Formerly named Davers Ile and Craney Island, Harkers Island was occupied by Native Americans of the Coree tribe when the first European explorers arrived in the 16th century. Ownership of Harkers Island was first titled to Farnifold Green, a native of the Carolina colony, by the Lords Proprietors in 1707. Ebenezer Harker purchased the island in 1730, settled there with his family, and built a plantation and boat yard. The island became known as Harkers Island soon after his death. A large immigration of islanders fleeing the hurricane-ravaged Outer Banks in 1899 dramatically increased the island population, which largely depended on fishing and boat building. Separated from the mainland for centuries, many Harkers Island residents speak a distinct dialect of English.
In 1584, an English expedition financed by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe explored the North Carolina coast for a suitable site for the first English colony in North America. Two Native Americans, Wanchese and Manteo, accompanied the expedition back to England in the fall of 1584. According to local island legend, Wanchese was a Coree from Harkers Island. The island was first charted on the maps drawn by John White during the 1584 expedition, but it was unnamed at the time. The island appears on a 1624 map of the greater Virginia coastline created by Captain John Smith. On that map, the island is labeled "Davers Ile", probably for Sir John Davers, one of the founders of the Jamestown Settlement in 1607.
On December 20, 1707, Farnifold Green obtained the first patent for land in the Core Sound area from the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina colony, which had been established by the English monarch Charles II in 1633. This patent included Harkers Island, which was then known as Craney Island. On June 25, 1709, Green sold the island to William Brice for £5, who on the very same day sold it to Thomas Sparrow for £10. Sparrow soon sold the island to Thomas Pollock, who would twice be Governor of North Carolina (from 1712 to 1714 and again in 1722). Pollock did not take up residence on the island, but had several farm buildings erected and then leased to settlers. The 1720 lease to a Captain Stone was £3 a year. Thomas Pollock's son George inherited the island upon his father's death on August 30, 1722.
The Harker plantation and boat building facility were located at the western end of the island, near Harker Point, and grew to support an extended family with three sons, two daughters, and at least nine African slaves. Ebenezer would be the last sole landowner of the island. In 1752, he deeded approximately 10 acres (40,500 m²) of the island to his daughter Hepsobeth and her husband Nathan Yeomans as a wedding gift. On his death in 1762, his son Zachariah inherited the western third of the island, an adult slave woman named Vilet, and a young female slave named Daisie. Another son, James, inherited the eastern third of the island, an adult slave woman named Hague and a young male slave named Peter. Ebenezer, jr. inherited the central third of the island, an adult male slave named Jeffrey, and a young male slave named Sutton. Hepsobeth inherited "one barrel of corn", and Ebenezer's other married daughter, Sarah Freshwater, was given a female slave named Hope. The fate of an elderly female slave named Badge and a young male slave named Ben was left to the heirs to decide. The will referred to Craney Island; the name Harkers Island was only adopted after Ebenezer's death.
The sons of Ebenezer prospered on Harkers Island. Ebenezer, Jr. was elected Sheriff of Carteret County in 1758. Zachariah Harker developed a saltworks on the western third of Harkers Island in 1776. In the following years, Zachariah and his brothers became supporters of the American Revolution and Zachariah was appointed as one of five captains in the Carteret Regiment fighting against the British.. Harkers Island was involved in the Battle of Beaufort. Revolutionaries used warehouse facilities on Harkers Island to store provisions sought by British troops who had seized the nearby county seat of Beaufort. Thirteen men guarding the stores on Harkers Island, probably led by Zachariah Harker, repulsed British troops in a brief battle on April 6, 1782. The first national census of 1790 recorded 16 white residents and 13 slaves on Harkers Island. By 1800, the population had expanded to 26 white residents, 16 slaves, and 7 "others", probably those of mixed race or freed slaves. Ebenezer Jr., James, and Zachariah Harker died in 1803, 1814, and 1824, respectively.
In 1864, the first school on the island was established when Miss Jenny Bell came to Harkers Island from Boston, sponsored by the Northern Methodist Episcopal Church. A fish oil factory was built on the island in 1865 and remained operational until 1873. A small milling facility was built on the west end of the island in 1870 by Louie Larson, an immigrant from Norway, but it closed before the turn of the century. Most island residents continued to earn a subsistence living from boat building or fishing.
