The mystery of the Assateague ponies

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11134211227618.jpg’, ”, ‘A descendent of the famous Misty contemplates his life on Assateague Island.’);
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Assateague Island (Powhatan meaning, “The land across”) is a 37-mile barrier island lying off the shores of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. More than half of the island is a National Seashore that was created in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the bill that saved this national treasure from unscrupulous developers. Many are familiar with the island as a result of reading as a child or as an adult the delightful book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. Misty was one of the many wild ponies that inhabit the island and whose origin is a never-ending mystery.

One of the most intriguing of the many legends concerning their origin relates how a Spanish galleon, blown off its course in the late 1500s, went aground on Assateague, a common occurrence then and now. Horses destined for colonies in South America escaped to the beach, and a few managed to survive.

Another yarn one frequently hears is the horses were placed there by pirates to be utilized as fresh meat when they ventured to the island. The marine gangsters, Jack Rackman (Calico Jack), and Edward Teach, as well as other buccaneers, are known to have visited Assateague regularly. Teach (also known as Blackbeard) is supposed to have left a map to a treasure he buried near the middle of the island (though many have searched for Balckbeard’s trove, to date it has not been found). However the horses got to Assateague, they have probably been there for more than 300 years.

Biologists believe the harsh environment selected only the most adaptable to be the parents of the modern herd. Poor forage, scarce fresh water, and the harsh winters served to produce by natural selection a hardy but stunted race of equines.

Most of the natives in the area believe the story of the wrecked galleon, but many historians discount the story. There is simply no mention of the horses in early records. Two early colonists grazed their livestock on the island, and no mention is made of the wild horses in any of the extensive journals they kept.

Much later, it seems probable a wrecked Spanish ship did contribute to the already existing herd. The Baltimore Maritime Museum possesses a 19th century document that describes how a Spanish vessel, the San Lorenzo, carrying 95 blinded ponies back to Spain from work in the mines in the New World, piled up in the shallow Atlantic off Assateague. Some of these animals undoubtedly survived, as they are mentioned in a report by the governor of Maryland, who visited the island in 1826. The blind ponies probably interbred with the existing herd.

The most likely theory of how the horses set up housekeeping on Assateague is that they were ferried over from the mainland by colonists in Maryland and Virginia to graze and to be hidden from the prying eyes of the tax collector.

The herd in the Virginia portion of the island is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, and each year many are rounded up and sold at auction to help defray the expenses of the department. It was at the roundup in 1946 that Marguerite Henry received the inspiration to write her renowned book.

In 1977, the Virginians brought in 77 wild mustangs from the Western United States in an attempt to introduce new genetic material into the inbred herd. Most of the imported mustangs died, but a few survived to breed with the native “beachers,” as they are sometimes called. A wire fence was erected at the Maryland-Virginia line to prevent the mixing of the genes of the two populations. I have seen this so-called reproductive barrier, and at low tide, it offers no hindrance to a frisky Virginia stallion from circumventing it to mate with a Maryland mare. As a result, all of the equines of Assateague today are, on the average, much larger than they were some 30 years ago. One can no longer call them ponies, but, rather, small horses.

Wherever the “ponies” of Assateague originally came from, they are nationally famous and are an important part of the overall ecology of the fragile barrier island they adopted as home.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the April 13-19, 2005, issue

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