The origin of the Assateague ponies has always been portrayed as an unsolvable mystery. What is always mentioned is a legend that they swam ashore from a shipwreck of a Spanish galleon centuries ago. It was this legend that lured Marguerite Henry to Chincoteague in 1946. What she saw and heard there inspired her to write Misty of Chincoteague which was published in 1947 and was made into a movie in 1961. Up to that time, the prevailing theory or story was that they came from a Spanish shipwreck.
Today, the custodians of the horses, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, are also the “custodians” of the narrative on their origins. Both agencies are discrediting the Spanish shipwreck theory in favor of two theories that are easily disproved. One theory says that the horses were sent over to Assateague to avoid the fencing laws imposed on mainland farmers. The other theory says that the horses were placed there to avoid taxes. This is the narrative found on their websites and tourist literature disseminated by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It has often been repeated by writers as gospel.
Both of these “theories” demand that we are to believe that the owners of these valuable horses just left them there to fend for themselves. Assateague is only hundreds of yards from the mainland in the Ocean City area and about five miles at the widest part of Chincoteague Bay and easily reached by boats or barges from the mainland. This theory of abandonment suggests a solitary event. Otherwise, we are asked to believe that the farmers routinely dumped them on Assateague without bringing any back. Historical documents prove that fences were used as early as the early 1700s. Tax records for Accomack County stored in the Virginia State library in Richmond, Virginia, list the owners of horses and cattle beginning in 1783 when taxes were first imposed. These records show that the horses on Assateague were taxed. The two predominant theories promoted by federal agencies as to the origin of the horses have no basis in fact.
The historical record is clear that the original owners of Assateague in the 17th century, which stretched from Chincoteague Inlet to Fenwick Island, pastured their horses and cattle there. Some early land patents such as Winter Quarter and Winter Pasture reflect this practice. These names tell us that pasturing was a seasonal activity which implies that horses and cattle were returned to the mainland farms—not forgotten about or abandoned. In 1835, Dr. Thompson Holmes, who had a farm on the mainland just south of the Maryland border, wrote an account of the horses and described the advantages of pasturing on Assateague: “Their winter subsistence was supplied abundantly by nature, the tall, dense, and heavy grasses of the rich flat lands, affording them green food nearly all winter.”
Estate records going back to the late 1600s document that when an owner of land on Assateague Island died, his horses and cattle were inventoried, valued, and described. The horses were too valuable to be abandoned. These same records also document that there was a caretaker on Assateague as early as 1696 whose duty was to protect the horses and cattle.
The routine practice of pasturing on Assateague was challenged by Mother Nature in October of 1749, when a devastating northeast storm sent a wall of water over Assateague Island. The tide ran two miles into the woods on the mainland. At Fenwick Island at the north end of Assateague, it was reported that only five of the 500 head of cattle and only one of the sixty horses pastured there survived. At Norfolk, the tide was said to be fifteen feet above normal causing extensive damage. Estate records which followed showed very few horses were left on Assateague.
The Spanish Galleon
On September 5, 1750, a Spanish galleon called La Galga ran ashore on Assateague near the Maryland-Virginia border. La Galga had been escorting a fleet of six other ships from Havana, Cuba, to Càdiz, Spain, when the fleet encountered a hurricane off the north coast of Florida. The disabled fleet was propelled by hurricane winds and the Gulf Stream up the American Coast. La Galga sat in shallow water for two months while the locals salvaged what they could. In early November, a northeast storm broke the gun deck loose and the ship sanded in.
In the early 1800s, it was noted that the wild horses on the island were much smaller than those on the mainland. They were described as a “race of very small, compact, hardy horses, usually called “beach horses” which were believed to have been on Assateague since long before the American Revolution. These horses were so small that a tall man might straddle one and “his toes touch the ground on each side.”
