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Wild Horse History


a brown cow standing on top of a grass covered fieldAmong the first explorers to visit the North Carolina coast was a Spaniard named Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón. He had received a charter from the Spanish king that gave him the right to explore and colonize much of the eastern seaboard. In 1521, Ayllón sent one of his captains, Gordillo, to head an expedition that landed at John the Baptist River (likely Cape Fear). Other Ayllón explorers spent considerable time at a place called “Chicom,” thought to be in the same vicinity.

The Spaniards had trouble with the Indians. It seems they were taking Indian children as slaves and sending them to the West Indies. There was a great Indian uprising led by the Corees , and the Spaniards were forced to flee to stronger Spanish holdings in Florida, leaving behind all their livestock.

Richard Greenville’s Expeditions

mapThe next direct line of history comes from vessel logs detailing the importation of livestock to the Outer Banks by Richard Greenville’s expeditions from 1584 to 1590. For four years, in the spring seasons of 1584, 1585, 1586, and 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh’s ships maintained a steady traffic between England and the Outer Banks. They followed the same general route to the Canary Islands and across the Atlantic, stopping at the same places in the West Indies such as Tallaboa Bay and Puerto Rico. They reached the Outer Banks in early summer. A Spaniard concerned with these activities could have set his calendar by the comings and goings of these vessels, which carried colonists and supplies to the land the English called Virginia in honor of their virgin queen.

Although Spain and England were in a state of war during this period, trade was still carried on between the Spanish colonists of the West Indies and Greenville’s ships. Moreover, the Spanish authorities in Puerto Rico were not passive while this was going on. The governor, Diego Menéndez de Valdés, claimed that he received news at San Juan de Puerto Rico of Commander Jones’ approach (commanding the Tyger) to the southern shore on May 10. He ordered his lieutenant at San German, Puerto Rico, who had 40 men, to keep watch on the English. On May 16, a patrol of eight Spanish horsemen made their appearance at an encampment, but soon disappeared when challenged by ten of Jones’ arquebusmen.

On May 22, a further party of twenty horsemen appeared, led by the commander of the local garrison. This time, Greenville sent out two horsemen of his own and some footmen to arrange a parley. Two men from each side exchanged formal courtesies, the English declaring that they were anxious to trade and to purchase food. A rendezvous for an exchange was arranged for two days later. The lieutenant was now in a position to send a full report to the governor, which reached him on May 25. He at once sent off 35 arquebusmen to assist the lieutenant in harassing the English if they emerged from the encampment.

These reinforcements were only a one-day march from San Juan when they were met with news that the English had “quitted their fort.” Having launched his pinnace on May 23, Greenville went to the rendezvous the next day, but the Spaniards did not appear.

he returned to the camp, where he found the huts burned and the embankments thrown down.

He erected a post in a prominent place and carved an inscription on it announcing the safe arrival and departure of the Tyger and Elizabeth as a guide to the missing vessels of the squadron should they arrive later. The Spanish, however, uprooted the post soon after, and with some difficulty, had its inscription translated and forwarded to Spain.

Greenville deserted the encampment due to the likelihood of a Spanish attack, but he did not leave the coast right away. Rather, he lay in wait for “prizes” in the Mona Channel; he took a small frigate, but she proved to be empty. A more valuable prize was made the same night: This belonged to Lorenzo de Vallejo, who had come from Spain with a flotilla carrying cloth and other merchandise. The flotilla had put into Santo Domingo and was making her way with cargo and passengers to San Juan when she was taken without struggle. Greenville put “prize crews” on board and retired to a nearby anchorage, having apparently sent word ashore to San Jerman that he again wished to trade.

One of the commanders, Commander Lane, was persuaded to take the smaller prize with some Spanish prisoners, and to bring salt from what was apparently Salinas Bay, near Cape Rojo. Finding two salt mounds ready, he enclosed them with entrenchments and began removing them, but a Spanish force came up. Lane believed this force to be commanded by the governor himself; it consisted of 40 horses and 300 footmen, but they did not attempt to try Lane’s defenses. Lane, on rejoining the Tyger, protested violently at having been placed in jeopardy with a handful of men, and began a series of quarrels with Greenville, which destroyed the harmony of the expedition.

