Steven Levi: How Nags Head Lost its Apostrophe : Fiction : July 2019


Southern Legitimacy Statement: This is a fake news story of how Nags Head, North Carolina lost its apostrophe.

How Nags Head Lost its Apostrophe

“Take it and be damned!”

. . . Thomas J. Harkaway

Perhaps the first and most important thing to say about Nags Head is that virtually every story about how it earned its name is in error.. There are at least four versions as to how the community was named, none of which is a front runner for the honor of veracity. The most colorful and popular is that the early settlers, most likely shipwreck survivors themselves, hung lanterns about the necks of horses and allowed the beasts to wander the beach at night. The logic behind this was that ships in danger would see the lanterns on shore and assume that they were being guided to a safe harbor. Only when the ships went aground would the crew discover that they had been deceived. When the storm abated, the land pirates would then collect their bounty. 

This is fine story but without a scrap of documentary support. Other theories include the naming of the community after any one of three Nags Heads in England, a corruption of the name of the promontory at St. Agnes or possibly a tavern or drinking establishment of that name either on the Outer Banks or in England. 

Few in Nags Head, and particularly the lawyers, are averse to being known as land pirates though the term has a changed meaning today. In the early days, the profit was in cargo that floated ashore regardless of the circumstances of the shipwreck. Today the money is land ownership and development and thus the term “land shark” is applied to the growing legion of realtors, brokers, lawyers and developers who are changing the small community into a tourist Mecca. Additionally, to this day a “Nags Head lawyer” is synonymous with a disreputable attorney.

Regardless of how the city received its name, one aspect of its origin is not in dispute: how Nags Head lost its apostrophe. This tidbit of Outer Banks history has been recorded in full and available to the discriminating public. Mixing humor with historical fact, the saga of how Nags Head lost it apostrophe is the stuff which even historians could not invent. 

Originally the city was Nag’s Head with an apostrophe. In the beginning, the inclusion of the apostrophe was one of punctuation accuracy, not public demand. There were few residents at the founding and those who live in the vicinity of the city today have no preference for the apostrophe. They are not opposed to it either. It has come with the Nag, so to speak, and only indicates that the head in question is that of a horse. Whether the original name came from a true head of a horse or a road house of that name is immaterial. 

What was material to the residents of Nag’s head, with the apostrophe, was the income the city generated by its unique location. Being the only community, and thus the largest, it also had the largest clientele of drinking men and women. Actually, it would safe to say that the term “city” was a misnomer as the original community was a loose collection of structures constructed in locations along the shoreline where shipwrecks had provided a nearby and free supply of building material. The largest of the structures was the Nag’s Head Tavern, so named because its most conspicuous feature was the figurehead of a rearing horse behind the counter. Documentary recollections of the tavern were clear that only the front of the horse was ungulate. The rear quarters of the horse appeared fishlike giving the clear impressing that this was a stylized seahorse. As there is no maritime documentation for any ship with a name that implies a seahorse it can only be assumed that the ship went under before record keeping became as efficient as it is today. 

Prior to the establishment of a post office in 1884, the community was identified on maps by three different names: Nag’s Head, Nagshead and Naghead. It was only after the post office was established that the name became Nags Head with no apostrophe and this made it official.

Two years prior to the establishment of the post office, Nag’s Head was a haven for outcasts and miscreants from other Outer Banks communities. This was in large part due to the fact that it had a tavern where one could buy a drink. In no other community was there a tavern so it was natural that drinking men and women would migrate toward Nag’s Head. The whiskey there provided had been liberated from wrecks along the shoreline and even watered it was a welcome drink and the only one available between Norfolk and Cape Lookout.

There is no record of who owned the Nag’s Head Tavern in 1883 but it assumed to have been a business associate of Thomas J. Harkaway. Harkaway, it should be added, was a composite name used for nefarious purposes. The name first appeared in the historical record in 1890 when the United States Census was taken. The individual who claimed to be Thomas J. Harkaway was actually a confidence man from Liverpool who had ended up in Nag’s Head when the ship on which he was escaping, an Italian ship by the name of NUOVA OTTAVIA, went aground off Corolla in 1876. He took the name Thomas J. Harkaway from two ships that sank within a year of each north near Duck, the THOMAS J. MARTIN and the HARKAWAY. The only reason he chose that name, or any name, was to legitimize his ownership of the Nag’s Head Tavern. Harkaway died in Avon in 1913. He had been married, or so was the claim, three times though no marriage certificates in his name have been found. He had a total of six children, all female, and thus with his passing so did the family name Harkaway on the Outer Banks. 