By 1805, these horses were dubbed “island horses” and were valued at $40 each while the mainland horses were valued around $75 each. Mainland horses that were pastured on Assateague surely interbred with what was then considered an inferior breed. After the Civil War, the “island horses” were more commonly known as “beach horses” and were still valued far less that their mainland cousins
In 1877, Scribner’s Monthly published an article on Chincoteague Island, the Assateague ponies, and the annual pony penning. The author, Howard Pyle, was told that there was a “vague tradition” on Chincoteague Island that the horses had escaped from a vessel wrecked on the southern end of Assateague and that the Indians then carried the survivors to the mainland.
In 1884, Wallace’s Monthly provided a detailed account of the oral tradition of the Spanish shipwreck:
“Away back in the dim and misty past, beyond the reach of the memory of the oldest and perforce most wrinkled and weather-beaten native, a ship, freighted deep with Spanish horses, went ashore on the treacherous sands of Chincoteague Island…some of the horses swam ashore and lived…Just how long ago the ship went ashore, or how many horses saved themselves from the wreck, or whether the crew was drowned or not, or where the ship cleared from or where she was sailing to, no man knows…The account said the ship wrecked either upon…the southern point Chincoteague Island or upon the barren wasteland called Assateague Beach…The original Spanish horses were small…A taint of inferior blood was introduced into the Chincoteague drove through some farm horses ferried across the bay from Maryland some years ago…Many years after the wreck of the Spanish ship a handful of fisherman settled on Chincoteague.”
This legend lived on and was repeated in numerous newspapers and magazines prior to Mrs. Henry’s visit in 1946 to Chincoteague. When she arrived at Chincoteague, she met Mrs. Victoria Watson Pruitt who was considered to be the local historian. She was born in 1884 and her family had owned land on Assateague in the late 18th century very close to where the Spanish galleon had wrecked. In her private papers she wrote:
“Some people tried to discredit the story of the Spanish shipwreck as a source [from] which the ponies came. Others would like (now that the ponies are famous and have made Assateague and Chincoteague the talk of the entire country for beautiful ponies) to claim the honor. But go where you will, up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, from Maine to Florida you will not find the ponies. In fact Assateague is home of their forefathers and it’s good enough for them.”
Mrs. Henry stayed with Clarence and Ida Beebe while in Chincoteague. The Beebe’s ancestors reached back to the first English settlements on Chincoteague. Clarence was a horse farmer and shared the legend as he had heard from his predecessors with Mrs. Henry. This narrative in Misty sums it up. In the story, his grandson, Paul Beebe, asked the question:
“Grandpa!” “Is it true about the Spanish galleon and the ponies? Or is it a just a legend like the folks over on the mainland say?”
“’Course it’s true!” replied Grandpa. “All the wild herds on Assateague be descendants of a bunch of Spanish hosses.”
“Then it’s not a legend?” Maureen Beebe asked.
“Who said ’twasn’t a legend?” Grandpa exclaimed.
“’Course it’s a legend. But legends be the only stories as is true!”
Grandpa also told his grandchildren “Why I heard tell it ’twas the Indians who chanced on ’em first.”
National Park Service discredits shipwreck legend
A major departure from the Spanish shipwreck legend was made when the National Park Service Historian, Mr. Edwin Bearss, published his General Background Study and Historical Base Map: Assateague Island National Seashore. Mr. Bearss concluded, as other historians before him, that the horses today are the result of abandonment. Bearss’ primary source and basis for this assumption was the historian Jennings Cropper Wise who published Ye kingdome of Accawmacke, or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century in 1911. Wise had concluded that “some of the planters of the peninsula, in order to avoid the expense of fencing off the marshes on the mainland, transported their stock to the nearby islands about this time, and that this is the true origin of the Chincoteague pony concerning which so many fables have been written… Here then is not only a reasonable origin for the pony, but the origin of the pony-penning as well! Why look to shipwrecks and pirates?”
