The Legend of How the Town of Nags Head Got Its Name

Town of Nags Head logo. Source: Outer Banks Guides
Town of Nags Head logo. Source: Outer Banks Guides

By Donna Campbell Smith

The light swayed rhythmically, its yellow glow appearing and disappearing with the rise and fall of the ocean’s waves, or so it seemed. The ship’s watchman called out, pointing toward the light, “Ship to the starboard!”

The captain sighed with relief. The sight of another vessel meant they were in safe waters. The storm had blown them off course, and he’d worried they were too close to shore. All who sailed to the New World knew the reputation of these waters near the Carolina coast—the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The hidden sand bars and frequent storms made navigation a perilous and death-defying job.

The captain’s relief was nullified when the ship shuddered and groaned to a stop. It had run aground. The captain cursed. He instantly knew the truth about the light, but it was too late. The nag’s head had doomed him, and his crew. The storm beat the ship against the shoal and it soon shattered into thousands of matchstick pieces. Some of the crew may have made it to shore, but it was more likely that they all perished in the sea. The ship’s valuable cargo floated and bobbed in the churning waves. Eventually the pounding waves washed most of it to the beach.

The “nag’s head” was an evil trick performed by land pirates who found the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina a perfect refuge. A lantern tied around the neck of one of the horses that lived on the islands lured passing ships in close to the shallows. A stormy night presented the best time for the evil deed. Then they simply led the horse up and down the ridges of sand dunes. The unsuspecting seaman would mistake the lantern’s light for a ship’s light and believe they were in deep water, safe from running aground. By the time the ship’s captain realized his mistake, the ship was stuck in the sand, and it was all over. If it was not a stormy night the pirates came on board and made their raid, stealing the precious cargo and murdering the crew. But the storm made things even easier for the pirates. They just waited till morning to salvage what cargo washed ashore.

The ponies were likely used to pull wagons or carry packs of the wares collected by the thieves to the sound side of the island. Then the pirates loaded the cargo in their boats that were kept hidden in the sounds and creeks behind the islands. They sold the stolen goods to colonial merchants on the mainland, who asked no questions.

The merchants could buy at much lower cost from the pirates than from legitimate suppliers, and make a larger profit for themselves. Being a land pirate was less risky than working on the high seas. Some pirates got so rich that they bought plantations on the mainland and live as “respectable” citizens.

Meanwhile, word spread back to Europe about the tricky land pirates. As sailors were about to embark on a voyage they were warned, “Beware of the nag’s head.” Soon that area of the Outer Banks became known as Nags Head. The name stuck, and the area is now one of the world’s most popular resort areas.

The wild ponies used by the pirates for their dastardly deeds at Nags Head no longer roam the island town, but figurines symbolizing the poor nags can be purchased in almost every gift shop in town.


Source: Bankers, Mustangs and Marsh Tackies [link]

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About Donna Campbell Smith 78 Articles
Donna Campbell Smith, an author based in Franklinton NC, worked in the horse industry for over thirty years as an instructor, trainer, breeder, and writer. She has an AAS Degree in Equine Technology from Martin Community College and is a certified riding instructor. Smith has written four non-fiction books on equine management: The Book of Donkeys, (The Lyons Press 2016) The Book of Miniature Horses (The Lyons Press 2005), The Book of Draft Horses (The Lyons Press 2007), and The Book of Mules (The Lyons Press 2009). All her books are available at or ask for them at a bookstore near you. Donna is a member of Franklin County Arts Council. Visit her website at