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Assateague Island. Have you heard of it before? Maybe, maybe not. You have likely heard of the wild ponies that run wild on a beach, and are swam across to the mainland, for an auction. You probably have read or at least heard about “Misty of Chincoteague“, a children’s novel by Marguerite Henry. If you have not heard anything about any of this, read on and I hope you find it interesting. If you know about this place, I hope this adds to it.
Assateague Island is a barrier island that stretches 37 miles along the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia. Roughly 2/3’s of the island to the north is in Maryland, the remaining 1/3 is in Virginia. This island is exposed to the brunt of whatever the Atlantic Ocean decides to throw at it. The shape and size of the island is constantly being shifted from tides and weather. In fact, weather may well be responsible for the most famous part of the island- it’s wild (feral) ponies. One theory is that a storm (or possibly a shipwreck in fair weather) caused a Spanish galleon to wreck of the coast, and the only survivors were the horses on board. Local lore has it that they swam ashore and remain to this day. Recent evidence give some credence to this idea. According to Mr. John Amrhein’s book, “The Hidden Galleon“,[ http://thehiddengalleon.com/ ] he describes the wreck of the La Galga in 1750, its location, the circumstances surrounding the voyage, the great storm of 1749 which decimated all the livestock on Assateague Island prior to the La Galga wreck, and the appearance of “Beach” Ponies shortly after the demise of the La Galga, and other evidence. [ http://www.chincoteague.com/ponies.html ]. The other theory is that they are simply animals that were left to fend for themselves, after being set free from local farms. Who knows which is true, so pick which version you like. Bottom line is the ponies are there, and have been there for several hundred years.
The early colonial years saw many conflicts with native tribes, who eventually left for the mainland. The island was mainly used for grazing farm animals, to avoid fencing taxes and for seasonal fishing. By the 1830’s a lighthouse was built to aid in navigation to the area.
On the inland side of the island is Chincoteague Island in Virginia. This was settled in the 1680’s. This island was more hospitable to being settled. This was mostly used as graze-lands for livestock. By the mid 1800’s demand for seafood in the restaurants made fishing commercially a viable means of employment. The civil war caused great turmoil here, as Virginia was a confederate state. The Population of Chincoteague was decidedly union. The Island did eventually fall to the north in battle, but with little opposition or bloodshed. In 1876 the railroad came to within a few miles of Chincoteague, and paved the way for the communities to flourish. The 1920’s saw a causeway built joining the island to the mainland.
There was varying interest through the 20th century of making Assateague island a national seashore, and in 1965 was made official. Today it boasts a tourism driven economy, and along with fishing, the area does well for itself.
Despite which theory you subscribe to, the ponies are here and seem to be doing well. The herds are divided at the Maryland/Virginia state line by a fence.
The Chincoteague VA. herd
The Chincoteague fire company takes care of the herd on the Virginia end of the island. They supplement the ponies natural diet, and also provide veterinary service as well. The fire department has a long history with these ponies. They have an annual carnival centered around the auctioning off of some of the herd. This was used early on in the 1920’s as a fundraiser for the fire company, after devastating fires left the community in shambles. The money raised was used to update and maintain fire equipment. The ponies and fire department have been integral to each other since then. As the island (Assateague) is a national seashore under federal control, the herd is limited by permit to not exceed 150 animals.
The Maryland herd
The Maryland herd is treated as wildlife and tends to itself, other than the use of contraceptives (via dart-guns) to keep the herds numbers at 125. The ponies (any horse under 14 hands, is considered a pony) have become adapted to the high salt diet of the areas plants, and drink much more water than normal. This contributes to the bloated look of their stomachs. Despite the fact that these animals seem as friendly as a domestic horses- they are wild animals, and will act as such. Enjoy them from a distance, don’t feed them, don’t disturb them. Let them do their thing, and sit back and enjoy the chance to view them. There are few places to see wild ponies/horses in their natural habitats today.
You need to decide which end you would like to start at. We started in Virginia, at Chincoteague island. We took advantage of one of the many local boat tours there. The one we chose was a no frills trip, a well-built Carolina skiff, with just some seats and a powerful & quiet motor. This was a perfect choice. The captain was a lifetime resident of the area, and got us into places that the bigger boats couldn’t think of. He works on the water as a fisherman, a guide, and hosts tours to boot. He makes sure you get the most out of your tour, and is a wealth of knowledge. I’m sure there are many other fine folks offering trips- but our time with “Captain Randy” was more than I had hoped for, and I wouldn’t look anyplace again if (and when) we go again. http://www.chincoteagueislandadventures.com/ The town of Chincoteague is a quaint and charming place. The local ducks walk the streets, and cars stop to allow them the use of the crosswalks! (True story!) For more information on the area, check here: http://www.chincoteague.com
The Maryland end was a half day trip for us on the way home. (we are planning a full day on foot there in the spring of 2017). We didn’t really know what to expect. The boat tour showed us well over a dozen ponies, but the guide knew where to look. On this we were going in left to our own devices. We needed not to worry- as soon as we crossed into the national
seashore reserve, right on cue, there was a pony munching on his breakfast a hundred yards away. We drove around and saw 17 ponies (as my memory serves). There is a small charge to get further onto the island, and we saw more ponies there. We walked down to the awesome sand beach, and were instantly impressed. The beach went on forever it seemed, and as remote as you could imagine. It was in March, and not the warmest- but the ocean was whipped up into a frenzy. I have an affection for the Atlantic, and it’s even more impressive when angry. On our spring 2017 trip back to the island, we did see eight sika deer and several whitetails.
You never knew where you would see a pony, they just seemed to appear. There is a visitor’s center before you get there, with plenty of information to help you out. https://www.nps.gov/asis/index.htm
The whole island adventure was just amazing, and I highly recommend it if you are in the area, or are looking for a destination. We combined this with a Virginia Beach vacation. You are close to Ocean City Maryland as well. I hope you enjoyed my account of the island, and I also hope that you get a chance to experience it for yourself. Both ends of the island are unique, and are something to experience. I could write a novel about the island, it’s ponies and its history. I tried to give you a taste of what to expect, but there are plenty of places to find more information in detail if you need more. Enjoy!!
Other nearby destinations
Cape Charles VA- http://www.capecharlesbythebay.com/
Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunn- http://www.cbbt.com/
Wallops NASA facility – https://www.nasa.gov/centers/wallops/home
References and information
National Parks service- https://www.nps.gov/asis/index.htm
Chincoteague – http://www.chincoteague.com/ponies.html
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Chincoteague,_Virginia
Assateague island National seashore- http://www.assateagueisland.com/island_info/assateague_info.htm