The Spanish Galleon comes to light
In 1911, the existence of a Spanish shipwreck on Assateague Island was virtually unknown, except by legend. It was not until 1908 that the archives of Maryland were published which contained records of this historic event. Of primary interest was the letter written by Don Daniel Huony, the captain of La Galga, to Samual Ogle, the Governor of Maryland. In this letter, Huony describes a survey done that positioned the shipwreck “two ship lengths” north of the Maryland-Virginia boundary line. Years later, this letter would inspire many treasure hunts.
Had Wise known about La Galga his opinions about the shipwreck legend would certainly have been different.
The Assateague horses still retain some Spanish blood
There is more evidence supporting the horses Spanish origins. In 1991, the Journal of Wildlife Management published their research findings on the genetic ties of the Assateague ponies. The study’s conclusion was that there was a “close genetic resemblance between the Assateague Island horses and the Paso Fino breed which descended from animals brought to the New World by the Spanish.” The Spanish archives make no reference to horses on La Galga but there is proof that the Spanish carried horses on board some of their ships. When the Spanish treasure fleet of 1715 wrecked in Florida, the archives record that the survivors ate some of the horses that had been on one of the ships. In the early 1980s, treasure hunters salvaging the 1622 galleon, Santa Margarita, in the Florida Keys uncovered a small horse shoe. In this case, the Spanish archives made no mention of them yet they had been on board. Dr. Eugene Lyon, who provided the historical research which led to the shipwreck’s discovery, surmised that the horses belonged to the soldiers who were traveling back to Spain. The fact that La Galga was carrying nearly sixty soldiers as documented in the Spanish archives further supports the conclusion there were horses on board when she ran ashore.
A Unique Breed descended from Spanish horses
In 1994, the Chincoteague Ponies were recognized as a unique breed. There is no doubt that these horses descended from those aboard the Spanish galleon, La Galga. These horses then interbred with other horses that had been brought periodically over from the mainland. Hurricanes since 1750 have decimated the herd but they recovered thanks to the addition of other horses such as the Shetlands which were added after the loss of half the herd in the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962. With the passage of time, the Spanish blood line has grown thinner and thinner just as the Spanish shipwreck legend is being slowly erased from the public conscience. It can be said that both the Spanish shipwreck legend and theory that the horses descended from those brought from the mainland are both correct. But this unique breed had its beginnings with the shipwreck of La Galga.
The Discovery of La Galga
In 1978, after having read the letter written by Captain Huony of La Galga found in the Maryland archives, I began archival search for more information on this shipwreck in the archives of Virginia and Maryland and in Spain. When I began, I made no connection to this shipwreck and the wild horses. After numerous searches in the Atlantic Ocean, and discovery of documents in the Accomack County Court House that proved that the beach had built out since 1750, I concluded that the shipwreck was buried beneath Assateague. Documenting the 1750 boundary line between Maryland and Virginia was easy using plats found at the courthouse. In 1983, I was directed to a Mr. Ronnie Beebe, the great nephew of Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe. Ronnie Beebe passed on to me the legend about the location of the Spanish shipwreck. He said it went into an inlet causing it to close. He not only pointed very near to where the shipwreck is now determined to be, he told me about a Spanish pistol and a handful of pieces of eight which had been found in the woods opposite the wreck site. He told me it was the Indians who discovered the shipwreck and rescued to Spaniards in 1750. Documents in Spain verify that the crew came ashore in Indian canoes.
Today, another chapter is being written on this historic shipwreck. Archaeologists have recently located numerous magnetic anomalies in the area. One was buried beneath a mound of sand that can be seen from space. It is believed the main portion of the shipwreck is waiting to be discovered nearby.
For more on La Galga visit thehiddengalleon.com
DNA would be the most telling evidence, wouldn’t it? We do dogs, horses are next!
Fascinating! So Grandpa Beebe was right. Great read. I’d love to see this mound in an aerial view. If you go to Assateague, where is it?