Friday, June 09, 2017


In the past I have occasionally written about historic island families. Today we focus on the Tolsons of Ocracoke.

The first Tolson on the Outer Banks was John Tolson who purchased lot #1 on Portsmouth Island in 1756. However, it was not until  1830 that any Tolsons (William and Thomas) appeared in the federal census of Ocracoke.

William Tolson was born ca. 1770, and is listed as head of household, along with seven children aged 20 years or younger, and one woman (presumably his wife) 40 - 50 years old.William is the largest slave holder on the island, owning 21 of the 128 slaves.

Thomas Tolson (probably William's son) was 30 - 40 years old, with five children and one woman (presumably his wife) 30-40 years old. He owned four slaves.

Daniel Tolson (1816-1879), another of William's sons, was a prosperous antebellum Ocracoke merchant. In 1855 Daniel Tolson, just shy of 40 years old, was appointed postmaster. He served until 1866, at a weekly salary of $9.17. In 1857 he was half owner of the the five year old, 55' long schooner, Patron. Daniel Tolson purchased a relatively large tract of land on Ocracoke, including Springer's Point, where he is buried in a secluded spot.

Daniel Tolson's Grave

Most of Ocracoke's present day Tolsons are descended from William Tolson's son, William Sylvester Tolson (b. ca. 1827) who worked as a pilot guiding sailing vessels through Ocracoke Inlet.

Interestingly, William Sylvester's son, Daniel (1867-1944) married Sabra Howard (1870-1951), and she became Sabra Tolson. Some years later, Sabra Tolson (1894-1970) married Napoleon Howard (1888-1957) and became Sabra Howard! Just one reason tracing family lines on Ocracoke can be so challenging.

Out latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of the Aleta, Ocracoke's mailboat from 1944-1952, compliments of the Core Sound Museum. Click on the following link for photos, text, and audio recordings about this iconic vessel:


  1. Anonymous3:38 PM

    pretty interesting. Philip, what in the world did 128 slaves have to do on Ocracoke? How did they stay busy? it's hard to believe that even one slave was 'needed' on Ocracoke. Was there a need for all that labor?

    1. Slavery in coastal North Carolina was not primarily about farming and plantations. Slave labor had much to do with shipping and commerce...and water related activities such as clamming, oystering, and porpoise fisheries. Of course, there were also domestic servants. For more about slavery on Ocracoke see and

  2. Anonymous7:02 PM

    unconnected subject; Philip I am pretty sure is was in the 70's or early 80's when we didn't visit Ocracoke for a few years in a row. (check out that sentence structure!) Anyway, we left an island where the water was yellow and smelled and the power went off and on multiple times a week. When we came back a few years later the water was clean, clear and no smell and the power was as good as anywhere USA.We were telling friends about all of this. Do you remember when this 'modern' change over took place? Who was responsible for this, the county or the state (hard to tell the difference sometimes) There is no need to hurry on this information but we do know how you like to dig into a subject....Thank you Philip...Ed & Nancy Maris.

    1. Prior to June, 1977, everyone living on Ocracoke Island relied on rainstorms and runoff from the roof for fresh drinking water. You are probably remembering ground water, which typically was the color of tea, and had an odor. Ground water was seldom used as drinking water; rather, it was used for washing and bathing, and to water gardens and animals. Ground water is available by simply digging primitive wells or sinking a "point" in the ground. Just a few feet below the surface lies an island-wide fresh water lens that is relatively easy to access. The color and odor mostly come from tree roots. In 1977, Ocracoke established the Ocracoke Sanitary District, and created a municipal water system. Ocracoke's water plant draws from three deep wells (620 - 640 feet deep) that tap into the Castle Hayne aquifer. You can read more here:

  3. Anonymous4:30 PM

    Thank you sir.