Book spotlights remarkable Outer Banks women

Carolista Baum is known to have found herself in front of a bulldozer that had to level the high sand dune of Jockeys Ridge and replace it with a condominium project. Photo: Outer Banks History Center.

Reprinted from the Ocracoke Observer.

Hannah Bunn West has shone the spotlight on some little-known and influential women in Outer Banks history.

Her new book, “Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks” (The History Press, 2022), reveals seven of these women, from the arrival of the first Europeans to the recent past.

The first chapter begins with the lost colony and introduces Eleanor Dare, wife of Ananias Dare and daughter of John White, the governor of the colony.

During her third trimester of pregnancy, Eleanor arrived in Roanoke in July 1587. On August 18, she gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America. Little is known about what became of them.

At the time, mother/child mortality, even in England, was high, and the fact that Eleanor gave birth in such a primitive setting without medical help caught the author’s attention.

West, who grew up in Kill Devil Hills, provides meticulous details about the times and theories about what happened to the settlers. There are 29 footnotes for the first chapter alone.

“We have sightings of some of the men at this time from the surviving journals of John White and Thomas Hariot and other sources, but we have very little record of the women’s experiences,” West said in an interview. “I chose Eleanor Dare primarily because one of the main purposes of this book was to broaden the lens and examine different perspectives on the well-known history we have on the Outer Banks.”

Other women featured with their own chapters are Chrissy Bowser, Irene Tate, Nellie Myrtle Pridgen, Carolista Baum, Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Virginia Tillett.

Hannah Bunn West, author of
Hannah Bunn West, author of “Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks”. Picture: Contributed

Prior to the conception of the book, two of these women, Chrissy Bowser and Irene Tate were unfamiliar to the author.

Chrissy Bowser was selected as an African-American landowner after the Civil War. West first heard of her while visiting Island Farm, a living history site on Roanoke Island that depicts life in the mid-1800s.

While baking cornbread, a docent spoke enthusiastically about Bowser, the Etheridge family cook-turned-owner. “She started telling this incredible story of this woman,” West said. “I grew up here and always had an interest in history, but I had never heard of (Bowser). So that was kind of one of the ways one of those women got picked for my book.

Researching Bowser’s life has not been easy. There are still questions regarding certain fundamental aspects of her identity, her year of birth and whether she was born a slave or a free person.

The articles and story sources West found in the local press mostly say that Bowser was born free, but West’s research, which involved sifting through census records, marriage records, and Freedmen’s Colony documents, did not reveal any obvious signs indicating this.

“So instead of coming down definitively one way or the other, I just wanted to present the information as objectively as possible, and point out that hundreds of years ago, the details of the lives of some people were well documented, and others were basically considered insignificant,” West said.

Despite the many footnotes, 186, at the end of the book, the book is not a dry historical report.

West holds a degree in creative writing with a concentration in nonfiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a lifelong passion for history.

By way of introduction, West begins Chapter 4 in the following colorful manner: “The image of a woman walking alone by the seashore is conjured up at the mention of Nelly Myrtle Pridgen by anyone who knew her. The sight of his lean, slightly stooped figure like a stock of sea oats, usually combing the expanse of sand in front of his Nags Head home was as constant and reliable as the rise and fall of the tide for nearly seven decades.

Nelly Myrtle Pridgen.  Photo: Courtesy of Friends of the Family
Nelly Myrtle Pridgen. Photo: Courtesy of Friends of the Family

Pridgen, who died in 1992, actively opposed the development of the Outer Banks and walked around every day collecting items that would become a priceless collection.

How’s that for a childhood memory:

West writes: “On the morning of September 12, 1900, there was an unexpected knock on the door of the Tate family, residents of Kitty Hawk. They answered it to find their neighbor, Elijah Baum, standing with a strange gentleman who looked worn and weary. The stranger took off his cap and introduced himself as Wilbur Wright, from Dayton, Ohio. Little did the Tates know that the man they received would become world famous, along with his brother Orville, for mankind’s first flight.

Irene Tate was only three years old that morning, but the impact of her visit shaped the course of her life. She herself took off by becoming the first female pilot to make a round trip between New York and Miami. Her first time on an airplane predates that of Amelia Earhart, also born in 1897.

Bill and Irene Tate.  Photo provided by the author
Bill and Irene Tate. Photo provided by the author

Tate has had many other accomplishments throughout her long career, logging over 50,000 flight miles and president of the National Aeronautic Association’s Women’s Division.

The writing and selected photos in this chapter show how aloof and austere Kitty Hawk was at the turn of the 20th century – a far cry from where she is today.

The book is loaded with black and white photographs drawn from numerous sources that match the historical tone of the book.

Carolista Baum and Cheryl Shelton-Roberts are two of the most well-known women who have been the subject of many popular press articles. Baum is well known for showing up in front of a bulldozer that was to level the high sand dune of Jockeys Ridge and replace it with a condominium project. She forced the workers to stop that day and the developer later accepted her historical significance. Baum led efforts to make it a state park.

Shelton-Roberts, the only surviving woman in this book, has been a lifelong lover of lighthouses and, through much turmoil, played a key role in moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999 to a safer location. If she hadn’t succeeded, the lighthouse would have fallen into the ocean. Whether to move the lighthouse or leave it to nature aroused strong feelings on both sides. This chapter includes many inside details, including Senator Marc Basnight getting President Clinton’s ear for funding.

This well-written book succeeds on two levels. Women deserve to be included for their accomplishments, and each chapter serves as a historical chapter on the evolving history of the Outer Banks.

The book attracts attention. It seems almost every day someone asks if a particular woman has been included or will be in the next volume, West said.

I, along with many others, have suggestions for other women to be hailed as a Remarkable Outer Banks Woman. But after reading this book, I wouldn’t replace any of them.

West may oblige with other volumes, but that hasn’t been decided.

“Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks” is available for purchase at local Outer Banks independent bookstores, including Books to be Red, and on the Arcadia Publishing website. For a complete list, visit the author’s website at www.hannahwestwrites.com.

This story is provided courtesy of Ocracoke Watcher, a newspaper covering Ocracoke Island. Coastal Review partners with Ocracoke Observer to provide readers with more interesting environmental and lifestyle stories along our coast.

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