiting for a fish, a frog, shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds, especially ducklings. Apparently, hunger breeds patience but not a good temper.
The Norfolk-Southern Railroad bridge spans the Pamlico River at Washington, NC. One end vanishes in the fog, the other ends abruptly at the draw span.
The fog has leeched the color from the photo except for the red light of a single channel marker.
As an old man Bill Seller remembered when he was young, staying at his grandparent’s house in Washington beside the Pamlico River, windows open in the sultry heat, listening to the freight trains slowly cross the bridge in the middle of the night, restricted to 10 miles per hour over the wooden trestles, counting the cars as their wheels clattered across the open joint at the end of the draw span.
Beaufort County, North Carolina has always been a hard place to make a living. People get by doing what they can. Some got by making moonshine.
There’s a story about a bootlegger in the 1950s, long after the end of Prohibition, who sited his still on a saw grass meadow at the head of Chocowinity Bay. It had the advantage of isolation. It could only be reached by boat.
The saw grass grew tall enough to screen his still from fishermen and duck hunters until the grass caught fire one day and burned down to the muck. His still became as obvious as a smokestack.
The saw grass meadows remain even if the bootleggers have all gone.
Grandpap is an island sunk in the Pamlico River downstream of Washington, NC. The island has been eroded by storms. It’s only a name on the charts now, a shoal patch, and the bones of some cypress trees rooted in the water.
The trees stand isolated in the fog. A few sodden cormorants dry themselves on leafless limbs. The river flows past sluggishly on its way to the Pamlico Sound.
There were African slaves in the early settlement of North Carolina but relatively few. White settlers compensated by raiding Tuscarora villages and enslaving natives to work their fields. The Tuscarora objected violently. In September 1711, the Tuscarora War began.
Oral history records the first Tuscarora attack was against John Porter’s homestead at the head of Chocowinity Bay. Porter and his guest, Patrick Maule, successfully defended themselves.
John Porter built his home near a landing on Sidney Creek. The creek winds itself through the wetlands near the head of the bay. The old wharf pictured is likely located near Porter’s homestead and the opening battle of the Tuscarora War.
Not everyone fared as well as John Porter. A neighbor, a man named Nevil, had a farmstead near the mouth of Blounts Creek.
Nevil, “after being shot, was laid on the house-floor, with a clean pillow under his head, his stockings turned over his shoes, and his body covered with new linen. His wife was set upon her knees, and her hands lifted up as if she was at prayers, leaning against a chair in the chimney corner, and her coats turned up over her head. A son of his was laid out in the yard with a pillow laid under his head and a bunch of rosemary laid to his nose.”
The Tuscarora had a creative way of celebrating death.
Water flows sluggishly through the wetlands at the head of Chocowinity Bay. Spanish moss filters the sunlight and shadows recline on the water.
The wetlands at the head of the bay are less than a mile from home. I paddle the winding leads through bald cypress trees and sawgrass meadows several times each week, watching the seasons change, the foilage thin, then thicken, the storms come and go. It’s a place that grounds my sanity when the world seems insane and humanity seems intent upon its own destruction.