KILL DEVIL HILL
BY JAQUES BUSBEE
At sunrise it floats in the mist like the diaphanous pink ghost of a hill. To stand upon it in the blinding glare of noon it is vastly more illusive—the luminous sands under your feet seeming more unreal than the remote edges cutting sharp against the deep blue sky. Even on stillest days upon the beach, the sand on the summit is ever blowing, blurring the edges with a film like heat radiations—piling up the hill in a great crescent with horns outstretched to leeward from the prevailing northeast winds.
And this vast pile of sand, hard on the windward, soft on the leeward side, is ever moving towards the southwest at the rate of two or three feet a year.
From the summit the view thrills with its far-stretched beauty. Three quarters of a mile to the east, across the coarse beach grass, is the boundless Atlantic; north, on the trembling distance is another great sand hill fifteen miles away—Paul Gamel's Hill; south, the view is splendid with the gleaming expanse of the fresh pond (a scant mile from the surf) hemmed in on its western shore by the dark mysterious Nagshead woods and the Nagshead sand hills beyond. But to the west unfolds the view of views.
The north end of Roanoke Island, on which stands Fort Raleigh, stretches across the southwest. Roanoke Sound is divided from Kitty Hawk Bay by Collington Island (named for Lord Colleton, one of the Lords Proprietors), and far to the northwest on the dim horizon is Powell's Point. Between Powell's Point and Kitty Hawk is the entrance to Currituck Sound.
Three hundred and twenty odd years ago this same view
burst upon the astonished sight of Amidas and Barlowe. For after anchoring in the inlet, which was Kitty Hawk Bay extended through the banks to the ocean, afterwards closed by the great storm of 1696, named Trinity Harbor by these first English to set foot in North Carolina, they ran to the top of the nearest sand hill on the south of the inlet to view the country. They beheld the sea on both sides “finding no end any of both ways.” They shot off their harquebus shots “and such a flock of cranes for the most part white” arose under them “with such a cry redoubled by many echoes, as if an army of men had shouted all together.”
Standing on the top of Kill Devil Hill today, the same view unfolds itself; the green-blue Atlantic to the east; the violet-blue sounds to the west; the brilliant marsh grasses, the golden sand hills, the dark dense woods, and flocks of herons “for the most part white”; the whole vast panorama blue—vivid blue from sky and sea and the reflections of myriad pools upon the beach.
Just where Amidas and Barlowe landed is an always disputed point. Barlowe's narrative, with its quaint old English wording, leaves the inquirer in greater doubt than if he took the word of any one of the many historians each of whom chose for himself the inlet which suited him best. But language, says Talleyrand, is a gloriously uncertain vehicle, invented to conceal thought.
So turn to John White's map, or rather, bird's eye view of this “coming of the English.” Now a picture can mean only one thing. This picture shows a boat with eight men in it, sailing towards Roanoke Island from the northeast. The distance from the inlet where the two vessels were anchored to Roanoke was recorded by them as seven leagues. Although the distance by water from Kitty Hawk Bay to Roanoke is not as much as seven leagues, old Currituck inlet is much too far north and old Roanoke inlet is not far
enough north—for who can believe those early explorers were very accurate measures of distance? An inlet through the banks at Kitty Hawk Bay comes much nearer fitting both the account and picture than any other inlet indicated.
One thing, however, is certain and that is, an inlet once pierced the banks nearly opposite the pressure of Albemarle Sound waters. Along the shores of Kitty Hawk and the opposite shores of Collington Islands are undeniable evidences that the present fresh waters of the bay were once salt. Great mounds of oyster shells or “Indian Kitchens” line the shores. Indian relics are scattered here and there and are often “blowing out.” Within the memory of living men the ocean beach curved in at a point opposite the bay to such an extent that small vessels could find in it a partial haven.
The fresh pond, a mile to the southward, was once connected with this inlet; for old men remember their fathers’ statements that boats could be taken from the bay into this land-locked harbor.
Kill Devil Hill stands a natural monument to mark this old inlet of Trinity Harbor. Its sands have moved and shifted and wasted away, but other sands have blown and made up in their stead. Is it too much to hazard the belief that the first English feet to climb its yielding slope were the sailors’ from Sir Walter Raleigh's two little vessels anchored in the offing, and that upon its summit Amidas and Barlowe unfurled the English flag?
