Nags Head has a beautiful and horrible legend for how it got its name. It is well known by both local and visitor. It has attached itself to many other tales, and ultimately sold an uncountably high number of small resin figures off the shelves of gift shops across the islands.
The story is deceptively simple, and at first blush, easily believable. The first settlers to the islands were there not by choice. Shipwreck victims, mostly sailors, found themselves washed ashore on an empty and unforgiving land. They had only two choices, to get on with life or wither away and die. Across the barrier islands, many of the original families descended from these original settlers. They built shelters, caught fish, found land that would be safe and protect them from the storms and weather, and survived, if not thrived. But everything they got had to come from the land, and there wasn't much there to begin with.
But if they washed ashore, so did others. Many of the first bankers were able to take from the sea more than fish. Other shipwrecks provided whatever washed off the decks, or spilled from the cargo holds. Even flags, pennants, and sails were reused to make blankets or clothes. It was whatever the ocean would dare choose to provide.
A way to encourage this was known as wrecking, done by land pirates. It was the idea of encouraging a ship to seek safe shelter in a hole in the island, long before maps and lighthouses marked the safe passages around the coast. Legend tells that these early Bankers would walk an old horse up and down the dunes of Jockey's Ridge, when it and the other dunes were simply known as the sand hills. Around the old nag's neck would be tied a lantern with an oil or candle light gleaming inside. From far off to sea, a captain would see the light, calmer, bobbing in the night, and seek shelter near this other ship, a ghostly specter that promised safety inshore. But when the ship would sail toward the light, the shallow sand bars would reach their greedy fingers up and scratch at the keel, grabbing the boat and holding it fast. The ship would lurch, the masts would snap, and the hull would crack. Sailors would be thrown and die in the splintering wood or churning waves. They may be the lucky ones. The next morning the Breakers would row out to the ships and take what they wanted. Then, not wanting any witnesses, they would kill the remaining crew and burn the ships or let them crumble in the waves, so that the wood will wash ashore to be used in building houses.
And with that, the horse with a lantern on its neck became an old nag and a light on its head, and the legend of Nags Head was born.
I'll add the little grammatical aside first, that Nags Head is spelled without any apostrophe, before telling you that the story isn't true. It's fun, creepy, sanguine, and great for telling other tales, like the legend of Theodosia Burr and the land pirates that wander the coast, but no, it's made up. The area probably took its name from another head of land in Britain, and the name just stuck.
Besides, no horse will tolerate a burning light just under its neck. Especially when someone could do just as well with a light on a stick.
Of course, legends are legends, and they stick around for a reason. By the 1970s, if you walked into Forbes Candies or Newman's Shell Shop, you were sure to find a broken old nag with a light around its neck that could be purchased and placed on a shelf back home, either in Kill Devil Hills or farther inland, where ever the tourists came from back then.
So, why tell you that story, only to tell you it's not true? So I can tell you an even scarier tale that absolutely is true. There is a tale, called The Seven Sisters, that originates from the old original houses in the Unpainted Aristocracy in Nags Head, the original homes on the beach side. I've told the story, and won't rehash it, you can seek it out here. But there was a series of dunes that sat where the current Outer Banks Mall is now, called the Seven Sisters. And they had a curious guest there on most twilight evenings. A bright singular light would appear, just over the dune line. It was as bright as a star, unmoving, never dipping nor rising. Not two, like headlights, not shining over the sound from Manteo, but right over the top of the dune. I could see it there, nothing below it, no salt rusted Jeep blending in with one headlight working. It was just a glowing, bright light. And it happened all the time. I mean it, I saw it so often, that we stopped being surprised or stunned or even wondering. It was just there. For years. I stopped looking for it by the time I was in high school, and when the mall was built and the dunes torn down, the light of course disappeared.
But that's not all. There is a dune near the Wright Brothers Monument, Run Hill, near the schools that have been built in more recent times. It was on the sound side, and straight across from my family beach house. We could watch the sun dip down below the dune from our front porch, before the big beach houses were built up and blocked out the sun. And, yes, quite often, I saw a strange light come off the dunes. It was bright, white to red, and it just sat there, floating above the far off dune. It appeared almost every evening in the summer, and never dipped below the ridge. It just vanished, blinked out of the air, a noiseless pop of disappearing ether.
I wonder how many dunes had a ghost light. There were, still are, beneath the homes, a line of dunes in Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers first camped when testing their kites. They were unoccupied, not unmolested, as they were popular spots for off roading, until the homes went in and roads went down. And farther north, Penny's Hill and Lewark's Hill rose up high over the land around Corolla. Did they have ghost lights, too? And nobody saw them, or just never said anything. Or perhaps, like me, they were just part of the landscape, an acceptable ghost that was as good a neighbor as you could ask for. They were quiet, stayed off your property, and turned the light off each night.
Then, I started to wonder. What if the light at Jockey's Ridge was one, too? Instead of an old Nag and a candle, what if it was just a light. It would glow into the evening, a soft and wonderful bit of mesmerism, lulling sailors to their doom. The Breakers took advantage of the light, letting it help until there was dirty work. And just what were they? Did we stamp them out over the decades, with bulldozers and bare feet, running over the dunes until the lights just... went out? Where did they go?