The “Theory”

The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s web sites promote their own “theory” that the horses are merely abandoned stock left by 17th century Colonials. When they do mention the shipwreck legend they don’t tell their audience that there was a Spanish shipwreck named La Galga that ran ashore on Assateague in 1750.

The National Park Service:

“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.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is working overtime to convince the public that the horses did not come from a Spanish shipwreck. Up until August 7, 2014, they wanted the public to believe that it was possible that Blackbeard left them to one of his 14 wives who they say lived on Assateague:

Web Site August 7, 2014

“Have you ever wondered how the ponies came to Assateague Island? There are several theories. 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 Blackbeard, 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 when crop damage caused by free roaming animals led colonial legislatures to enact laws requiring fencing and taxes on livestock. We may never solve the mystery behind how the ponies got to Assateague Island, but no one can deny that it was Marguerite Henry who made these ponies famous with her book Misty of Chincoteague.”

This absurdity was challenged with a Freedom of Information Request demanding the source for this. The USFWS could not back it up. In fact, while historians have firmly established that Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Thatche and came from a respectable family in Jamaica, it is also proven that his “14 wives” was a complete exaggeration with no basis in fact. The USFWS Regional Historic Preservation Officer has released an updated version on February 17, 2014 removing the offending language. But they saw the need to further discredit the Spanish shipwreck, La Galga.

Web Site September 15, 2015

In July of 2015, archaeologists picked up the debris trail believed to be part of the Spanish ship La Galga buried on Assateague. When this was reported to them, the USFWS informed the archaeologists that there would not be any more archaeological investigations which are mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. And publicly, they doubled down on what they want the public to believe as the source of the horses. At the same time that they refuse to tell the public that the existence of a Spanish shipwreck is historical fact, they are blocking archaeological investigations of the Spanish shipwreck. But that’s not enough. They now say that instead of the “more plausible theory” for the origin of the horses as coming from abandoned livestock, that the “theory with more historical evidence” is that they were abandoned by colonials in the 17th century. What prompted these changes?

The source for both of these misconceptions comes from a report done in 1968 a by a Edwin Bearss, a National Park Service Historian. He concluded that the shipwreck legend was untrue and he based that on only one source, a book written in 1911 by a Western Shore historian named Jennings Cropper Wise.  He was inclined to believe 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.” He goes on to say “These horses were periodically driven into a pen and the foals branded with the mark of the owner; and in order to prevent any secret encroachments upon the rights of others, it was generally required that notice of the penning should be posted at the parish church two weeks before the drive. 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?”

It is this one author who guided those that followed Susie: Ames in 1940, Nora Turman in 1964, and Bearss in 1968. These historians relied totally on Wise to reach the same conclusion. From the sources used by Wise, it is easily observed that he had no knowledge about the Spanish man-of-war, La Galga, that ran ashore on Assateague in 1750. He was not even a resident of the Eastern Shore. He was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1884 and is remembered for his work as professor and commandant of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. Wise would not have known about La Galga because no one did until the Archives of Maryland were published in 1908 which contained the letter from Captain Daniel Huony to the Governor of Maryland giving the precise location of the wreck—two ship lengths on the Maryland side of the border as the border was understood to be at that time in 1750. The next publication refer to the Maryland archives came in 1940 by William B. Mayre in his article “The Sea Coast of Maryland.” Marye ignored La Galga and repeated Wise’s “theory.”   It took years before Huony’s letter became generally known.

In a recent FOIA request the NPS acknowledged that they relied totally on the 1968 work of Bearss which by todays standards is far from complete.

The USFWS has stated in its FOIA response that they do not know where the horses came from. But that is in direct contradiction to the 976 page Comprehensive Conservation Plan released May 16, 2014. They affirmatively declare that the horses were left by the Colonists in the 17th century. The USFWS never mentions the shipwreck of La Galga in their draft report even though they are required to “identify and describe” all known archaeological resources within the refuge.

There is no “legend” that the horses descended from those abandoned by 17th century colonials. It is only the “theory” of Jennings Cropper Wise and others. What has been published in recent decades that subscribes to that notion is the result of modern historians making assumptions without the complete record before them. What has been discovered in recent years is that a tremendousstorm in October of 1749 and reported in the Maryland Gazette of October 18 that nearly all of the cattle and horses on Assateague were drowned. Seawater extended two miles into themainland and at Norfolk the tide rose fifteen feet. In the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, a tide surge of only seven feet was recorded resulting in the loss of half of the 300 horses estimated to be on Assateague. Bearss and other historians never looked at the estate inventories of the land owners of Assateague that bear this out. Incomplete historical analyses have, over time, become historical fact. The media, hungry to write about the horses, consult only the tourist literature that precedes them. Almost all of this can be attributed to Jennings Cropper Wise in 1911. The limitations of a century old opinion made without all of the necessary facts now forms the basis for what is currently disseminated by the federal government.

The USFWS refuses to abide by their own policy manual FW 115 FW 8.4(A)(3) that requires information on their web pages be accurate and up to date. They refuse to even name the ship that has been the center of controversy for over fifteen years.