Kill Devil Hill claims a present interest for two reasons; first, that from its crown (125 feet high) the Wright brothers learned to fly; and second on account of the legend of its name.
Hidden from the world at Kill Devil Hill the Wright brothers labored secretly at the most wonderful success that man has yet achieved. Over at Kitty Hawk, Mrs. W. J. Tate
shows with pride her sewing machine on which she stitched up the sails for this biplane, and at the foot of Kill Devil Hill stands the “flying shed” which sheltered that mysterious bird. How Nagshead and Kitty Hawk woods swarmed with reporters and kodaks when the Wrights’ experiments had reached the point of success, is all too recent in the newspapers to need repetition.
But the legend of the name “Kill Devil” is too characteristic of the banks, as they were long ago, to be lost; and apocryphal though it may be, it deserves preservation. “In days of yore and in times long gone before” there dwelt upon the banks in the thick tangled woods of Nagshead and to the northward, a rude and primitive race of wreckers and beach combers whose living came largely from the sea.
When God in His bounty was slow to drive vessels upon the treacherous quicksands of the coast, the natives, in promising, stormy weather would hobble a bank pony, tie a lantern about his neck and turn him out upon the beach. The light bobbing up and down as the nag grazed, closely simulated the lights on a vessel at sea. Long before the days of light houses or life saving stations, when vessels cleared some port never to be heard from again, the bankers along this coast could have given information in many instances had they chosen. The mystery of Theodosia Burr Alston and the portrait of an aristocratic lady which hung for many years in a Nagshead shanty, and which was but recently identified, held a tragedy of the banks which many writers have essayed.
But that is not the story of Kill Devil. Like most stories of the banks, it begins with a wreck. A coastwise merchantman, laden with a valuable cargo, was driven upon the reef and wrecked. The crew succeeded in reaching the beach alive, and next day, the storm having much abated.
most of the cargo was gotten through the surf and piled upon the sand with a guard to watch it.
Towards midnight the guard sprang forward in wide awake terror, to find the bale of goods upon which he was sleeping detach itself from the pile and amble away across the beach, to disappear in the woods beyond the big sand hill. In a moment all hands were awake and regarding with stupified horror the spot where a moment before the bale had rested. No power but the Devil was capable of such a thing, they all declared, and they cursed the fate which had cast them upon such a coast. Two men were ordered to watch for the remainder of the night.
It was just before dawn. Both men saw it with wide open eyes. A large bale of goods broke loose from the pile and went bounding over the sand, to disappear in the direction of the big sand hill. This was no night “head notion.” Daylight, however, restored quiet and these superstitious sailors held a council. Of course it was the Devil. That went without argument. But then, who could circumvent, capture, or kill, the Devil? Men were not inclined to watch or even sleep near such a diabolical spot. At length one old grizzly seadog offered to watch—alone if none had nerve enough to watch with him. He feared not man, God, nor Devil; and if it was the Devil, he swore he'd kill him.
Until midnight this fearless one patrolled the beach alone, keeping a close eye on the bales of goods so mysteriously diminished the night before. Finally he sat down for a moment just to rest his legs. With a shock to consciousness, he was startled to see a large bale of goods break loose from the pile and start across the beach towards the big hill. In an instant his gun was levelled on it, but what was there to shoot? So he ran after it as hard as he could, but it bounded along just ahead with increasing speed. Then with a desperate effort he dashed forward between the fleeing bale and
the sand hill, when he tripped and fell over a taut rope. In an instant he was on his feet, and, taking aim along the rope, he fired. The bale of goods stood still. Running along by the rope, he saw, dimly silhouetted against the faintly gleaming sand, a large black object with what he took to be two horns and a tail.
While he was reloading his gun this devilish thing began again to move. He pulled the trigger. Immediately the night was filled with a fearful noise, as the black object sank to the ground and began to kick up the sand. Rushing up to the foot of the hill, there he saw lying—the Devil, weltering in blood?—an old beach pony with a rope tied to his harness—the other end hooked to the bale of goods. But he had in truth killed the Devil, for the pile of goods remained untouched upon the beach till finally boated away. And so that grandiose sand hill standing near the site of the old inlet was ever after known as “Kill the Devil Hill.”
Now as Shahrazad, perceiving the dawn of day, would remark, “Whether this be true or only legend is past finding out, but Allah is all-knowing.”