US National Park Service Poster, 1986, Charley Harper
The other commonly seen use of the term “bank” is The Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. It is an underwater plateau, which is or was known as a robust fishing area. The barrier islands of North Carolina commonly known as the Outer Banks consist of a linked chain of long, narrow landmasses, some of which are called islands while others are called banks. In my search for understanding, I found a book entitled Place names of The Outer Banks, by Roger Payne. It includes “location data,” “other names” and “historical notes” on over a thousand places and has a glossary of terms specifically related to the Outer Banks, but, inexplicably, Payne does not include the terms Bank or Banks. "In the colonial records, beaches in general were called the sand banks," said Sarah Downing, the assistant curator at the Outer Banks History Center. "They were also referred to as sea banks. I kept looking in history books, and they were never called the Outer Banks." Perhaps, when the earliest explorers from their small ships first viewed land masses off our coast, what they saw appeared like an edge or riverbank.
Roger Payne’s discussion of Bogue Banks is mainly inconclusive as to the source of that name, and the historical notes on the Outer Banks cover Verrazzano, Lost Colony, the Civil War and the Graveyard of the Atlantic, but do not specifically address the derivation of the phrase Outer Banks. It appears the term Outer Banks relates to the island grouping and not to any legal/political entity. The title appears to lack any official legal standing, and it is surprisingly missing from most maps. Official North Carolina Department of Transportation highway maps do not identify the Outer Banks. National Geographic and Rand McNally maps fail to include the name. A search of Google Maps pinpoints a private home on Rampert St, in Kinnakeet, NC, on Hatteras Island.
This lack of official standing contributes to flexible geographical boundaries being applied to the term. Considering the rich heritage, cultural uniqueness and geologic complexity, researchers representing many disciplines have studied the banks, and each has defined the area to suit his or her purposes. Nearly all start in the north at the Virginia state border with Currituck Banks. Some go south only to Cape Hatteras or Ocracoke. Most include Cape Lookout, and still others pick up Shackleford and Bogue Banks. It seems reasonable to include the only four islands named Banks within the boundaries of The Outer Banks.
The use of the designation Outer Banks appears in literature back to the late 1800s. “I believe that the term “outer banks” was used in the late 1800s as a geographic term, and by the 1930s, it was used more to describe a place. Hatteras Banks and Chicamacomico Banks were also terms used to describe stretches of the coast,” said Sarah Downing, assistant curator, Outer Banks History Center. She also said that before the use of the term Outer Banks, old “advertisements invited visitors to ‘Come to Nags Head’ or the ‘Dare beaches’ or the ‘Sir Walter Raleigh coast land.’
Places are increasingly regarded as brands in the practice of marketing and the on-going competition to attract customers and visitors. In an article in the Pilot on Line in 2012, Catherine Kozak writes that when the Virginia Department Of Transportation changed its highway signs to read the Outer Banks, the Visitors Bureau viewed this as an indication of how strong the brand is. The general public’s expectation to see the phrase may drive the acceptance of the name. They hear it regularly on The Weather Channel whenever there is a hurricane or Nor’easter in the region. It’s a convenient handle used to refer to this nebulously defined hunk of geography.
After we have scratched the surface of this subject, mysteries still remain. Using the term Bank instead of Island is rather unusual in the United States even though it appears on charts as early as 1709. Today, it has an Old English feel to it, harking back to the days of exploration. On a humorous note, there is a place in British Columbia that resolves the "island versus banks" conundrum by employing the name “Banks Island” for an island named in honor of Mr Banks. If he had been in North Carolina, it could have been Banks Banks.
The phrase Outer Banks appears to be of recent vintage. It’s conceivable that as the 20th century brought prosperity, improved transportation and leisure time, commercial interests in the area wanted to attract business and visitors. They fell upon the term Outer Banks, thinking it had a more enticing appeal than Bodie Island or Nags Head. It seems to have worked.
For you crossword or scrabble buffs, the study of place names is called Toponymy.
Post Author: Walt Zaenker
To contact the author or the History Committee