Origins Of Ponies On Assateague
The story of how the ponies came to Chincoteague is stronger than fiction. Perhaps it is too often taken for fiction. In collected records from the very earliest history of the Island, one finds information which leads to the following true story below:
Early in the 16th century a Spanish ship was wrecked off the coast of Assateague, near a beach sand dune, and the then point of Assateague beach from which the first grant mentioned. This was made known to the white man by the Assateeg Indians, through signs and gestures, (Indian language) that the shipwrecked men had been transported to the mainland. This ship cargo was Spanish Mustang horses. Those that escaped death from the wreckage swam ashore and obtained freedom on the Island of Assateague (Assateeg).
At that early date Assateague was separated from Chincoteague by a narrow waterway called a Gut, so narrow that a person or a horse could jump across. Assateague being a barren sandy island with but little grasses, and Chincoteague being wooded, is given for the reason that the ponies came to Chincoteague for protection and shelter from the lashing storms of the Atlantic and the bitter winters. The snowdrifts often covered pines ten feet high.
The skeleton of this ship was seen by early settlers. To the foot of this hill near the ocean, one can see part of a ship built with wooden pegs, and in the early grants of the Island is found proof that the ponies were here when the first four white men were transported to Assateague and Chincoteague. Over the long years the ponies increased rapidly, until they became very meddlesome. Those who had cleared parcels of land for corn and vegetables had to build high fences to keep them out. These fences were made of split logs, and some people called them worm fences. The ponies were wild and would go in great herds, either push the fence down or jump very high ones, especially if the corn was green. There was no stock law then. The old ox was used to till the soil and not ponies.
Less than fifty years ago the ponies were solid colors, Bays, Blacks, Sorrels. Occasionally, one would see a white hoof or a spot in the forehead. Their manes were long and very heavy, sometimes curly and silk and their tails touching the ground. Their beauty attracted the visitors who would come to Chincoteague to hunt or visit the early settlers. Then, the early settlers began to round up many of these ponies on one particular day of each year, around the beginning of the 17th Century. There was an old saying that the ponies that grazed on marshland belonging to any one man belonged to the owner.
Pony Penning, or round-up, was first held on the Southern end of the Island, to the left of the cross-roads of Old Dominion Lodge and the Beebe’s Ranch. This is the part of the Island that was inhabited. The town was too far away from the ocean, and was too sandy (People referred to our town as Sandy Bottom).
Although Pony Penning of that day would be a dull affair to us, it was the only day of amusement the early citizens had. Their Pony Penning was far different from that of today. Only the men came to Pony Penning. The women prepared the food but were not permitted to join in the fun. The men on the mainland were notified weeks ahead of time. Most of them knew, for around the 10th of August, or as near that date as possible, the round-up was held. As there was no other way, the visitors came in all sorts of boats. The food was free to all, so were the kegs of home-made whiskey.
The men who owned the ponies bet their ponies against the money of the mainland men. There were no saddles and they used a wicket or a rope for a bridle, and they rode bareback. Most of the people who did the riding were ex-slaves. The "colored" also did the roping and branding of the ponies.
One of the direct descendants of these ponies is the beautiful famed “Misty of Chincoteague”, now being trained for the movies by her owner and author of the book, Mrs. Marguerite Henry.
The festival grew from year to year. In 1924, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was organized, and they made Pony Penning Day an annual affair. They set the last Thursday in July as Pony Penning Day. This put the spotlight on the little pony, and people from all parts of the United States have come to see the Pony Round-up on Chincoteague.