The wild horses that roam Assateague Island became internationally famous after Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague in 1947. It all began when she received a letter about the horses on Assateague and the legend that they swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon centuries ago. She was captivated by the story of these mysterious creatures and travelled to Chincoteague, Virginia, the island that lies along side of Assateague, to see them for herself. She was introduced to Clarence and Ida Beebe who raised horses on Chincoteague and whose ancestors reached back centuries. It was from them that she heard once again about the Spanish galleon legend. This inspired her to create a scene in the book where Grandpa (Clarence) Beebe tells his two grandchildren, while observing the horses run on Assateague, that the Spanish galleon legend was true. With the popularity of the book, the movie followed in 1961. Chincoteague became recognized around the world and soon the tourists travelled from all over the U.S. and from other countries as well to get an up close look at these legendary horses. To keep the tourists entertained, the local journalists would write about the theories of how the horses came to be on Assateague.
Then, as is today, three theories on the horses’ origin are repeated in the tourist literature and local newspapers.
A. The horses were left by pirates who roamed the coast centuries ago.
B.The horses were left by the colonists who grazed them centuries ago
C.They swam ashore from a shipwreck
Theory A is easy to dismiss. Although some pirates and privateers roamed the coast in the colonial period, there is no evidence that they carried horses on board ship. This is simply a romantic tale to entertain children. It has no basis in fact. There are some small islands behind Assateague called The Pirate Islands. This term has only been used since the 20th century and does not appear in earlier records.
Theory B has gained a lot of traction because horses and cattle were grazed on Assateague starting in the 1670’s. When the English first settled the area in the mid 1600s they found no horses running wild. This has been thoroughly documented. The federal government likes to favor this theory but their reporting of the facts is incomplete. The government is well aware that in 1749 there was a great hurricane that struck Assateague. It was reported at the time that the tide rose fifteen feet and washed over Assateague Island and reached some two miles into the woods on the mainland. On northern Assateague, it was reported that only five cattle out of five hundred survived. Out of sixty horses, only one survived. The estate records of the first landowners of Assateague show that the horses were not neglected. They were valued and counted when the owner died. These records, ignored by the government, refute the representations they make that the horses were neglected and ran wild. These same records further document that after 1749 there were very few horses pastured on Assateague.
Theory C. There are several versions to address. One is that they swam ashore from a Spanish ship that was headed to Peru in the 16th century when she wrecked on Assateague. That would make it in the 1500s. Jamestown was not founded until 1607 so there were not any English living on the Eastern Shore to create such a legend. Ships going from Spain to Peru would travel with the trade winds to the Gulf Mexico far from Assateague Island. This is not a legend at all. This came right out of Misty of Chincoteague and reported as fact by some over eager journalist. Marguerite Henry merely painted a romantic scene for the legendary galleon. She never represented that her book was based on historical fact, although the people depicted in it were real.
Another version of the legend was recorded in Scribner’s Monthly in April of 1877. It was said there was a “vague tradition” that the horses escaped from a vessel wrecked on the south end of Assateague. This tradition also said that the Indians carried the survivors to the mainland.
History records that there was a Spanish galleon that wrecked on Assateague in the 18th century. Out of the hundreds of shipwrecks that have occurred on and offshore at Assateague there are only two Spanish ships that are documented to have been lost. The Juno sank over two hundred miles off the coast in 1802. On September 5, 1750, the Spanish warship, La Galga, ran ashore on the Virginia portion of Assateague. Documents in the Archives of Maryland, Virginia, Spain, and England record the loss. Miraculously, no one died on board ship. The Spaniards remained on board for three days while the ship sat in the surf. They were rescued and brought ashore in “Indian canoes.” They then travelled to the mainland in small craft. No archival documentation mentions the horses but there is a lot not mentioned in the cargo manifest that is mentioned elsewhere. There is also archaeological proof that the Spaniards did carry horses with them on their return to Spain. On September 5, 1622, a Spanish fleet was wrecked in the Florida Keys. Horseshoes and horse bones were recovered. Dr. Eugene Lyon, the historian who located valuable archival records in Spain enabling Mel Fisher to locate the Atocha and Santa Margarita, explained that a small horseshoe was found on the Santa Margarita site but no archival record mentioned horses on board. What was recorded was that there were soldiers on board which he surmised were the reason for the horses to be on board. When informed that La Galga had sixty soldiers on board his comment was that he would not be surprised if there were horses on La Galga when she wrecked. Another account describes the survivors of the 1715 Spanish fleet eating some of the horses that swam or washed ashore from the wrecks.
