The Albemarle-Pamlico Region

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What is the Albemarle-Pamlico Region?

The Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system is made up of six river basins that flow into the sounds. The Pasquotank, Chowan, and Roanoke basins utlimately flow into Albemarle Sound, while the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse empty directly into Pamlico Sound.  Rivers of the White Oak basin flow to the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary's southern sounds, including Core, Back, and Bogue.    Each river basin boasts unique and valuable natural resources.  

Basins and Rivers

The watershed of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system encompasses portions or all of six major river basins - the Neuse, Roanoke, Tar-Pamlico, Chowan, Pasquotank, and White Oak. Besides rivers, streams, sounds and marshes, the region includes the fields, forests, cities, and towns that surround them. All the water flowing across this landscape - rain and melted snow - eventually drains into the estuary. The N.C. Office of Environmental Education maintains educational materials for each of North Carolina's River Basins, including booklets, interactive Storymaps, GIS resources, and more.

Learn more about North Carolina's River Basins

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The North Carolina coast didn't always look as it does today, and the Outer Banks have not always existed. Over millions of years, the sea has advanced and retreated. At the end of the earth's last ice age 18,000 years ago, the shoreline was located as much as 40 miles east of today's Outer Banks. During the warmest periods some 85 million years ago, the Albemarle-Pamlico shoreline retreated as far as today’s Interstate 95. Evidence of these changes can be seen today. You can follow sandy ridges of ancient coastlines—called scarps—throughout the Coastal Plain and find seashells imbedded in riverbanks far inland. By contrast, on some ocean beaches, the breaking waves churn up vintage tree stumps and layers of organic peat, the remnants of submerged woodlands.

Sea level was as much as 250 feet lower about 18,000 years ago. The area that is now Pamlico Sound was dry land covered with the type of plants found today only in much colder regions. Ancient rivers like the Neuse traveled in deep channels. As global climate warmed and chunks of polar ice melted back into the oceans, sea level began rising again. The rising Albemarle-Pamlico estuary drowned the forest, and the advancing ocean built up an unusually high sand ridge that has remained above sea level. That 160-mile-long ridge is the Outer Banks.

Most barrier islands moved landward during the last period of sea level rise, staying relatively close to the mainland. Though barrier islands are common along low-lying coastlines of the world, parts of the Outer Banks are unique in their long distance from the mainland. Spans of up to 40 miles separate the banks from the estuary's western edge. The enclosure formed by the banks makes the Pamlico Sound the largest embayed estuary in the world. The sound is nearly 100 miles from north to south and more than 25 miles wide in some places. Indeed, early European explorers searching for a shortcut to the Orient mistook the immense body of water for the Pacific Ocean.

Geologists do not agree on exactly when the banks were formed. It probably happened during the last period of rapid sea level rise between 3,500 and 5,000 years ago. Ocean levels have been comparatively stable since then. Barrier islands have survived additional rises in sea level (about 1 foot per century) by migrating landward—in effect, they roll over. Water washing over from the ocean carries and deposits new sediment to build up the land on the sound side. The Outer Banks have migrated as much as 50 miles inland since their formation.

Islands also move laterally—currents parallel to shore transport beach sand, causing some inlets to shift. Inlets shift continually, and areas of shoals and deltas constantly change location. Where Cape Hatteras elbows its way into the Atlantic, the shallow, treacherous Diamond Shoals stretch at least 15 miles seaward. Such shoals extending beyond the North Carolina capes created a navigational nightmare that had devastating consequences for early mariners. Skeletons of hundreds of sunken ships are still buried in this "graveyard of the Atlantic."

Humans have lived in the North Carolina coastal region for at least 14,000 years. This area was one of the last places reached by the people who came to the American continent via a land bridge across the Bering Sea. The Stone Age Carolinians arrived as nomads, tracking animals like the woolly mammoth, and eventually developed into the settled cultures now known collectively as Native Americans. These tribal communities have lived throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico region for thousands of years and were part of a larger cultural group that is sometimes described as the Eastern Woodlands culture.

Although only a small proportion of the region’s archaeological sites have been excavated, one of the largest dugout canoes ever discovered, estimated to be around 4000 years old, has been found at Phelps Lake in eastern North Carolina. Diverse tribal groups traded, allied, and sometimes fought with one another throughout the thousands of years that they lived in the region prior to European colonization.