Three years later, another hurricane hit the Carolina coast, and this time the disaster for the residents of the Shackleford Banks was total. Diamond City was completely destroyed by the August 17 Hurricane of 1899. The storm ravaged the Banks' protective sand dunes, and washed away nearly all of the top soil. Orchards and maritime forest on the Banks soon began dying from the salt left behind by the storm surge. Homes were ripped from their foundations, shattered, or submerged. Even graves in the local cemeteries were uprooted and disturbed. A botanist who visited the Banks after the storm described the landscape as completely devastated.
Many families used boats to move what was left of their houses, plank by plank, from the Outer Banks to Harkers Island where they could rebuild. Some settled on the Guthrie property, which he began to subdivide. Others purchased or leased land on the island anywhere they could. Some emigrated to Morehead City, on the mainland, where they built a new neighborhood soon nicknamed "The Promised Land". The last resident had left Diamond City by 1902. In the five years between 1895 and 1900, the population of Harkers Island expanded fourfold from just 13 extended families to over 1,000 residents. The island had gone from being one of the smallest communities in Carteret County to one of the largest.
Elders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prosyleted extensively on Harkers Island after the hurricanes. Many of the refugees from Diamond City, uprooted physically and emotionally by the devastating hurricanes, converted to the Latter Day Saints, and soon outnumbered the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been founded on the island in 1875. A national wave of anti-Mormon sentiment was sparked by the Smoot Hearings in 1904, fueling fears that Mormons secretly continued to practice polygamy. The relationship between the Mormons on Harkers Island and their neighbors deteriorated. Rocks and oyster shells were hurled through the windows of the Mormon church and at least one gunshot was fired into the building. In 1906, the church building was burnt to the ground by arsonists, and organized Mormon religious services would not resume on Harkers Island until 1909. A new Mormon church building was constructed on the island in the 1930s. Despite these difficult beginnings, Harker's Island has one of the highest percentages of Latter-day Saints of any locality in North Carolina.
The 1933 Outer Banks Hurricane which made landfall on September 15 would forever change the economy of Harkers Island. The storm was blamed for at least 21 fatalities in North Carolina (although none on Harkers Island) and an estimated $1 million USD of damage. The storm surge damaged fisheries and inland waterways, but there was one unexpected beneficial result. Retreating storm surge and heavy rainfall combined to carve out a new channel in the Banks, separating the Core Banks from the Shackleford Banks near the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. This new channel gave Harkers Island fishermen a new, direct access route to offshore fishing grounds. The new channel was named Barden Inlet after US Senator Graham Barden, who sponsored legislation to require that the United States Army Corps of Engineers use dredging equipment to maintain the new channel.
More economic opportunity for Harkers Island came as the country began pulling itself out of the Great Depression. Electrification came to the island in 1939. Harkers Island Rural Electric Authority was the first electrical cooperative in the United States to supply power to members through a submarine cable system. In November, 1941, the construction of a new United States Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, thirty miles to the northwest of Harkers Island, brought more wage-earning jobs to the local economy. When the United States entered World War II, Harkers Island was on the front lines. German submarines patrolled the North Carolina coast and sank merchant shipping traffic, especially oil tankers. Island residents could watch the tankers burning offshore at night. Further improvements in the island's utility services would have to wait until after the war. Telephone service finally arrived in 1948.
All of that would change with government determination to acquire the barrier islands for public park land. The state of North Carolina began purchasing land on the Core Banks and Shackleford Banks in 1959 with the intention of creating a state park. The federal government became interested a few years later, and envisioned the Outer Banks of North Carolina being included in a string of national seashores stretching the length of the United States Atlantic coast. After negotiations between the state of North Carolina and the United States Department of the Interior, the United States Congress passed a law authorizing the creation of a Cape Lookout National Seashore, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on March 10, 1966.
Conversion of the Banks to a national park brought much turmoil to Harkers Island. Many Harkers Island fishermen discovered that cottages and other improvements made on the Banks were on land that would be condemned. Many land deeds had recording errors, some had been poorly surveyed, and natural changes to the shorelines affected many claims. Few of the cottages that had been built were on land that the builders owned. Legal eviction and condemnation proceedings lasted into the 1980s. The creation of the park also ended the open grazing of livestock on the Banks by December 31, 1985. A herd of wild horses, descended from Spanish horses that swam to shore from shipwrecks in the sixteenth century, was allowed to remain on the Banks. A series of fires in late December of that year, all of them deliberately set, destroyed most of the major structures on the Shackleford Banks, including a recently constructed park visitor center. An inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to discover the arsonists.
The creation of the National Seashore marked the end of a lifestyle practiced by many Harkers Island residents. Fishing and boat building remain important components of the community's economy, but are more and more augmented with tourism. Visitors arrive at Harkers Island seeking access to the National Seashore, for sport fishing opportunities, and to experience the local cultural heritage of the islands.
Harkers Island is protected from the Atlantic Ocean by the barrier islands of the Shackleford Banks to the south and the Core Banks to the east. The body of water directly south of the island is Back Sound. To the east is Core Sound, to the north is The Straits, and to the northeast is the mouth of the North River. The Straits are shallow but navigable by those with local experience. There are two small bays on the north side of the island, Westmouth Bay and Eastmouth Bay. North of Eastmouth Bay is Browns Island, which is accessible only by boat. Harkers Island Road, designated as State Road 1335, connects the island to the mainland by the Earl C. Davis Memorial Bridge, a steel draw bridge built in 1968 to replace a wooden bridge built in 1941.
Commercial fishing has always been an important component of the island economy. Historically, this trade included whaling and the hunting of dolphins. Until ice became available in the 1920s, the primary commercial catch was mullet, which was caught near the beaches of Shackleford Bank and Core Bank and salted on shore. In the late 1800s, the Core Sound area produced 80% of the salted mullet sold on the United States east coast. An ice plant was built in nearby Beaufort in 1920, and fish houses were established on the island to process fish and shellfish. Some bay areas on the north side of the island have been developed for harvesting cultured shellfish. In addition to mullet, the commercial fishing industry of Harkers Island brings in oysters, clams, shrimp, scallops, crabs, spot, croaker, trout, flounder, bluefish, and mackerel.
Tourism on Harkers Island is becoming a more important part of the local economy. The United States National Park Service operates the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitors Center on Harkers Island. Ferry service from Harkers Island is one of the principal means of tourist access to Cape Lookout and the Shackleford Banks. Big-game fishing operations cater to growing demand for sport fishing in the area. Other tourism related industries include gift shops, local artists, hotels, and restaurants. Despite growth in the tourist trades and the local effort to make the island a top destination for waterfowl enthusiasts, Harkers Island continues to have some of the least developed tourist facilities on the Crystal Coast.
One of the fastest growing industries on the island is waterfowl enthusiast tourism. Founded in 1987 at the Harkers Island home of Wayne Davis, the Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild organized the first of what would become an annual festival in December, 1998. The first Core Sound Waterfowl Festival attracted 1,800 attendees. Later renamed the Core Sound Decoy Festival, the event has attracted over 10,000 tourists to Harkers Island. The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, operated by a separate Board of Directors from the Carvers Guild, is a major year-round tourist attraction for the island. The museum building is a structure located on property leased from the National Park Service. In addition to telling the history of local waterfowl and the traditions of decoy carving, the museum operates exhibits of local historical interest. The museum also hosts events during Waterfowl Weekend, held on the same weekend as the Decoy Festival. The festival weekend is the most important annual event for the Harkers Island tourism economy.
There were 661 households out of which 21.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 67.9% were married couples living together, 5.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 24.7% were non-families. 21.3% of all households were made up of individuals and 9.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.30 and the average family size was 2.65.
In the CDP the population was spread out with 15.3% under the age of 18, 6.2% from 18 to 24, 21.6% from 25 to 44, 35.1% from 45 to 64, and 21.8% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 49 years. For every 100 females there were 94.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 95.6 males. The median income for a household in the CDP was $33,125, and the median income for a family was $35,492. Males had a median income of $37,375 versus $18,913 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $19,790. About 13.6% of families and 15.5% of the population were below the poverty line, including 18.8% of those under age 18 and 19.1% of those age 65 or over.
Pronunciation in Harkers Island English can be different from the English spoken in the rest of the United States. "High Tide" spoken in Harkers Island English might sound like "Hoi Toide", "Time" sounds like "toime", "fish" is pronounced close to "feesh", "fire" sounds like "far", and "cape" is pronounced "ca'e". The island dialect has also retained anachronistic vocabulary in regular usage. Some examples include "mommick", meaning to frustrate or bother, "stub", to stump one's toe, "yethy", describing stale or unpleasant odor, and ""nicket", meaning a pinch of something used as in cooking. The islanders have also developed unique local words used in regular conversation, including "dingbatter" to refer to a visitor or recent arrival to the island, and "dit-dot", a term developed from a joke about Morse code, and used to describe any visitor to the island who has difficulty understanding the local dialect. As many as 500 islanders on Harkers Island are directly descended from the Harkers Island and Outer Banks settlers that developed this distinct dialect. Linguists from North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, and other academic institutions continue to conduct research on the island dialect.