Thomas Parramore

2002 SeasonParramore

Thomas C. Parramore (1932-2004) taught history at Meredith College
in Raleigh and was author of numerous books, including Norfolk: The First Four Centuries.


Southampton County, Virginia (1978)

Carolina Quest (1978)

Express Lanes and Country Roads: The Way We Lived in North Carolina, 1920-1970 (1983)

Norfolk: The First Four Centuries (2000 - 2002)

Triumph at Kitty Hawk : the Wright brothers and powered flight

First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation (2002)


From First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation published by The University of North Carolina Press

The Conjurer's Decree

No grander quest has inspired mankind, no greater single achievement blessed its efforts, than the ability of humans to fly. The twentieth century, for all its cruelty and suffering, stands forth in the annals of history for its conquest of powered flight, the glory, indeed, of the Second Millennium. Well before the century ended, flight rewove the fabric of human life, altered our perceptions of time and space, and galvanized and exalted our faith and self-confidence in what is to come.

For three decades before and two more after 1903, North Carolina could, but did not, claim to stand at the forefront of aviation's advance. The reason no such claim was made is that the state did not realize that it was entitled to do so. The evidence for these contentions comes in many forms and was signified two centuries before the first flight was performed.

Explorer John Lawson traveled to Carolina mainly to glean information useful to the colony's English proprietors. The splendid book he published in 1709, A New Voyage to Carolina, revealed a treasure of data on the settlement's climate, geography, soils, minerals, flora, fauna, and inhabitants. It was especially interesting for its intimate glimpses of Carolina's aborigines, their customs and beliefs, arts and crafts, and patterns of living.[1]

Around 1708 Lawson visited several Native American tribes of the Albemarle Sound area. Although a thorough rationalist by training and predilection, he was charmed by stories of folkways and the occult among these Native Americans and passed on many representative tales. Clients of Tuscarora tradesmen, he wrote, bought liquor by the mouthful, usually with the collaboration of the man with the largest mouth; the exceptional marksmanship of the Flatheads came from strapping their infants' heads to boards so tightly that their eyes bulged, making them splendid hunters.[2]

An extraordinary tale of the supernatural concerned the celebrated "great Conjurer," a Chowan Indian named Roncommock, perhaps still alive in 1709. 

"Persons that affirm they were Eye-Witnesses," wrote Lawson, insisted that they had seen Roncommock "take a Reed about two Foot long in his Mouth, and stand by a Creek-side, where he call'd twice or thrice with the Reed . . .; and, at last, has open'd his Arms, and fled over [Salmon] Creek, which might be near a quarter of a Mile wide or more."[3]

This wonderful feat, deemed "seemingly true" by the worldly Lawson, was allegedly performed on the plantation of former governor Seth Sothel, himself a proprietor of the Carolina colony, at the mouth of Salmon Creek in Bertie County. It was also the site of the first English house built in North Carolina. Bertie happens to be the birthplace of a poet whose verse was among the first, if not the first, to celebrate the advent of powered flight in America. Forty miles north of Salmon Creek, North Carolina's first airplane was built and tested. Eighty miles southeast, humankind's first helicopter lifted vertically off the ground.

The birthplace of an aviator who built and flew a biplane and, a quarter century later, patented an enormous flying-wing airliner is eighty miles northwest; that of a pioneer of the automatic pilot in planes and rockets, thirty-eight miles northwest. Seventy miles north, Norfolk, Virginia, witnessed the first flight from a ship's deck. And at a barren sand dune sixty miles due east of Salmon Creek, a balding young man, on December 17, 1903, flew a motored stick-and-rag biplane for twelve seconds.

"Witnesses" to Roncommock's flights harbored no doubt that humans could fly-if they possessed the Conjurer's secret. How to acquire or fabricate that power was what French gliderman Louis Pierre Mouillard termed the "tyrant thought" that ruled over humankind for two centuries after Roncommock's time and still impels us relentlessly toward the infinite. The magical reed can be said to symbolize a quest that began long before the Conjurer's day and continues today. It is nothing less than our emergent hope of navigating the solar system as readily as we do the paths and sea-lanes of our native planet. Roncommock's reed challenges us to burst Earth's coils and soar-in body as well as spirit-to the outermost reaches of the universe, the innermost depths of our being. The site where the Conjurer flew is the epicenter of a region where humankind was baptized in the transcendent experience of both horizontal and vertical powered flight.

The ability of humans to fly, a goal finally achieved in North Carolina, summoned forth, between 1909 and the end of World War I, the greatest surge of mechanical creativity and individual achievement in the state's and the nation's history. The artisans who aspired to fly and the warriors who set out in 1914 to meet enemies in an utterly new medium of battle shared a common spirit of courage and experimentation.

The tale that follows deals with humankind's earliest attempts to break the bonds of gravity, to master resisting winds and subdue foreboding skies. It is a story that began, in its practical phase, longer before than since the flights at Kill Devil Hill. North Carolina was "first in flight" (as its license plates boldly declare) well before the Wright brothers' success in Kitty Hawk confirmed what was ordained by Roncommock's mysterious reed.

Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press.