Among these groups were the Algonquian-speaking tribes, a large population of Native Americans who occupied coastal areas from Canada to North Carolina and lived in the Albemarle-Pamlico region since at least 1000 A.D. The Algonquian-speaking peoples lived in semiautonomous towns along the shores of the estuary and on the barrier islands. They grew beans, corn, gourds, and tobacco, as well as engaging in fishing and hunting. Their extensive trading network extended into the interior of North America. Among these tribal communities were the  Roanoke, Pamlico, Nansemond, and Chowan.

Inland of the Algonquin-speaking communities were Iroquoian speaking peoples, including the Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway. These tribes lived in towns along the coastal plain’s major rivers, hunting and farming extensively. They set fires that maintained the area’s unique longleaf pine savanna ecosystem and in order to conduct mass hunts. West of these groups were Siouxan-speaking peoples, such as the Saponi and Monacan, who lived near the headwaters of the coastal plain rivers.

The Spanish and then the English attempted to colonize the coast beginning in the 16th century. The invasion and colonization of the Albemarle-Pamlico region by Europeans was devastating for the region’s native peoples. Europeans spread deadly infectious diseases that tribal communities had no immunity to throughout the coastal plain decimating the population.

Well before the English established their first permanent New World settlement at Jamestown in 1607, they made several attempts to establish a colony in northeastern North Carolina. Between 1584 and 1587, they visited several times and left members of their ranks to construct a fort at the northern tip of Roanoke Island. This homestead might have succeeded if delivery of supplemental provisions had not been delayed for three years. When English reinforcement arrived in August of 1590, the settlers had vanished and their whereabouts were never discovered. They are still referred to today as the “Lost Colony.” Though these colonists did not establish the first permanent address, it is because of them that the Albemarle-Pamlico region can truly claim to be the cradle of Colonial America.

In 1621, colonists began settling the area that is modern-day Virginia Beach. The first permanent European settlement in North Carolina was the town of Edenton, whose beginnings are traced as far back as 1655. European settlers began arriving along the Chowan River in the mid-1600s via inland corridors from Virginia. As colonization began in earnest, settlers built towns in native territories. The town of Bath became the state’s first incorporated town in 1705, followed by Edenton in 1722, and New Bern and Beaufort in 1723.

The colonists brought major changes to the land and in some areas forcibly evicted its native people. Tensions between tribal communities and colonists increased due to these actions, as well as raids that took children and young members of tribal communities to sell them into slavery. These enslaved people were largely bound for plantations in the West Indies.

From 1711 to 1713, these tensions erupted into a regional conflict called the Tuscarora War in which an unknown number of native peoples were killed or enslaved. Overall, the ravages of disease and war reduced the population of Native Americans in eastern North Carolina to less than 5,000 by the end of the Tuscarora Wars in 1714. The Native American population prior to 1600 had been estimated at 300,000. Surviving Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples were forced to disperse, with some being confined to reservations within the Albemarle-Pamlico region and others retreating to the fringes of their once extensive territories. Some Tuscarora survivors migrated to what is now New York to join the Iroquois Confederacy, where their descendants live today, while those who stayed in North Carolina were forced onto a reservation near Lake Mattamuskeet.

The colonizing Europeans practiced intensive agriculture and forestry. They felled vast forests for timber and naval stores like tar, pitch, and turpentine. Virtually all of the original 4 million acres of longleaf pine forests were timbered and converted. The settlers caught millions of pounds of shad, sturgeon, and herring during the annual spring runs of these migrating fish. They also ditched and drained thousands of acres of wetlands to dry the land for farming.

Because of the lack of any deep-water ocean ports, most ports lay along inland rivers. Today’s U.S. Highway 17, also referred to as “the Ocean Highway” or “the King’s Highway,” skirts picturesque towns that were major river ports of the 18th century, including Washington, Hertford, Edenton, and Elizabeth City.

In 1805, a canal that was dug almost entirely by enslaved people was completed through the Dismal Swamp to connect the Pasquotank River and Albemarle Sound with Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. In the 1800s until the end of the Civil War, the Dismal Swamp was part of what was known as the Maritime Underground Railroad that helped enslaved people to escape to freedom. Elizabeth City, at the head of the Pasquotank, quickly became a major trade center. It remains an important hub of commerce and the largest city in northeastern North Carolina with a population of 18,631 (U.S. Census, April 2020).

The several of first communities on the Outer Banks oceanfront sprang up around lifesaving stations that lent aid to wrecked ships and stranded passengers. The U.S Lifesaving Service, the predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard, built seven stations on the Banks in 1874 to hold boats and rescue gear and quarters to house crewmen. These buildings and the lighthouses, whose beacons helped orient ships at sea, were the first man-made structures on the beach. Around the same time, the banks became a destination for northern industrialists, who purchased thousands of acres of land for waterfowl hunting clubs in Currituck and Dare counties.