A woman named Victoria Watson Pruitt who was born in 1884 and lived on Chincoteague when Marguerite Henry visited in 1946 wrote about what had been told to her by her father Robert Watson. Within her papers preserved at the Eastern Shore Public Library is her recollection:
Doubters of the Shipwreck & Storm
Some people tried to discredit the story of the Spanish shipwreck as the 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 its good enough for them.
Her grandfather, Robert Watson, was reported in the Baltimore Sun in the 1940s as saying the ponies came from a Spanish shipwreck lost on Assateague.
In 1805, Jonathan Watson, great grandfather of Victoria Watson Pruitt, owned six horses on Assateague called “island horses” which were valued at $40 apiece while his other horses were valued at from $75 to $80 each. In 1796, he had purchased 500 acres on Assateague just below where the Spanish shipwreck ran ashore. It should be noted, taxes were not imposed on horses and cattle until 1782 after the Revolution and those that maintained cattle and horses on Assateague paid their taxes.
Former Governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, who was born in 1806, commented about the horses on Assateague. He said that since before the American Revolution on the seaboard of Maryland and Virginia there was “a race of very small, compact, hardy horses, usually called beach horses. They are diminutive, but many of them are of perfect symmetry and extraordinary powers of action and endurance…and [one] so small that a tall man might straddle one and his toes touch the ground on each side.” The horses are larger today due to introduction of other breeds.
In 1968, the National Park Service Historian wrote a report on Assateague. In it, he gave no credence to the Spanish shipwreck theory even though he recognized the wreck of La Galga. He made no mention of the 1749 hurricane and loss of horses nor did he delve into the records of those who owned horses there prior to their demise.
The government continues to misinform the public by not only withholding relevant historical documentation on the horses but expressing opinions that are misleading.
“Local folklore describes the Assateague horses as survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast. While this dramatic tale of struggle and survival is popular, there are no records yet that confirm it. The most plausible explanation is that they are the descendants of horses that were brought to barrier islands like Assateague in the late 17th century by mainland owners to avoid fencing laws and taxation of livestock.” http://www.nps.gov/asis/naturescience/horses.htm
“Although the familiar legends of ponies escaping from a wrecked Spanish ship persist, they appear to have little basis in fact.” http://www.nps.gov/asis/upload/feralhorsemanag.pdf
“…horses probably did not swim to the island after the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon as legend has it, but were more likely brought to the island by mainland settlers to avoid penning laws and taxation. The misconceptions are more romantic, however, and Marguerite Henry’s famous Newberry honor book Misty of Chincoteague, first published in 1947, helps perpetuate them. Somebody is perpetuating misconceptions and it’s not Marguerite Henry. http://www.npca.org/about-us/center-for-park-research/stateoftheparks/assateague/assateague_csotp.pdf
In 1983, maritime historian, John Amrhein, Jr. located the wreck of La Galga buried beneath the island of Assateague in a former inlet. Besides his meticulous research and sophisticated electronic gear, he had a surprising tool that in the end led him to the wreck. It was the testimony of Ronnie Beebe, the great nephew of Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe. He not only described La Galgagoing into an inlet but said that the Spaniards were rescued by the Indians and that the inlet closed within two weeks time. He pointed to the wreck location on a map and described the horses swimming ashore. In the archives of Spain the records describe the Indians’ involvement and that within three days the ship was covered with sand.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who has custody of the wreck which lies in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, recently posted more misleading statements about the horses on their website. While knowing the name of the Spanish shipwreck and the year she ran aground (1750) they had this to say:
The most popular is a legend that a Spanish galleon carrying a cargo of ponies sank off Assateague in the 1700′s and some of the ponies were able to swim to shore. Another legendary theory claims the famed pirate Black Beard, gifted a heard of horses to one of his 14 wives, who lived on Assateague Island. A more plausible theory is that the “Chincoteague Ponies” are descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague Island in the l7th century by Eastern Shore planters.
This so called “legendary theory” of Blackbeard has to originate with the USFWS because it has yet to appear in tourist literature.
Today, the federal government continues to refuse to do any archaeological investigation of the wreck which they acknowledge is there. Once they do, they may well find a horseshoe.
Sources: The Hidden Galleon by John Amrhen, Jr. New Maritima Press, 2007