Harkaway – under whatever name he was using at that time – was operating the Nag’s Head Tavern in 1882 when the community was suddenly host to an unusual boatload of a travelers. These travelers were not shipwreck survivors but missionaries on their way to Christianize the rogues of the Outer Banks. The sect of this band of evangelicals is not recorded but diaries indicate that they were aggressive in their methods and successful only among young women with children and male children not old enough to run away to sea. 

The pilgrims must have had substantial financial backing as they were able to buy their own ship, the APOSTROPHE. When questioned about the strange name of their vessel, the missionaries replied that as God had no given name it was not grammatically possible to imply a possessive. Furthermore, since all that is belongs to God they could not name the ship after any specific piece of property owned by God. As an “’s” was meaningless and no name was unacceptable, they decided to name the ship the APOSTROPHE.

The logic of this choice of names escaped everyone whose diaries still exist. Most Nag’s Head regulars were mariners who carried more about what they were to be paid than the name of the ship on which they served – or looted. But if the evangelicals wished to have a ship name APOSTROPHE that was fine with them. It was also of universal agreement that as long as the missionaries kept the proselytizing out of the tavern, they were welcome to stay in the area as long as they paid their bills on time.

Religious fanatics were nothing new to the Outer Banks. No less than three utopian societies have settled along the Outer Banks and none have survived. Others may have been established but left no records. The arrival of the APOSTROPHE was thus nothing new to the patrons of the Nag’s Head Tavern.

What was new, however, was the aggressive fervor of the missionaries. They moved quickly to seize whatever unclaimed shipwreck timbers and established a storm watch to gather more. Whenever the weather turned bad, small groups of missionaries with lanterns would stake out the beach to claim whatever debris, cargo or timbers came ashore. It is the belief of many historians that it was these evangelical storm watchers that are at the very root of the myth of how Nag’s Head became Nags Head.

Harkaway became the target of evangelical discomfort in 1883. Early in the year he was approached by a group of elderly missionaries and asked if he would mind changing the name of his tavern. As Harkaway did not have a name for the tavern in the sense that there was lettering over his doorway, he did not understand what he was being asked. The elderly contingent told him that everyone refereed to his establishment as the Nag’s Head Tavern with an apostrophe which was confusing to the younger members of the congregation. Their ship’s name crystallized their philosophy: God was unknowable and owned all. Having a nearby tavern with an apostrophe associated with its name lead to the obvious question that if the apostrophe indicated that God owned all, then was it in God’s graces to drink at the tavern since, grammatically at least, He owned it? As this question was difficult to answer, the elders took the best possible step: have the tavern change its name. 

Harkaway could have cared less about the name of his tavern, particularly since it did not have one. The name Nag’s Head was of local derivation and had cost him nothing. On the other hand, he no reason to consider the missionaries either neighborly or profitable. They had established their colony by squatting on a nearby promontory and this was the first time anyone from the utopian colony had darkened his doorway and even now it was not to buy. Further, the evangelical storm watch had been diligent in opening every keg and bottle of liquor that came ashore and pouring its contents into the sea. This may have allowed Harkaway to keep his prices high courtesy of the law of supply and demand, but the high demand on his supply was such that he could not afford to miss any bounty offered by the sea. Thus, when the missionaries came for a favor, he was not in the mood for being neighborly. 

But the blood of a confidence man ran strong in his veins and he smelled an advantage which could be turned to his profit. Thus he stated that the name of his establishment was known far and wide and changing it would confuse his sometimes-besotted clientele. Did the religious brethren have some arrangement in mind?

What Harkaway did not know was that the reason these particular pilgrims had chosen to Christianize whites was because many of them had been former lawbreakers themselves. Most of them had been in prison together in England and their religious fervor and zealous proselytizing inside prison had become a well-publicized embarrassment to the wardens and the prison system. As is done in bureaucratic circles, when one is an embarrassment, he is promoted. That was exactly what was done in this case. It was decided by the Secretary of the Bureau of Prisons that these proselytizers should be released upon the conditions that they emigrate to the United States and pay their own passage. The latter they did easily as missionaries were in lean supply at a time when contributions were reaching all-time highs.

The elderly missionaries knew a rube when they saw one and suggested that as they, the missionaries, did not spend money on such earthly considerations that the matter could be settled over a cut of the cards. If Harkaway got the low card, he would abandon the name of the saloon. If Harkaway got the high card, he would abandon the name of the tavern and the missionaries would forgo the collection and emptying of any liquor in kegs or bottles that were discovered along the beach. 

Harkaway saw no advantage in either of these options as both left him without the name of the tavern. But having the missionaries refrain from dumping the liquor they found on the beach was of interest. Shipwrecks were his greatest source of inventory enhancement and while the missionaries had not emptied that many bottles yet, every bottle not in the Nag’s Head Tavern was a monetary loss to Harkaway. 

