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Book review: 'The Outer Banks Gazetteer' full of great questions, answers

Book review: 'The Outer Banks Gazetteer' full of great questions, answers

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When Roger L. Payne was a boy waiting for the ferry to take him across Oregon Inlet on his first visit to the Outer Banks, he asked his father about the name of the inlet, which, after all was a long way from Oregon. His father, Payne recalls in the introduction to his new book, replied: “That’s a good question.”

The answer, to be found in Payne’s newly published “The Outer Banks Gazetteer: The History of Place Names from Carova to Emerald Isle,” is that this important inlet connecting the Pamlico Sound to the Atlantic Ocean opened during a hurricane in 1846 and was named for the first vessel to pass through it, a sidewheeler named Oregon.

Many other good questions have followed that one over the years. Payne, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography and history from East Carolina University, is now the executive secretary emeritus of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Over the decades of his career, when he had some spare time, he often investigated the names of places in the Outer Banks. In 1985, he turned the results of his endeavors into “Place Names of the Outer Banks.”

Now, more than 35 years later, Payne has used modern technology to help him examine a great deal more source material as well as updated maps. His new “The Outer Banks Gazetteer” has nearly four times the number of place names as its predecessor.

Payne is quick to say that he’s sure no book will ever include every name, because names “are dynamic and will continue to be added to the Outer Banks’ lexicon.” But, he says, he believes his efforts are worthwhile “because it is most important to preserve the original Outer Banks culture.” It’s well established, he says, that collecting and analyzing place names is a good way to preserve the culture of a place.

This is not the sort of book you’re likely to find in a gift shop catering to tourists, not the sort that has popular, even romantic tales about how a place got its name. Some of the entries are, in fact, designed to “dispel myths” that grew up to fill the void when the origin of a name was lost. This is a work of scholarship, but never fear, it is also enjoyable reading.

Nags Head? You didn’t really believe that old tale about dastardly folks hanging a lantern around a horses’ neck and walking the horse along the beach in hopes that sailors would think it was another ship and sail too close to the treacherous banks, thus wrecking the ship and allowing the locals to plunder it, did you? Payne says: “No historical evidence to support this story, and hanging a smoking lantern around a horse’s neck is not a task easily accomplished.”

Payne weaves relevant information about geography, history, nature and economics, along with understanding of the local culture, in with the results of his research and analysis.

Jockey’s Ridge, despite some local lore, doesn’t have anything to do with a racetrack, but was named for an early landowner called Jaccock or Jacock. That evolved to Jackey Ridge, documented on maps until 1953.

Monkey Island, in the Currituck Sound near Corolla? There were never monkeys there. The name is just a corruption of “Pumonkey,” an Indian tribe that often visited the island. There is good waterfowl hunting there, and one of the many hunt clubs in Currituck in the early 20th century was on the island.

Manteo and Wanchese, though, towns on Roanoke Island, really are named for the two Indians who were taken to England by explorers connected to the eventual Lost Colony, and who had very different reactions to their experiences.

And there’s considerable evidence that Emerald Isle was named by a 20th-century developer who was impressed by the dense, green maritime forest when he flew over the area.

Carova? Simple: It’s right near the state line, and is a blend of Carolina and Virginia.

Bodie Island really is pronounced “body,” but the name does not seem to refer to corpses from shipwrecks.

The stories go on, more than 3,000 of them. Some are short and dry. Some reveal interesting name origins. Others, while leaving the origin undetermined, provide intriguing history or side stories.

This is the sort of book anyone who loves the Outer Banks can pick up from time to time, always sure to find something worth reading. It’s also the sort of book that will provide valuable history for generations to come.

Linda Carter Brinson writes a blog about books, Briar Patch Books, at


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