Kill Devil Hills - What Kind Of Name Is That?

February 14, 2022

Much lore surrounds the origin of the name Kill Devil Hills, a beach town on North Carolina's Outer Banks that should be more famous than it is.

For it was here, and not in neighboring Kitty Hawk, that the Wright brothers made their historic first flight off the top of a sand dune on Dec. 17, 1903. Kitty Hawk erroneously gets most of the credit for hosting this short but momentous event.

According to the book "The Outer Banks of North Carolina " by local historian David Stick, the first appearance of the town's name traces to an 1808 map, where it was listed as "Killdevil Hills." A map printed in 1814 put the name as "Kill Devil Hills" for the first time.

But what does it mean?

Perhaps the most plausible explanation - and the one the town officially endorses - stems from rum-carrying ships that sometimes ran aground off the treacherous barrier islands during Colonial days.

In 1728, William Byrd of Virginia, hardly a fan of Carolinians, wrote that "Most of the Rum they get in this Country comes from New England, and is so bad and unwholesome, that it is not improperly called 'Kill-Devil,' and there is a story that the ship loaded with this 'Kill-Devil Rum' was wrecked opposite the sand hills, thus accounting for the name," according to Stick's book.

The town's Visitor's Guide skips the smarmy comments from Byrd and just says the shipwrecked rum, later scavenged by locals and stashed in the dunes, "was strong enough to 'kill the devil.' " And the name stuck.

The guide also mentions another tale, this one much more fun but far less believable.

As legend goes, a local man once tried to extort money from the devil himself, then trapped him in a deep pit atop one of the many tall dunes that shape the town's rugged landscape.

Stick also describes other possible, less sexy origins.

A shore bird known as the killdeer once heavily populated the sand and scrub on the Outer Banks and the name "Killdeer Hills" became a town nickname. Eventually, as nicknames often do, the term morphed into something else - "Kill Devil Hills."

Another option, Stick writes, comes from an article published in 1851 in the Norfolk American Beacon.

"In the vicinity of Nag's Head," the article reads, "very conspicuous when sailing down the sound, there is a range of sand 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."

Stick writes that there has been controversy over which name is correct, "Kill Devil Hill" or "Kill Devil Hills." Actually, both are.

Kill Devil Hill is the name of the largest dune amid a series of them on the western fringe of town; Kill Devil Hills is the name of the community.

Located in Dare County, the town today includes more than 6,000 full-time residents, shops, hotels, restaurants and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a tourist attraction and monument in the scrubby hills where the first flight occurred.

And it's definitely not in Kitty Hawk.

From Wikipedia:

Kill Devil Hills is a town in Dare County, North Carolina, United States. The population was 6,683 at the 2010 census, up from 5,897 in 2000. It is the most populous settlement in both Dare County and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Kill Devil Hills Micropolitan Statistical Area is part of the larger Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC Combined Statistical Area.

The town is home to the site of the Wright brothers' first controlled, powered airplane flights on December 17, 1903, chosen for its good winds. The town was commemorated by the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which was dedicated in 1932. At the time of the Wright Flyer flights the town of Kill Devil Hills did not exist, and it did not receive its municipal charter until 1953. Kitty Hawk, popularly noted as the site of the famous flights, is approximately four miles to the north, and was the nearest settlement at the time of the famous flight.


Kill Devil Hills is the site of the Wright Brothers National Memorial, commemorating the siblings' four powered airplane flights in the Wright Flyer on Thursday, December 17, 1903. Orville returned in 1911, and on October 25 he set a new world glider record, remaining in the air 10 minutes and 34 seconds, soaring against the wind with very little forward movement.

In addition to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Sam's Diner in the town is on the National Register of Historic Places, listed in 1999.

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All