So he agreed and offered his personal deck of cards to use in the cut. He took his card first and proffered the deck to one of the missionaries. 

“Trust in God but shuffle the cards,” the oldest man said and did a shuffle that was designed to be as crooked as possible and, at the same time, leave the rube believing the man was a bumbling amateur. 

Only when Harkaway matched his Ace of Hearts to the pilgrim’s Ace of Clubs did both know that neither was dealing with a fool.

At this point there seemed to be an impasse. Harkaway wanted the missionaries to stop dumping the whiskey but he didn’t want to seem too eager to give up the name of his tavern. So he suggested another mechanism of settling the matter. Rather than cards or some other game of chance, he suggested a horse race. To keep it fair, all of the horses in the vicinity would be gathered and at the hour of the race, each party would choose a horse. The horses would then race from the Nag’s Head Tavern to the top of a nearby ridge where the missionaries were building their utopia and then back to the Tavern. This was a fine idea because in a community that small, any change in the monotony was welcome. The horse race suddenly became a community event and within days the word had spread along the Outer Banks. As race day approached, the community swelled with visitors. 

 For days before the horse race missionaries and derelicts intermingled, the former proselytizing the latter and the latter concerned that the former were pouring too much rum out onto the beach. Both parties realized that an event of local historic proportion was about to occur and no one wanted to left uniformed. Bets were placed, though not by the missionaries, and as much was being spent each day in the Nag’s Head Tavern as had been previously spent in a month. 

It was at this juncture that Harkaway came to the sad realization that the name of his tavern did make a significant difference. Rum-buying patrons were coming from as far north as Norfolk and as far south as Cape Lookout and all were referring to this previously-unnamed community as Nag’s Head. If Harkaway were to give up the name he felt he would lose a name that was generating business. 

But the wager and race had been set so what could he do?

Never one to let an advantage pass from his grasp, Harkaway developed a ruse. Riding to the utopian stronghold he met with the elders and proposed an alternate to the wager as had been presented. Being neighborly, or so Harkaway stated, he was willing to meet the religious order halfway, so to speak. Whatever the outcome of the horse race, Harkaway was willing to trade the apostrophe in his tavern’s name in exchange for the missionaries to cease depredation on the kegs and bottles of liquor that might be found on shore. That would satisfy the needs of both partners. As a sweetener, since the horse race had already been announced, he suggested that it be a race in name only as agreement had been reached between the two parties. 

Harkaway may have been a superb conman but he was no match for the religious order. They sensed a weak position and stated that this particularly apostrophe was being offered overpriced, particularly considering the excess moneys he was making as a result of the horse race. Harkaway denied he was profiting but he was as unconvincing as the missionaries were convinced. So Harkaway was forced to offer a one-time only contribution to the utopians equivalent to one-quarter of his increased profits because of the horse race and agreed to buy all kegs and bottles of liquor recovered by the missionary storm watch. That settled the matter. 

As it turned out, Harkaway had done well to settle early. The race began with the firing of a revolver and the two beasts chosen at random were neck-and-neck as far as the ridge near the missionary colony. At that point the missionaries stopped the horse on which Harkaway’s rider was mounted but allowed their horse and rider to continue. Their reasoning had been that gambling was a sin and was not allowed in their community. Once one of the beasts had been stopped, this put a stop to the gambling. However, as their horse and rider had crossed the finish line first in front of Nag’s Head Tavern, acreage that was not within their colony, it was only fitting they should be rewarded in the agreed upon manner. 

“Take it and be damned,” Harkaway was reported to have said. 

Thereafter the Nag’s Head Tavern became the Nags Head Tavern. This made little difference until the establishment of the post office when the possessive without the apostrophe became official. 

As a final footnote, the utopian society did not last long. By 1887 it was no more, most of the missionaries having gone on to a better world, in this case Charlotte where a larger city beckoned them. Shortly after they left their structures were removed to what became the main street of Nags Head. The ridge on which they had established their colony had been named by the locals as Jockey Ridge in light of the horse race. Revenge is a meal best served cold and a handful of years after the last of the colonists left, Harkaway had his chance to the turn the table one last time. As a peripatetic cartographer from the USGS was having a drink in his establishment, Harkaway convinced the man that the name of the promontory was actually “Jockey’s Ridge” and not “Jockey Ridge.” The man duly recorded the corrected spelling and to this day Jockey’s Ridge has an apostrophe while Nags Head does not. 

“They won it by hook and crook,” Harkaway said until his death, “so they are stuck with it even if they are not here.”

(Author’s note: Nags Head was such a popular name that even after the community tried to change its name to hide its past the new name did not stick. That was in 1915 and the change lasted less than a year. The interim name was Griffin which had neither the ‘romance’ nor legacy of “Nags Head.”)