Edited excerpt of oral histories used for Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s “Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” 2005, IAI Inc. Interview by Amy Glass; Map drawn by B. Garrity-Blake.
“When we had to pen the wild gang of cattle, they were just as wild as any deer,” said Cyrus Ruffman Gray, a retired US Coast Guard officer and WWII veteran (now deceased). He grew up in the Hatteras Island community of Buxton. In his interview with Amy Glass in 1988, he painted a picture more akin to the “wild, wild west” than one might expect for fishing villages of the Outer Banks.
“The wild gang of cattle was raised in the woods and swamps and were loaded with fat. The shore side gang was tame and you’d drive them.”
In an effort to fight the “cattle tick war,” North Carolina – starting in 1919 - required livestock to be dipped in a creosote solution every two weeks during the summer to reduce disease-carrying fleas and ticks. In Buxton, a group of riders would leave before daylight down a path to the beach.
“We had to go before daylight because the wild gang would sleep out along the surf, on the beach, to get clear of the mosquitoes and the flies,” said Gray. “They would be down at the water’s edge, all down lying there asleep.”
The riders had to sneak up so that the rangy bovines didn’t hear or smell them and bolt for the woods.
“We had to keep them down on the surf by the lighthouse to get them up to where our dipping vat was in the edge of the woods,” Gray recalled.
One day, a “buffalo cow” broke away from two others and stood at the foot of a dune. Mr. Gray and his two friends, all on horseback, drew straws to see who would attempt to catch the escapee.
“I chose the straw,” said Gray. He got off his horse and approached the cow with a rope.
“She didn’t do a thing but take after me!” Gray exclaimed. “I had to run around the hill to get to my horse. I could feel the cow’s breath and couldn’t get on my horse. I had to go around the hill a second time!”
His companions were amused.
“Them other two riders were in their saddle dying laughing! And we lost all three cows, didn’t get them in the pound.”
Once the animals were run through the dipping vat, they were marked with a dab of green paint to show they were treated for ticks. Occasionally some of the livestock was sold to folks who sailed to the banks and loaded cattle on boats to transport them back to the mainland.
Islanders “killed a beef” every so often, providing themselves and neighbors with meat. Hogs were killed for meat and lard. Gray recalled a man named Jesse Foster who was considered one of the experts in hog killing.
“He didn’t shoot them – he hit them in the head and they’d fall back,” said Gray. “After they died, the men would stick ‘em to let the blood out. You’d have a barrel filled with boiling water sitting on a kind of angle, and after the hogs died, you’d slide them down into that barrel to loosen the hair on to them.”
Gray added, “The hogs would come out just as pretty and hairless. Then the men would cut the hams and the shoulders and ribs. The women would make sausage and chitlins.”