Currituck County: More Than a Vacation Destination
Currituck County is arguably better known than all the other counties in Albemarle. But he is not known for his 17and century settlers or its roots in American Quakerism like other neighboring counties.
Instead, Currituck County contains part of the Outer Banks, a region of sand and surf visited by more than a million people each year. But the history of Currituck County is not limited to beach houses and recreation. It’s a county of agriculture, political leadership and stories of intriguing people who lived on both sides of Currituck Sound.
The best way to understand the history of this unique county is through its two geographic halves. The western half of Currituck County, which stretches from North River to Currituck Sound and the Virginia border, was settled around 1650 as part of the Virginian migration to the Albemarle area. According to David Leroy Corbitt, Currituck began as one of the first wards in Albemarle County before becoming a county in its own right in 1739.
One of the first settlers was Thomas Jarvis, who originally lived in Perquimans County near leaders such as George Durant and Nathaniel Batts. Jarvis eventually served on the Governor’s Council and as Deputy Governor of North Carolina. Before his death in 1694, Jarvis moved to his plantation on Whites Island in Currituck County, now known as Church Island east of Coinjock.
The Jarvis family ended up being one of the most influential in the county’s history. Samuel Jarvis was a longtime political leader in the county who fought in the Revolution according to David Stick. Thomas Jordan Jarvis served as Governor of North Carolina and helped found what later became East Carolina University.
Agriculture has dominated the history and economy of the western half of Currituck County. Early cultivation of wheat and tobacco was supplemented by logging and the production of shingles from the county’s swamp trees. These activities, like almost all agricultural processes in eastern North Carolina at this time, used slave labor. According to the 1860 Hergesheimer map, Currituck’s population was enslaved at 35%, which was Albemarle’s lowest total but higher than 45 other North Carolina counties.
In transportation, Currituck County benefited from one of North Carolina’s few prewar canals. The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, completed in 1857, as recorded in Alexander Crosby Brown’s book, linked Albemarle Sound to Norfolk by means of a canal through Currituck County in the town of Coinjock. There was also a harbor in Currituck County for a time, but it was always negligible in size and ceased to operate when Currituck Inlet closed on the 18thand century.
Like Camden County to the west, there are no incorporated towns in Currituck County. The largest communities in the western half are Moyock, Grandy and Coinjock. Currituck is a small community on Currituck Sound that contains the historic jail and the 19and century courthouse, a substantial brick structure described by Ruth Little-Stokes as having notable neoclassical detailing.
One of the few remaining Rosenwald Schools in North Carolina, which are schools built for African Americans in the early 20th century, is currently being restored nearby. Currituck also contains a ferry to Knotts Island, a historic island in Currituck Sound that contains a wildlife refuge and vineyard.
The eastern half of Currituck County has a much different history dominated by tourism and the changing nature of the Outer Banks. Known as Currituck Banks, this section was once an island until Currituck Inlet at the north end closed at the 19and century. Until the formation of Dare County in 1870, the eastern section of Currituck County originally extended to the area of present-day Kitty Hawk; the present boundary, a line north of Duck, was once the now filled Caffey’s Inlet.
The first European to visit the area may have been Giovanni De Verazzano, who explored parts of the Outer Banks in 1524. Early settlers were few and far between. William Byrd discussed two of them in a tale relayed by David Stick in his “History of the Outer Banks”. The inhabitants described by Byrd were hermits who lived in a hut, “mainly lived on oysters”, and wore no clothing except their beards and hair.
In the mid-19th century, Currituck Banks began to attract wealthy visitors. Motivated by stories of massive flocks of geese, the first gun club opened in the area in 1874. It was followed in 1922 by the Whalehead Club, an ornate lodge occupying 35 acres of what was then an untouched marsh.
One of North Carolina’s famous lighthouses, the Currituck Beach Light, was built in 1875 in the community of Corolla. It is tied with the Bodie Island Lighthouse for the second tallest lighthouse in North Carolina and can be climbed several months a year.
In the 1920s, East Currituck County began to open up to tourists from all over the country. Tourism was aided by the Good Roads Movement and a number of key bridges, including the Baum Bridge in 1928 and the Wright Memorial Bridge in 1930. Visitors enjoyed white sand beaches, hunting grounds and wild horses from Corolla.
Eventually, Carova Beach became an isolated tourist destination. It is distinguished by the fact that it can only be reached by boat or by car on the beach. As Kip Tabb wrote in a 2017 article about the development of the beach, “Although traffic has increased, the lack of infrastructure and paved roads has kept visits modest compared to other parts of the Outer Banks.”
The differences between east and west Currituck County are striking. East Currituck County’s population swells during the summer months to around 50,000, more than double the year-round population of the entire county. Tourists are restricted in the western half while comprising almost all of the eastern half’s economy.
Currituck Banks vacationers and tourists are some of the richest and most powerful people in the world. Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia owned a home in Corolla, and Bill Gates reportedly rented once in 2021. In contrast, western Currituck County, home to the majority of Currituck’s 1,377 African Americans, is rural, isolated and mostly free of celebrities.
These disparate situations between the two halves will only grow. The western half will likely be strengthened by the Mid-Currituck Bridge and the growth of Elizabeth City and Hampton Roads. This section of Currituck County can become either a stopover on the way to the Outer Banks or a remote bedroom community for Chesapeake and Suffolk, Virginia.
The eastern half, on the other hand, will continue to attract tourists but is cut off from Virginia by False Cape State Park, which does not allow vehicle access from North Carolina. These different backgrounds and experiences give Currituck County its character and make it one of the most remarkable counties in all of North Carolina.