The Legend of Nags Head

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Pier in Nags Head, N.C.

Every Thanksgiving for the past 10 years, Glenn Eure has pulled on waders and boots and led a horse down one of the large sand dunes that line the coast of Nags Head.

Eure isn’t a fisherman, and the horse doesn’t belong to him. The 35-year resident of Nags Head re-enacts the mythology of how the small Eastern North Carolina city got its name.

According to the legend, land pirates—also known as “bankers”—who lived in the area in the 1700s would hang a lantern on the neck of an old horse—a “nag”—and walk the horse up and down the tallest natural sand dune on the East Coast, which is now known as Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

Passing ships assumed that the lantern hung from a safely docked ship, and captains would guide their ship toward shore, where they would run aground on the area’s rocky shoals, which are known as part of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The land pirates would then loot the ship in search of valuable cargo. As the legend grew, the name Nags Head stuck.

“Walking on the sand dune gave the illusion of being farther away than it actually was,”
Eure says. “Welshmen started this in the British Isles many years before that, and the legend says that people on the beach were shipwrecked Welshmen and they had done this in Wales.”

The Dare County town, which has a population of about 2,700, according to the 2000 census, thrives on tourism. The town has 11 miles of oceanfront and a total area of about 6.5 million square feet. In the 1830s, the town started to become a popular vacation destination for people looking to enjoy the beach and dunes.

Eure, who opened Eure’s Ghost Fleet Gallery in Nags Head in 1982, said Nags Head is an enclave for artists, sculptors and sport fishermen, and offers a relaxed lifestyle and proximity to the beach and the sound.

“It’s very picturesque and laid-back,” he says. “It’s so accepting and friendly here. I’ve lived all over the world, but if you live here for three months, the natives act and treat you like you’ve been here for generations.”

In 2007, the town honored Eure for his contributions by presenting him with the Keeper of the Light Award, an annual honor given to a resident who has had a significant positive impact on the community. Eure usually presents the award, a large brass lantern, at the end of his legend of Nags Head demonstration.

“It was a real thrill,” Eure says. “People are really honoring you when they make you the keeper of the light. It’s a real local honor.”

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  1. sandra

    August 22, 2009 at 8:09 am

    I have a question for you, I have a print with the ship, 2 men and a horse. One man is standing on the ground holding a rifle and the other man is riding the horse holding a rifle also. The horse has a lantern attached to its reins and it is dangeling down under hi neck. The print is signed and is in excellent condition. Is there any way you can give me the value of the picture or where I can go to obtain this information. Thanks Sandra

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