Meanwhile, the Tyger, the Elizabeth, the pinnace, and the larger prize had been trading with the Spaniards in the vicinity of Guanica or Guayanilla. Neither the English nor the Spanish documents are quite clear as to how this was arranged, but it appears that Greenville offered one of the frigates for sale and attempted to ransom his prisoners (“getting good round summes, but nothing at allone of the released Spaniards claimed,” he said). The ships’ logs show that Greenville acquired livestock, hogs and sows, young cattle, mares and male horses, foodstuffs, and sugar cane, banana, and other fruit plants with the intention of growing them to supply the colony. The governor, hearing of such exchanges, sent orders that they were to cease, but again Greenville had moved before his instructions had taken effect. The squadron (now consisting of five vessels) sailed on May 29 for the north coast of Hispaniola.

a herd of cattle grazing on a lush green fieldAccording to Spanish documentation, the Spaniards put in at Puerto-de-Plata and then moved on to the Bahia Isabela, the harbor immediately to the west. After two days at Isabela, Governor Alcalde and Captain Rengifo de Angulo made friendly overtures to Greenville, promising to visit him. The English ships were in an area that had a long record of illicit trade with the French. On June 5, Greenville and his company were invited onshore, where an elaborate entertainment was prepared for them. Feasting was followed by a bullfight and sports by commerce. On June 6, male horses and mares (with saddles and bridles), cows and bulls, sheep, and swine were purchased for the colony, together with hides, sugar, ginger, tobacco, and pearls (most of which were evidently for the English market). The English had already been observed at Puerto Rico collecting banana plants and other fruit trees along the shore, and they continued to do so in Hispaniola. John White, a commander, recorded a number of plants and animals in his stores.

Whatever Greenville’s views on the missing vessels (and we do not know precisely how stores and men had been distributed between them), it is clear that he did not regard their absence as sufficient reason to abandon the projected colony. His men were well, and his supplies of livestock, plants, and food improved the prospects of settlement, although the delays had diminished valuable planting time. He sailed from Hispaniola on June 7 northwest, although his ship was nearly lost when he visited a small island the next day to take seals. The day after, they failed to find salt on one of the Caicos Islands and entered the Bahamas, landing at Eleuthera, Guanima on June 12 and Ciguateo (Great Abaco) on June 15. Then, sailing through Providence North West Channel, Greenville sighted the American mainland on June 20, between 27 degrees and 30 degrees north.

on june 23, the men encountered the shoals of a headland that they believed to be—and most probably was—cape fear.

Rounding the shoals with difficulty, they anchored the next day in a harbor, likely that of Beaufort, North Carolina. They were now clearly probing the coast closely. On June 26, they came to an inlet through the Carolina Banks called Wococon, in about the middle of what is now Portsmouth Island.

In his journal book, Commander Lane said that all their ships went aground on the shallowbar, but were floated off without too much difficulty. However, the Tyger had been lying offshore, and when an attempt was made on June 29 to bring her into harbor, a serious disaster occurred. According to the Tyger journal, she struck. It took two hours of struggle to prevent her from breaking up, after which point she was finally beached. The damage was a severe blow to the intended colony, since all of the corn, salt, meal, rice, biscuits, and other provisions were destroyed or damaged by the salt water. Livestock was either lost or swam ashore. This was a first and salutary example of the dangers that threatened shipping along this most risky stretch of coast.

For many years, it has been very difficult to put together accurate information concerning the early exploration and colonization attempts by Raleigh’s ships, especially the parts dealing with his exploits and trading in the West Indies. In 1955, however, the Hakluyt Society published a two-volume set that included all of the material available previously, plus considerable new information, most of it located in archives in England and Spain.

John Lawson’s Observations (early 1700s)

a close up of a brown horse standing next to a green field

English historian John Lawson—who explored and documented southeastern North Carolina from 1700 until his death at the hands of the Tuscaroras in 1711—made the following statement: “The horses are well-shaped and swift. The best of them would sell for ten or twelve pounds in England. They prove excellent drudges, and will travel incredible journeys. They are troubled with very few distempers, neither do the cloudy-faced grey horses go blind here as in Europe. As for sprains, splints and ringbones, they are here never met withal, as I can learn. Were we to have our stallions and choice of mares from England, or any other of a good sort, and careful to keep them on the highlands, we could not fail of a good breed; but having been supplied with our first horses from the neighboring plantations, which were but mean, they do not as yet come up to the Excellency of the English horses; tho we generally find that the colts exceed in beauty and strength.”

John Lawson also reported how well the horses were treated by the Indians: “These creatures they continually cram and feed with maize, and what the horse will eat—‘til he is as fat as a hog, never making any farther use of him than to fetch a deer home.”

