The area was settled by Native Americans, who fished and farmed in the creeks and river long before Europeans arrived. Today, fewer than 1 percent of the town’s residents are Native American. Land records date grants from the King of England to colonial farmers, and several current residents of the area can trace their family’s genealogy to these times. The area was the haunt of pirates in the early days of European dominance. The famous pirate Edward Teach or Blackbeard made his home in Bath to the North of Oriental. The Midgettes (also Midyettes) and other old families that still have descendants in the town came much later, in the late 19th century.
The town of Oriental was named after the Sailing Steamer Oriental. Built in Philadelphia in 1861, the ship was used as a Federal transport ship in the Civil War. She met her fate a year after being launched, run aground in May 1862, when she was wrecked off Bodie Island, 33 miles north of Cape Hatteras. Her passengers and crew were saved.
The United States Post Office Department established a post office in 1886 in what had been called Smith’s Creek. Lou Midyette was named postmaster. Postmaster Midyette’s wife, Rebecca, thought the village needed a better name. One story says that she had found the nameplate from the wrecked sailing steamer Oriental on the beaches of the Outer Banks and thought that name was more suitable. Another version of the story says she just saw the nameplate in a Manteo home. Either way the name “Oriental” made an impression on her. The village became known as Oriental a few years after the post office was established and was incorporated in 1899.
From the early 20th century Oriental’s economy was supported by lumber, fishing and farming. Train service stopped in the 1950s. The last sawmill closed in the early 1960s. Fishing, agriculture, some tourism and marine related businesses now lead the local economy.
Fishing trawlers still grace the small harbor, bringing in a catch of shrimp, crab or perhaps flounder depending on the season.
The nameplate of the city’s namesake Sailing Steamer Oriental has been lost, but a porthole from the ship is in the Oriental History Museum.
The Oriental History Museum offers enlightening displays of Oriental’s early years. The Museum and the Oriental Tourism Board have combined to develop a 1.2-mile historical walking tour covering thirty-seven sites.
Two local festivals attract visitors from far and wide:the Spirit of Christmas, always held in early December. The Spirit of Christmas consists of local businesses holding open houses with hot cider and treats, while the local churches hold Nativity plays and host Christmas music concerts. There is sometimes a boat parade in the harbor, where locals decorate their yachts with Christmas lights; the Croaker Festival, an arts and vendor event (benefiting the county’s nonprofits), is the second large town festival and culminates in a fireworks display held during the first weekend each July. In addition, the Oriental Rotary Club sponsors an annual catch-and-release tarpon fishing tournament the last weekend in July (2008 was the 16th year) and, on New Year’s Eve, the Oriental dragon makes a run through town twice (at 8 p.m. and at midnight). The Oriental Cup Regatta is held the third Saturday of September, and there are boat races most Saturdays from May through September, and very informal ones most Wednesdays, too. Oriental hosts a Celebration of the Arts festival in mid-September, and has other art festivals throughout the year. The Town sponsors free evening concerts once each summer month which have been well attending by county residents and visitors from neighboring Craven and Carteret counties. The Oriental Tourism Board actively promotes weddings in Oriental and has published a Website that lists venues and service providers.