March 11th, 2021
Hatteras and the surrounding banks are famous for pirates, shipwrecks, the “Lost Colony”, and the disappearance of Theodosia Burr, among other things, but this tale is a little less well known.
It begins in the early years of our country, and really even before it was a country; in an undetermined year somewhere among the early 1700’s. It’s in the Hatteras of those days, a place frequented by sailors, fisherman, and men of…less lawful employment…that our story begins with a new arrival. A young mother, alone but for her infant child.
The tales only remember her name as “Cora”. No surname, no country of origin. No past. Cora was a quiet woman, who somehow had the means to construct for herself and child a small cabin in the trees of Hatteras island, away from the community, and removed from prying eyes.
Because of her self-imposed exile from the people of Hatteras, the rumors likely started fairly quickly. Being no more than a decade removed from the Salem witch trials, there was likely still great superstition in regards to witchcraft and just about everything else. People who didn’t fit in, who seemed odd or foreign, and those unaccustomed to popular societal norms were all suspect. Cora doubly so, bearing the apparent shame of a possible bastard child (as the folk of Hatteras were quick to assume), and being so, well, different. People began to blame all sorts of misfortune such as illness in children and animals on her. Storms, wrecks, meager fishing. All the fault of Cora.
Soon the story had taken on a life of it’s own. Not only was she a witch now, but her child was her “familiar”, a shape shifting companion, and they were both servants of Satan himself, bent on making life miserable for Hatteras. Of course, this was all scuttlebutt, and would have remained so if not for a strange twist of providence. A ship named the “Susan G” crewed by former slaves, and her captain, a man named Blood.
“Captain” Blood came into Hatteras with a damaged ship and the intention to stay until it could be suitably repaired. Like men of his age, he had peculiar and superstitious beliefs. Some said he even considered himself a “witch hunter”. He claimed to be a student of the finest traditions of New England, having read Cotton Mather’s “Memorable Providences” at least once. On an island as small as Hatteras, it was impossible for a man like Blood not to circulate among the long term residents, telling and hearing stories, and it was no great surprise then that he quickly latched onto the whispering about Cora.
However, the spark that ignited the tinderbox was a death. During Blood’s stay on Hatteras, a young man’s body washed up on the pristine Atlantic sands. His hands were said to be clutched, as if in prayer. On his decaying face, which despite likely being disfigured from the time in the tides, an apparent look of terror. And, written in the skin of his forehead were 3 distinct letters. 6. 6. 6. What’s more, there were small footprints all around his body, which have been described as being “like the footsteps of a slight woman”.
This was all Blood needed. Rousing the people of Hatteras, a mob soon formed. They stormed their way into Cora’s trees and through her door, quickly capturing and binding her and her infant child. Now the trial would begin.
History records no uttered word from Cora herself, but surely if she did exist, we can no doubt conjure (if you’ll pardon the pun) up ideas of what might have passed from the young mother’s mouth. A plea for mercy, a claim of innocence, a cry of anguish. Or, perhaps if we can believe this old tale, curses and promises of future misfortune for the inhabitants of Hatteras.
Whatever passed between Cora and her captors, it didn’t stop the “trial” that she was subjected to. 3 ignorant and superstitious tests, each more silly than the last. Determining whether Cora would float in the waves (she did, as any witch would), whether a knife could cut her hair (it couldn’t, also the sign of a witch), and whether the blood of several men mixed in a bowl would give some sign of her guilt (it did, according to Blood, both Captain and bowl).
With these revelations in hand there was only one thing left to do; that oldest tradition for witches. Cora and her child were tied to an old gnarled tree, with kindling set below them, and they were to be burned alive, as was fitting servants of Hell.
There was, however, one voice of dissension. The tale records his name as “Tom Smith”, another sea captain, either local or foreign. Captain Smith found all this reprehensible, and demanded true justice be meted out in an actual court of law.
But before Captain Blood and his mob could make reply, something horrible and otherworldly took place. Cora’s child began to change. It’s infant features became elongated, spare, and covered in black fur. And, before the eyes of all gathered, Cora’s familiar, a green eyed, black cat sprang from the tree and quickly vanished into the woods. Fearing more treachery, and the possible escape of the witch Cora, Captain Blood moved quick to touch torch to pyre. But it was not to be. Just as his hand began to descend on the pile of wood below Cora’s feet, a lone blast of lightning hit the tree, throwing Blood away from the tree and knocking down prostrate the onlookers.
