WANCHESE, NORTH CAROLINA
Growing up, the Outer Banks’ Northern Beaches felt like my second home. Yet, now three decades into my relationship with the region, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to an area known as Wanchese.
In the original American Guide to North Carolina, Wanchese is nothing but a footnote along the way to bigger, more well-tread destinations.
Left on State 345 is WANCHESE, 4 m. (1,040 pop.), which has one of the best harbors in the section and is a trading point for northern Pamlico Sound (one boat daily to Hatteras). It is the center of Dare’s shad-fishing industry in which 90 percent of the county’s population is employed.
Even among Outer Banks locals—a people rather removed from most of the world for all but the summer season—Wanchese is considered the most backward of all. When I insisted on taking off to investigate the place for myself, my cousins (born and raised in Kill Devil Hills) dismissed it as a waste of time, asking why I’d bother.
“Because you all think so poorly of it. And I want to know why.”
My first interaction with a “Cheser” (as they’re derogatorily referred to) was as an early teenager. My memory of the instance is crystalline and simple: sitting on the beach alone, not far from a cousin’s lifeguard tower, a young man about my age approached me. He was peddling tiny kites that flew in the air, one tied to each of his fingers. They were adorable… and so was he, especially with that accent. After declining to purchase his wares, he ambled on.
That night I told my older cousin about the cute British boy who tried to sell me a kite earlier. She laughed in my face. “He’s not British! That kid’s from WANCHESE.”
But I wasn’t completely off, either. For centuries, Wanchese kept to itself so much that its residents inherited a unique, distinct brogue that dates back to the region’s original 17th-century colonizers. This peculiar way of speaking is sometimes referred to as a hoi toider accent, and persists to this day in only a handful of spots in coastal Virginia and North Carolina. The explanation of longtime residents like Arnold Daniels (quoted in Elizabeth Leland’s The Vanishing Coast) makes a lot of sense:
Thare’s people in my toime never was off the oiland, only by bowt to go out fishin’. We were so oisolated, and we just talked just loike parents before us talked, you see. Naturally it was the people in this area we were around makin’ contact with, so Oi guess that’s the reason why we kept this brogue.
In the same book, linguist Bob Howren is more succinct but much less colorful: “The language simply developed on its own merry way[…] It’s not Elizabethan English and they’re not Irish. It’s good old American English of a different stripe.”
This settlement is old America, comprised of a people intentionally othered, who stubbornly stuck to their ways in spite of the changing world at their doorstep. Yet when wandering around Wanchese recently, finding a resident with the thick accent I remember from my youth proved hard to find.
In the grander scheme of things, Wanchese’s neutered dialect is this region’s canary in a coal mine. A visit to its graveyards and shipyards tells the same, subtle story in two different ways; both are littered with the sad, poignant skeletons of a simple life that has all but disappeared.
The scene is bittersweet at best, and probably not for everyone… but Wanchese warrants much more attention than the original American Guide—or the scorn of locals—suggests.
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Sarah Brumble was born in West Virginia, raised in Portland, Oregon, and now lives and works in Minneapolis. Her professional affiliations include Atlas Obscura, MPLS.tv, Playboy, and various other publications with mixed reputations. When not sailing through shark-infested waters or walking overland into Nigeria, Brumble can be found making photos with unreliable cameras, playing with social media, and not-not trespassing.