3 Jan 2020
If you’re a regular Outer Banks visitor, you’re probably used to hearing the various town names like “Kitty Hawk,” “Nags Head,” and “Kill Devil Hills." You have to admit, though, that the names are pretty unique. Have you ever thought about where those names actually came from? One town—Kill Devil Hills—has a particularly strange name with origins steeped in local history and Outer Banks lore.
History of Kill Devil Hills
Like many towns in the area, the exact timeline of the development of Kill Devil Hills as a town, including the name, is vague at best. Unlike other large settlements at the time, the barrier islands of the Outer Banks were not home to establishments like major ports or cities that would have generated the resources necessary to record the town's past. That's not to say there weren't natives or settlers in the area (remember the Lost Colony?)... just that there are very few primary sources for historians to analyze—such was the nature of small communities during the 18th and 19th century. Instead, historians have had to piece together clues from maps, old records, artifacts and oral histories passed down through generations of local families.
Despite how popular the area is today; it was not always a major tourist destination. Prior to early European settlements, the land was inhabited by indigenous tribes. Later, it became a small fishing and farming community. My the mid 1800’s, the population had begun to grow slowly, mainly visited by people seeking out fishing and hunting expeditions. As such, the occasional motel, general store, and campsite began to pop up here and there, especially with the creation of area lighthouses and lifesaving stations.
Over the next century, and thanks to the national recognition brought by Orville and Wilbur Wright’s flying experiments, more and more people from around the country began to visit the area. Visitors recognized both the natural beauty of the area along with its historical significance while locals recognized the potential for sustainable development in the tourism industry. With the implementation of better infrastructure and lodging options, the town (along with the rest of the Outer Banks) blossomed into a booming tourist town.
Origins of the "Kill Devil" Name
The earliest record of the name being used for the name of the town can be found on an 1814 map of the area. An earlier map from 1808 also references the name but spells it “Killdevil Hills.”
So, where did the name Kill Devil Hills come from? One theory is that the name derived from rum, possibly originating from the Caribbean Islands or New England, that was “strong enough to kill the devil.” In the early 1700’s, Virginia’s William Byrd wrote, “Most of the Rum they get in this Country … is so bad and unwholesome, that it is not improperly called ‘Kill-Devil,’” proving the rum was already referred to that name. Evidence suggests that this rum would have eventually made its way to the Outer Banks islands due to shipwrecks, pirate activity and general ocean traffic along the Eastern seaboard.
As to how the town adopted the name? One story says that a vessel carrying barrels of rum wrecked off the “sand hills”, possibly providing a geographic location reference for other sailors. Some versions of the story go so far as to say that bottles of rum from the shipwreck were recovered by locals who stored them in the sand dunes.
Another possible explanation comes from the local killdeer bird. The area was so populated with the species that it earned the nickname “Killdeer Hills.” With differences in dialect as the name was repeated, both orally and on paper, this could easily have transitioned overtime to “kill devil,” especially if “kill-devil” was a spirit found in the area and someone misheard the word "killdeer."
Some explanations are more mythical. One local legend tells the tale of a banker who once attempted to do business with the devil and ended up trapping him in one of the area’s many tall sand dunes.
A final explanation comes from the infamous coastline surrounding the barrier islands. Well-known as being extremely treacherous waters to navigate, one article from the American Beacon (a Norfolk-based news journal) in 1851 stated that “there is a range of sand hills called Kill Devil Hills, not because his satanic majesty was there disposed of, but because sailors say, it is enough to kill the devil to navigate that part of the sound.” Although maps do show the town was already referred to “Kill Devil Hills” at time of publication, this could provide the reason why.
Visiting Kill Devil Hills
In the end, no one really knows for sure where the name officially came from but several of the reasons seem plausible. Many historians accept the “kill-devil” rum explanation while many others feel that the “killdeer” reason is most logical. Maybe it was even a combination of more than one explanation and over time, the area locals just accepted the nickname. Either way, Kill Devil Hills is an awesome town that you won't want to miss out on visiting. Kill Devil Hills is filled with excellent restaurants, local attractions, and plenty of gorgeous vacation homes.
Start here to find your dream vacation rental so that you can experience your next Outer Banks moment in Kill Devil Hills.