Following the Civil War, the beach at Nags Head also became a destination for inland vacationers who arrived by steamboat from Elizabeth City. Well-to-do planters built cottages on the beach, expanding a sound side vacation community established in the 1830s. The construction of the first bridges and highways in the 1920s and 1930s made beach trips a less exclusive pastime. A bridge connected Roanoke Island and Nags Head in 1927, and another crossed Currituck Sound to the Banks north of Kitty Hawk in 1931. By 1953, a bridge linked Roanoke Island to the mainland, and the modern development of the Banks began.

Today, North Carolina has the largest native American population in the eastern United States. More than 300,000 Native Americans were living in the state as of the 2020 census, with another 23,388 Native Americans living in Virginia. Descendants of the region’s indigenous communities continue to live throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico region. These tribal communities include but are not limited to state-recognized tribes such as the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, the Meherrin Indian Nation, the Occaneechi Band of Saponi, the Sappony, the Nansemond Tribe, the Nottoway Tribe, and the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Tribe, as well as tribal communities such as the Tuscarora Nation and Chowanoke Indian Nation. Before being displaced from their ancestral lands, tribal communities such as the Coharie Tribe, the Waccamaw-Siouan Tribe, and the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, as well as individuals from the Tuscarora Nation in New York, also lived within the Albemarle-Pamlico watershed.

The largest present-day city entirely within the Albemarle-Pamlico region is Raleigh, with 467,665 people (U.S. Census, April 2020). Another metropolitan area in the watershed is Virginia Beach, whose southern portion lies within the Albemarle-Pamlico drainage and includes 459,470 people (U.S. Census, April 2020). The largest year-round population on the Outer Banks is in Kill Devil Hills, with 7,624 people (U.S. Census, April 2020). The region also contains military bases, numerous universities and marine laboratories, and the tech hub of Research Triangle Park (RTP) in the Raleigh area.

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Since Europeans first settled the Albemarle-Pamlico region, it has been cleared, plowed, planted, forested, ditched, dredged, filled, dammed and mined. Humans continue to reshape and develop the landscape in ways that affect the health and beauty of surrounding waters. As the region's population increases, its aquatic resources will come under increasing strain without concerted efforts to protect and restore them.  Below, we list a few of the major impacts human activity can have on the sounds.

  • Nonpoint source pollution comes from rainwater that runs over the land.  This water can contain contaminants including fertilizer and pesticides from agricultural, silvicultural, and lawn use; disease causing organisms from animal waste and malfunctioning septic systems; motor oil and metals from roads and parking lots; and mud from construction sites.
  • Nutrient pollution, caused by excessive inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus to rivers and estuaries, stimulates the overgrowth of algae (“blooms") and contributes to fish kills. A dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida, which in one of its toxic life stages attacks and kills fish in the estuary, also is stimulated by such nutrient pollution.
  • Eroded sediment due to intensified agriculture and urban development also increases water pollution—soil particles not only bind to and carry other pollutants, they also clog the gills of fish, smother bottom-dwelling animals, and block light from important aquatic grasses.
  • Draining and filling of wetlands for farms, planted forests, and residential and commercial building sites have contributed to declining habitat for many plants and wildlife—including recreationally and commercially caught fish—throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico region. Wetlands are important in providing flood control, critical habitat and water purification.
  • Rapid conversion of many natural features to paved or hard “impervious” surfaces escalates all the existing threats to water quality. Such surfaces include parking lots, driveways, rooftops and sidewalks. Polluted runoff has a striking effect on estuarine waters in the Albemarle-Pamlico region, including the contamination of shellfishing waters. The immediate impacts are apparent after it has rained. Because of pathogens washed into estuaries during storms, state agencies frequently close shellfishing areas to harvest to protect human health. These areas include oyster, clam and scallop beds. Besides these temporary closings, nearly 20 percent of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary is indefinitely closed to shellfish harvesting, including all areas within a certain distance of wastewater treatment plants, stormwater pipes and marinas. Runoff polluted by human or animal waste makes shellfish potentially unsafe for human consumption. Potential disease-causing organisms in the water come from a variety of sources: urban stormwater, improperly designed or managed animal waste facilities, failing wastewater treatment systems, broken sewer lines, leaking septic tanks, and wastes from wildlife and pets.