Edmund Ruffin’s Report on Banker Horses (mid-1800s)

In 1856, another historian visited the Outer Banks. His name was Edmund Ruffin, and he was famous as an authority on agriculture and as an editor (although he is more usually credited with firing the first shot in the Civil War). He stated that “Twice a year on the Banks, the stock owners hold a wild horse penning, at which time all of the wild horses on the island were corralled and the colts branded. The horses pennings are much attended, and are very interesting festivals for all the residents of the neigh-boring mainland. There are few adults residing within a days sailing of the horse pen that have not attended one or more of these exciting scenes. A strong enclosure, called the horse pen, is made at a narrow part of the reef and suitable in other respects for the purpose—with a connected strong fence stretching quite across the reef. All of the many proprietors of the horses, and many assistants, drive the horses from the remote extremities of the reef, and easily encircle and bring all the horses to the fence and near to the pen.”

all of small size, with rough shaggy coats, and long manes; their hoofs in many cases grow to unusual lengths, they are capable of great endurance of labor.Ruffin claimed that all of the horses in use on the reef, and on many of the nearest farms on the mainland, were of these previously wild “banks” horses. He described them as “all of small size, with rough shaggy coats, and long manes; their hoofs in many cases grow to unusual lengths, they are capable of great endurance of labor and hardship, and live so roughly that any others from abroad seldom live a year on such food and other such great exposure. By the same token, he said when the banks horses were removed to the mainland, away from the salt marshes, many die before learning to eat grain or other strange provider, while other injure or kill themselves in struggling in vain efforts to break through the stables or enclosures in which they are subsequently confined. The horses fed entirely on the coarse salt grasses of the marshes and supply their want of fresh water by pawing away the sand deep enough to reach the fresh water which oozes into the excavation, and which reservoir serves for this use while it remains open.

Federal Writers’ Project (late 1930s)

In 1939, a book was compiled and written by the Federal Writers Project’ of the Federal Works Agency Work Projects Administration for the state of North Carolina. The book includes the following commentary: “On Cape Hatteras, wildlife is abundant. For years herds of wild horses, cattle, and hogs ranged at will, until the Federal Program of Sand Fixation by Grass Plantings necessitated a strict stock law. In 1938, the county placed a bounty on the few remaining wild horses, traditional descendants of Barbary horses brought over by the Raleigh colonists or saved from wrecked Portuguese ships. In winter, the waters are dotted with ducks and geese, and there is frequently the gleam of a white swan. Sandpipers and gulls feed in flocks, undisturbed by scurrying sandfiddlers. Eagles and Ospreys wheel above the water on the lookout for prey, and schools of porpoises sport just beyond the breakers of the roaring Atlantic.”

Spanish Mustang Registry Observation (early 1980s)

a herd of cattle standing on top of a sandy beach

Dare County is only one of the counties in the North Carolina Outer Banks. It borders Currituck County in the north and Hyde County in the south. In more remote areas of these counties, some of the pure Banker horses have been able to survive. In June 1982, members of the Spanish Mustang Registry came to the Currituck County Outer Banks, and “due to feats of great endurance,” were able to observe the last known remaining bands of Banker horses still in the natural state, as they had been for the past 500 years.


Although the Ocracoke strain of Spanish mustang cannot be directly traced to a single breeder, importer, or sire, certain physiological features of present-day horses and historical data lead strongly to the conclusion that the ancestors of these horses were escapees from Spanish stock brought to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the first part of the sixteenth century.

Accounts of Spanish explorations and colonization attempts in the early 1500s state that Spanish Barb and Arabian horses were imported. Topographical features are described for one colony, Ayllón’s, that Lefler and Newsome (A History of North Carolina, UNC Press, 1973) believe locate it around Cape Fear, North Carolina. The colony failed, and the Spaniards retreated to their stronger holdings in Florida. The circumstances of the retreat, manner of travel, and coastal topography offered a combination of factors conducive to the establishment of feral herds along the barrier islands.

Present-day Ocracoke and Corolla wild horses carry the distinguishing features of Spanish-type horses. One striking similarity to the Arabian ancestry is the number of vertebrae (one less than most breeds) that occurs in the Banker horse breed. These horses’ even temperament, endurance, size, and the startling beauty that frequently crops up in the Banker breed all point strongly to their dramatic history…These are the remnants of the once numerous herds of Spanish stock that ran free along the sandy islands of our coast.

The Spanish Mustang Registry is satisfied that the Banker horses, in particular the Corolla strain, are as lineally pure to the sixteenth-century Spanish importations as can be found in North America today, and that they compare closely to the selectively bred South American-Spanish derivative stock.

Original Author: Dale Burrus
Senior Inspector (at the time he compiled this history and findings)
Spanish Mustang Registry

Some information was cited on the Corolla Wild Horse Fund Website
Edited and revised on 01/28/2013

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