When the ringing stopped, and each man had collected himself, they began to brush away sand from their clothes, and to turn their attention back to the tree. There, where Cora had stood, were visible in scorched letters on the trunk C O R A. But Cora herself was nowhere to be found.
But is any of this true?
A precursory search on Google will tell us that the name Cora was not popular or common among English speakers at the time. However, it does have German roots, and there could have been a German immigrant named “Kora”. Her nationality may have been a part of the reason she didn’t socialize very much with the other people of Hatteras. As for the other traceable names, I can find no record of a “Captain Blood” (or “Captain Eli Brood” as once source names him), his ship, or of “Tom Smith”. If they did exist, they have been forgotten by history save for in this local tale, or else records for them are not readily accessible,
The tree, however, does exist. It is likely one of the oldest trees on Hatteras, a veritable old man. And imprinted in it’s bark is indeed the name “Cora”. But could a carving survive 300 years? The answer is a complicated one.
It’s been said that as long as a tree lives, carvings made on it will live as well. An example of this in the US is noted by an author of the Island Free Press, and can be seen in the Basque carvings of the Sierra Nevada, which are almost 100 years old themselves.
If the “CORA” carving is centuries old, where did it really come from? The tale of Cora the witch is fanciful and entertaining, but not exactly believable. It’s certainly possible that “CORA” is a name. Maybe a misspelling of the German “Kora”. Perhaps there was a woman of that name on Hatteras who was charged and executed for witchcraft. Perhaps rather than being burned, she was hung from the old tree. And perhaps someone took it upon themselves to carve into the bark the name of the guilty party.
That’s a whole lot of “perhapses”, though. Using reasoning like this we can make up any sort of story we want about the carved letters.
There are of course, problems with all of this.
First, the tree. The Cora Tree is called in many places a “Water Oak”. Water Oak’s are not known for their longevity. In fact, though some may live 100-150 years, for most, decay sets in before the century mark. The tree in our story is apparently at least 300 years old. Surely not impossible, but very, very improbable. Especially on a windswept bank prone to hurricanes and storms.
However, looking at pictures of the tree, I don’t believe it’s actually a Water Oak, but more likely a Southern Live Oak. And these sorts of trees live for centuries, with at least one documented example likely being between 500 and 1,000 years old. This then makes much more sense. But even if the tree has been misidentified in the story, we still have no way to verify it’s age. It’s possible the tree was not even a witness to the history the story recounts, if it even happened.
Second, the name “Cora”. Remember how we mentioned that Cora was not a popular English name at the time? I have no way of determining how popular “Kora” might have been in German at the same time, but in America, “Cora” really took off in the mid to late 1800’s. In fact it was widely popular after the publication of “The Last of The Mohicans”. You may remember that it was the name of one Lt. Col Munro’s daughters. In fact, I have even found the name among the people of Hatteras at least as early as the 1910’s-1920’s.
Is it possible then that perhaps sometime in the last 100 years or so, a lovestruck young man might have carved the name of his object of affection into the tree? Maybe Cora was not a witch, but only bewitching. If this is the case, it’s unfortunate for the carver, because he did in fact immortalize his love, but not in the way he likely intended.
Third, we have the complete lack of evidence that any people listed in the story ever existed. The man who doubted being named “Tom”, like the disciple who refused to believe what was in front of him without more proof. The occult minded mixer of human hemoglobin named “Blood”. These seem more like literary devices than real people. They are more emblematic than authentic.
So, even though it’s a fantastic story, in the end, I think it really tells us more about ourselves than the tree. It speaks to the way we were; superstitious, wary of outsiders, and constantly afflicted by imagined evils. A far cry from the southern hospitality of NC’s coast today. An area which is largely populated by seasonal transients from all over the country, and even the world.
We may never know who Cora was. We may never know how her name (if it is a name) ended up on an old Water Oak on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But I think that’s ok. Mystery is something we gravitate towards for so many reasons. The story doesn’t need confirmation to entertain and to excite. And, long after the tree is gone, it will remain. A verbal piece of folk art, crafted by the people who once called Hatteras home. A monument without decay, and a portrait of our past fears.
And so I say whatever the truth, long live Cora, and long live her tree.
A fanciful recreation of the story as it appeared on the Travel Channel’s “Monumental Mysteries”
LORE Episode 28 In which a link is suggested between the Lost Colony and the Cora Tree.
A pic of the tree on the LORE Instagram
A pic of “CORA” carved into the tree from “The Lost Colony Research Group”
I originally posted to the r/unresolvedmysteries subreddit, and you may find an older copy there.