The Legend

Grandpa BeebeThe legend that the wild horses on Assateague came from a Spanish shipwreck became internationally known with the publication of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague in 1947. Mrs. Henry came to Chincoteague in 1946 to see the legendary wild ponies because she had heard of the Spanish shipwreck legend. She heard firsthand the legend from Clarence and Ida Beebe, horse ranchers whose roots went back centuries on Chincoteague Island. She documents in her book the legend as it was remembered by the Beebe’s. Clarence Beebe says that the legend is true, “All the wild herds on Assateague be descendants of a bunch of Spanish hosses… legends be the only stories as is true!” Clarence Beebe went further and stated that “Why I heard ‘twas the Indians who chanced on ‘em first.”

Mrs. Henry was told that the shipwreck had occurred before the white man had arrived. That premise is documented in  Hulbert Footner’s  Maryland Main and the Easter Shore in 1942.  Footner stated that “the Spanish galleon was wrecked on Assateague four hundred years ago.” Mrs. Henry took literary license and created a fictional ship called the Santo Christo said to be carrying ponies from Spain for the Viceroy of Peru to work in the mines.  The legend, as recorded by Marguerite Henry and remembered by many, says that a Spanish ship wrecked possibly in the 1500s and that the crew were rescued by the Indians. The Indian involvement is documented again in Scribner’s Monthly in April 1877, predating Misty of Chincoteague by seventy years. It is recorded here that “the whites were rescued by the then friendly Indians and carried to the mainland, whence they found their way to some of the early settlements”. This description post dates Jamestown (1607) by a number of years and agrees with La Galga’s captain’s account of traveling to Snow Hill, MD and Norfolk, VA after being rescued.  Because some accounts of the legend do not mention the white man, historians, as well as some of the old families of Chincoteague, have erroneously assumed that the legendary shipwreck must have occurred before the English settled the area in the mid 17th century. The shipwreck of La Galga occurred in 1750.

When Howard Pyle visited Chincoteague in the 1870’s there were individuals alive that were probably only two generations away from the 1750 shipwreck. The 1870 federal census lists 239 families residing in the Islands Township which included not only Assateague and Chincoteague but the other islands on the Eastern Shore of Accomack. There were a total of 1,122 men women and children. Included in these there were five individuals over seventy, fourteen over sixty and thirty seven over fifty years of age.

In 1884, Wallace’s Monthly provided a detailed account of the oral tradition:

“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.”

More references to the horses and the shipwreck:

1913. Harper’s Monthly Magazine of October, article by Maude Radford Warren, titled “The Island of Chincoteague,” describes the horses as strong, shaggy, small creatures, somewhat larger than Shetland ponies. The ponies were said to have come “from some wrecked vessel in the eighteenth or perhaps seventeenth century.”

1929. Ralph Poole of the Baltimore Sun visited Chincoteague and describes the pony penning, “The origin of the Chincoteague ponies is shadowed in the mists of the past. They have roamed the island for many, many years; as long, in fact, as the oldest residents can remember, and longer. There is a tradition that the first one swam ashore from a Spanish ship, wrecked off Chincoteague in Colonial days.” “The Isle of Ponies,” Baltimore Sun, August 11, 1929.

1936, July 30, Monroe (LA) Morning Star: “On Assateague the ponies had roamed at large, and most of them had never seen a human being. Legend says they are descendants of a herd spilled from an ancient Spanish galleon when it was wrecked off the Virginia coast.”

1941. Year uncertain. Article in Baltimore Sun by Katherine S. Edmonds writing about Chincoteague and the horses: Paragraph heading “Swam from a Spanish Ship”, “Mrs.[Victoria Watson] Pruitt’s grandfather, the eighteenth century Robert Watson, is authority for the story that a Spanish ship filled with horses was wrecked off Assateague, nearby island, and some of the horses swam ashore. This is the generally accepted version of the ponies’ origin and some who support it hold that the animals were stunted by their environment and by their diet of marsh grass.” The Watson family owned land on Assateague south of latitude 38° from the late 18th century. The Watson family lived on the mainland opposite the shipwreck of La Galga in 1750.

1943 Mears Scrapbook, p. 42, Louis Watson of Chincoteague High School, “There is an old legend about our ponies which states that a Spanish vessel which was loaded with horses was shipwrecked and some survived.”

1970, pre. Victoria Watson Pruitt, Chincoteague historian: “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 its good enough for them.”

Historians familiar with the subject are unanimous that there were no horses on Assateague when the English settled the area. But that does not disprove the legend. It merely shifts the legendary shipwreck to a more recent time period.

The Indian connection associated with the legend ties La Galga to the legend. Documented in the Archives of Spain it is record that the Indians rescued the crew of La Galga.  However, the date or century of the event got pushed back by the residents of the Eastern Shore because of the misinterpretation of the Indian connection. The Indian connection found in the legend persuaded people to date the event prior to the arrival of the English, not just on the Eastern Shore but the Jamestown settlement of 1607 as well. This error led to misinterpretations and wholesale dismissal of the Spanish shipwreck legend that is currently promoted by the federal government.

Horses on Spanish Ships

There is direct evidence that the Spanish at times had horses aboard ship on the trip back home to Spain. In Florida, numerous Spanish fleets have been lost. Treasure Salvors, Inc, discovered two shipwrecks of the 1622 fleet, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita. From the Margarita, a small horseshoe was recovered. In 1983, John Amrhein met Dr. Eugene Lyon whose archival research led to the successful discovery of these shipwrecks documented in The Search for the Atocha. He said that there was no archival evidence of horses on board the ships but he surmised that the soldiers documented as being on board the Margarita were permitted to bring their horses back home with them.

When he learned that La Galga had sixty soldiers on board he said that it would be no surprise to him that some of them would have had horses with them.

Colin Woodward, in his Republic of Pirates, relates another account that can be found in the history of the 1715 fleet lost in Florida. Records indicated that some of the survivors ate horse flesh in order to survive.

Genetic Studies

In 1991, the Journal of Wildlife Management published their 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.” This study also noted that Shetlands had been introduced in the early 1900s. Other genetic dilutions were noted by in 1884: “A taint of inferior blood was introduced into the Chincoteague drove through some farm-horses ferried across the bay from Maryland some years ago.” Early storms record the loss of horses in 1749 and earlier contradicting the “theory” of the National Park Service.

The early horses on Assateague were documented to be very small. Henry A. Wise, who was born and raised in Accomack County and later became governor of Virginia (1856-1860), described them 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.” Wise also said that these horses were so small that a tall man might straddle one and “his toes touch the ground on each side”