Beaufort: An Old North Carolina Seaport With a Buried Past

By Laura Stassi Jeffrey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 23, 2009

I am standing among oak trees twisted with thick wisteria vines and heavy with resurrection fern, staring at the tombstone of a 6-month-old infant with my first name who'd died four months, seven days and 95 years before I was born. For a moment, I have forgotten that only a block or so away is the familiar Beaufort, the one with the shops, docks and boats that bring sailors here or transport them over Taylor's Creek to Shackleford Banks and, beyond that, to the Atlantic Ocean. At this moment, I am seeing a side of this fine old seaport town that I hadn't known existed.

Beaufort (pronounced Bo-fort, not Byoo-fort, like its South Carolina counterpart) is the third-oldest town in North Carolina. Nestled on the Intracoastal Waterway, it was founded in 1709 and was long home to fisheries that processed menhaden, a type of herring, into oil and fertilizer. Today, dependent mostly on fishing and tourism, it's a picture-perfect town of about 4,000, with restored Victorian homes dotting the tree-lined streets and a colorful downtown with a myriad clothing boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and antiques shops. Only about 20 miles from our little vacation house in Emerald Isle, Beaufort has been my family's go-to destination when the usual beach diversions of playing putt-putt golf or riding go-karts become boring.

But I've never been to the Old Burying Ground on Ann Street. Deeded to the town in 1731 and surrounded by churches on three sides, the cemetery is included in the National Register of Historic Places. Beyond its black, wrought-iron gates lie "Little Laura" Norcom and the rest of her family, along with hundreds of other good citizens of Beaufort. As was the custom of the time and place, the graves were vaulted and bricked over to protect them from water and wild animals. Most face east; according to the costumed tour guide, that's because the occupants wanted to make sure that they saw the sun when they were called to rise from the dead on Judgment Day.

The Old Burying Ground is the final resting place of several Confederate soldiers, whose graves are marked with the cast-iron Southern Cross of Honor. Yet this is an equal-opportunity cemetery, with almost as many Yankees as Confederates buried here. Also resting here are an African American couple, Pierre and Annie Henry. The Henrys (he was born free; she had been a slave) taught at a Beaufort school for emancipated slaves after the Civil War.

One corner of the cemetery looks empty, but it is believed to contain the unmarked graves of victims of the September 1711 war with the Coree and Neusiok Indian tribes. Our tour guide tells us that archaeologists reached the conclusion after discovering skulls in that section that looked as though they had been dented by tomahawks.

I find that, far from being spooky, the Old Burying Ground is full of simple beauty and even love. After spending more than an hour wandering its sandy paths, however, I'm ready to seek shelter from the ferocious weather. So I leave the sandy paths of the cemetery and walk to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, on Front Street across from the water. Perhaps its most notable collection is of artifacts recovered from wreckage believed to be Queen Anne's Revenge, the flagship of the notorious pirate Blackbeard. Divers located the shipwreck in the mid-1990s in Beaufort Inlet; among the clues that it was probably Blackbeard's ship was the discovery of more than two dozen cannons.

The museum also features full-size models of ships and commercial fishing boats, as well as exhibits on the U.S. Life Saving Service, an early precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard; the U.S. Light House Service; and coastal marine life. Across the street from the main museum is the watercraft center, which offers classes in boat building and model making. Visitors can wander in to watch professional boat builders. On this day, they are working on replicas of the 1897 Monomoy surfboat, the type of boat used by the U.S. Life Saving Service.

I marvel at all these discoveries, because even though I've been to Beaufort before, I haven't actually stayed in town for long. Instead, accompanied by my kids and bearing only the things we can carry -- backpack-style beach chairs, towels, drinks, plastic bags for collecting shells -- we board a passenger ferry on the docks at Front Street and motor over to Shackleford Banks, part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. When you disembark, the boat captain asks how long you want to stay; pickups are 20 minutes after every hour. Then we're on our own to explore this uninhabited barrier island that is a national park.

After setting up our chairs, we take long walks to look for seashells and seek out a close encounter with the wild horses that make their home on the island. They are descendants of the Spanish mustangs that were shipwrecked in this area more than 400 years ago. Even though the boat captain points them out at a distance as we approach Shackleford Banks, we've never seen them up close. If we ever do, we know to give them their space so they won't feel threatened.

From the island, we can also see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. At 163 feet high, the diamond-patterned tower was reportedly the first tall coastal light built in the state, completed in 1859. One day, I'll take the three-hour ferry tour to get a more personal look, though the lighthouse is in need of repair and isn't open to the public.

As I head over to one of Beaufort's waterfront restaurants for a leisurely alfresco lunch, I'm already contemplating my next visit. The town is planning several events in September to commemorate its 300th anniversary. With my older child starting college and the younger entering high school, next month might just be the right time to introduce my husband to the Beaufort I've discovered.

Laura Stassi Jeffrey is a freelance writer and the author of almost two dozen nonfiction books for young readers. She lives in Chantilly.

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