Three years ago, my husband and I were in our final year of graduate school and in search of something to do over spring break. We lived in Northern Virginia at the time, so my husband suggested exploring the Outer Banks – about a five hour drive south. As soon as I determined that the Outer Banks were only a stone’s throw from mainland Hyde County, North Carolina, I was on board.
Why the fuss about Hyde County? I knew that this was the place from which my Stilley ancestors – who settled on the Illinois frontier in the early nineteenth century – had likely hailed. And for me, the ideal vacation includes at least some genealogical or historical element, paired, of course, with beautiful scenery, good local food, plenty of photo ops, and a travel companion willing to humor me.
My direct ancestor Nancy Stilley, born in 1819 in Franklin County, Illinois, can almost certainly be linked to the other Stilleys scattered throughout southern Illinois who had roots in Hyde County, North Carolina. Nancy is believed to have been a granddaughter of the Hezekiah Stilley who was a resident of Hyde County as late as 1800 and whose numerous children – later residents of southern Illinois – are named in a family Bible.1 In the interests of full disclosure (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck), I will add that Hezekiah Stilley likely married the daughter of Hyde County landowner and enslaver William Davis, who died there circa 1803.2 His will named eight enslaved individuals, Jemima, Gabrel, Joseph, Moses, Kesiah, Cate, Judith, and Silard, all of who were to remain with his wife and selected children after his death.3
We had only a couple of hours to spend driving through the Inner Banks of Hyde County, but while this was not an in-depth research venture, it was still incredible to get a feel for the landscape that would have been familiar to my ancestors. I was glad to find that the county is still very rural; according to the 2010 census, the population is under six thousand people, comparable to its size two centuries ago. I believe we drove for an hour through the swamps and marshes without seeing another human being, and the only signs of civilization for much of our drive were an untended boat and an abandoned but well-kept ghost town.
Hyde County, North Carolina also encompasses Ocracoke Island, a popular tourist destination on the Outer Banks that we visited via ferry. The island boasts quaint shops, stunning herds of wild horses, and locals who speak a distinct Ocracoke brogue that traces back to the dialect of the early colonists. It’s a must-see along the Outer Banks. The Inner Banks, in sharp contrast, are on the road less traveled – but one I would most definitely like to travel again.
Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.