How The Town of Nags Head Got Its Name

Public Beach Access in Nags Head, NC

To this day, the origins of exactly how the town of Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina received its name are unknown. There are, however, some theories.

Land Pirates and Lanterns on Horses?

One theory dates back to the mid-1800s when an artist/writer who worked for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine visited Nags Head and described the town in great detail in an article dated May 1860.

The author notes, “Nag’s Head derives its name, according to the prevalent etymology.” He continued: “from an old device employed to lure vessels to destruction. A Banks pony was driven up and down the beach at night, with a lantern tied around his neck. The up-and-down motion resembling that of a vessel, the unsuspecting tar would steer for it.

In more basic words, the passage says that captains would see the unsteady light from the lantern on the horse moving up and down and believe that it’s from an anchored ship… meaning that it must be an excellent place to stop for the night.

Once the ships got closer to the bobbing light, they’d encounter a sandbar and be stranded on the shoals. Then, local pirates would attack and plunder the ships, seizing all valuables on board.

Plausible story?

Well, in an article by the Virginia Pilot in August of 2011, Sarah Downing, assistant curator of the Outer Banks History Center, said, “I think it’s a legend. Can you really imagine putting a (hot) lantern around a horse’s neck? That’s not very probable.

Named After a Place in England?

There is another explanation for the town’s name, which seems to date even further than the mid-1800s.

Stories from locals say that name was bestowed by an Englishman named Leigh who moved to Perquimans County in the early part of the nineteenth century, joined his neighbors in a visit to the Jockey’s Ridge area, and noticed a striking resemblance between the sandhills and a place called Nag’s Head on the coast of England.

Seems reasonable.

Horse Caught in a Tree?

Another plausible story regarding how Nags Head received its name dates back to an old story that’s been told repeatedly by area natives.

Many years ago, there stood a large live oak tree, whose branches were twisted and warped by the occasional wind storm Outer Banks, storms that area natives are certainly accustomed to! It was the practice of large numbers of horses and cattle to assemble under this oak tree for both shelters and to rub themselves against the branches and trunk.

One day, a horse caught its head between the tree's limbs and unfortunately got stuck. The horse’s body remained suspended for quite a while until only its head was left dangling among the branches; hence the name Nag’s Head was given to this patch of the barrier island.

Who Knows…

Nags Head’s neighboring town to the north, Kill Devil Hills, has an even more peculiar name, and we don’t know how that town received its name either! 

One thing is for sure; Nags Head became the town’s official name in 1961 when the area was incorporated.

Which theory do you believe is the most plausible?


  • I love the horse stuck in the tree story. Sad but makes a great old story.

  • fact: Nags Head “is” an English place name. You can find numerous references that are older than 1800’s with a google search. (here is just one – 1735)

    Doug Heun

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