The Assateague Ponies and the Spanish Shipwreck Legend
When the first English settlers arrived on the Chincoteague area they made no mention of horses running wild on Assateague. The first land patent on Assateague was to Daniel Jennifer in 1687. Assateague in Maryland was also patented in 1687. When Jennifer sold his property to Maximilian Gore, he included in his deed “commodities of pasture.” This would generally describe cattle, sheep, hogs, and probably horses. The Gore family as well as other mainland farmers pastured cattle and horses along the entire length of Assateague. Evidence uncovered in Accomack and Worcester County Courthouses document that these horses were cared for and not abandoned as some theories have suggested. Estate inventories ordered by the county courts upon the death of the land owner give an account of the horses by sex, color, and sometimes size and evaluations were made. Assateague was merely an extension of their mainland farms and horses and cattle were routinely ferried on and off the island as they were needed on the mainland. There would have been a regular infusion of new blood and the inventories prove that they were not abandoned nor were they hidden there to avoid taxes.
In October of 1749, a tremendous storm sent a tidal surge over Assateague that flooded the mainland up to two miles in some places. A graphic account of this event is contained in the Maryland Gazette of October 18, 1949. It said that on Fenwick Island (northern Assateague) where there had been 4-500 hundred head of cattle, only five survived. Of the sixty horses, only one survived. Estate inventories later reflected very few horses were counted in the years immediately after the storm.
On September 5, 1750, the Spanish Warship, La Galga, ran ashore on Assateague Island having been driven there by a hurricane.
In the 1840’s, Henry A. Wise, later Governor of Virginia, described the Assateague horses: There has since long before the American Revolution , on the islands along the seaboard of Maryland and Virginia, a race of very small, compact hardy horses, usually called beach horses. They run wild throughout the year and are never fed. One horse was so small it was said that “a tall man might straddle one with his toes touching the ground on each side.”
It has been documented that the some Spanish ships centuries ago carried horses on their return voyage to Spain. A horseshoe found on the 1622 Santa Margarita salvaged in the Florida Keys documents that they were exceptionally small.
Estate inventories taken between 1750 and 1776 only mention several horses on the beach. By 1782, taxes were levied regularly on cattle and horses, among other things, and it is clear that taxes were levied on horses that were private property. These records clearly document who owned horses on Assateague. Wild horses most likely accrued to the owner of the land where found.
The first record that suggested that the horses came from a shipwreck was published in Scribner’s Monthly in April 1877. In 1884, Wallace’s Monthly provided a detailed account of the oral tradition. It described a Spanish shipwreck lost on Assateague Beach and that the “the original Spanish horses were small.” Published accounts of the Spanish shipwreck legend then became routine.
It was this legend that brought Marguerite Henry to Chincoteague in 1946. She recounted the Spanish shipwreck legend in Misty of Chincoteague published in 1947. The ponies then became internationally well known. But Mrs. Henry said in Misty of Chincoteague that the horses were there when the English arrived and that the ship wreck occurred in the 16th century (1500s). This was not true. The truth was that while people remembered the Spanish shipwreck, some had forgotten which century it happened. Besides, the people who arrived in the 1600s would have no knowledge of what happened in the 1500s.
In 1991, the National Park Service commissioned a genetic study of feral horses along the east coast. The scientists reported that the Assateague horses had strong ties to the Paso Fino breed which were brought to South America in the 16th century by the Spanish.
We now know there was a Spanish shipwreck. We know that legend says the horses came from that shipwreck. We also now know that the horses on Assateague were not abandoned nor were they hidden there to avoid taxes. We also know that pirates had nothing to do with their origin.
Grandpa Beebe said in Misty of Chincoteague that it was the Indians who rescued the survivors of the Spanish shipwreck. Documents in the Spanish archives give credit to the Indians’ assistance to the crew of La Galga. Grandpa Beebe also said, “Legends be the only stories as is true!”