Blackbeard Island NWR is one of the oldest refuges in the country. The island has been in continuous federal ownership since 1800 when it was acquired by the Navy Department at public auction for the sum of $15,000. The Navy did a limited amount of harvesting of live oaks on the island for ship building.
Between the years of 1880 and 1910, the island served as the South Atlantic Quarantine Station for yellow fever. In addition to housing for medical personnel, a wharf with disinfecting tanks, a hospital and associated buildings were constructed on the island. As crews disembarked from ships, those that were sick were hospitalized, while the healthy were housed separately and examined daily for yellow fever symptoms. Once disinfected, the ships were allowed to continue to their destination. Sulphur dioxide gas was used to disinfect the ships. Located on the north end of the island is a structure referred to as the "crematorium". Although documentation does not exist to confirm the structure was ever used for body incineration, it stands as one of the few reminders of that era.
Blackbeard Island was named for Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard the Pirate. Legend tells of his murderous and plundering activities along the coast and his periodic retreats to the island for "banking" purposes. Rumors of Blackbeard's buried treasure still flourish, but no evidence of his fortune has ever been discovered.
The island's history as a refuge began on February 5, 1924 when Blackbeard was placed under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Biological Survey to be maintained as a preserve and breeding ground for native wildlife and migratory birds. In 1940, by Presidential Proclamation, Blackbeard Island was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge.