“All good things are wild and free.” - Henry David Thoreau
Few places in North America can match the Outer Banks of North Carolina for its wide and colorful expanse of history. Pirates, Civil War battles, the Wright Brothers’ first flight, rum runners, German U-boats, and of course, the magnificent Spanish Mustang wild horses that still roam free and wild along its northern beaches.
The Outer Banks is also known for its impressive photogenic scenery that graces thousands of books and videos and perhaps millions of visitors’ photo albums. Virtually anyone will attest to the photogenic quality of both an ocean and a horse. Along an 11-mile stretch of Corolla known as the “Four Wheel Drive Area,” many visitors are treated to the captivating combination of both: Wild horses on a magnificent beach.
But how did these ruggedly beautiful horses arrive? It’s a question that’s often asked nebulously and specifically. By young, innocent children and by old, experienced seniors and virtually every age in between. By the casual tourist or the most esteemed historian. The self-assured magnificence of these creatures can’t help but inspire such curiosity as they go about their everyday life. Feeding on the wild brush of the marshes or the green grass of homeowners’ yards. For that, we have to go back nearly half a millennium.
Some say the Spanish throne that financially backed Christopher Columbus ordered him to bring the Spanish Mustang breed to the New World, beginning on his second trip in 1493. Their relatively small statute, yet bred through the intensity of countless European wars, produced an animal that was perfectly suited for the ruggedness of ocean travel and the exploration of uncharted and rugged lands. Set up for further breeding in ranches the Spaniards developed in Cuba and Hispaniola, the Mustang became an invaluable workhorse to both ferry soldiers and explorers over dense terrain of the Caribbean and Atlantic coastlines. Cortes himself later used the Mustangs in the Spanish efforts to conquer the Aztec nation. No doubt, these horses were utilized to haul back stolen treasures of gold and silver to their home ships.
Lucas Vasquez de Allyon, a later Spanish explorer, is widely credited with introducing the horses to the North Carolina region in 1521. He commissioned his individual captains and commanders to try colonizing the entire North American coast and in so doing, the use of these elegant work horses were necessary.
Pirates of the day also rendered ample use of the Spanish Mustang, as they often took not just the proverbial gold and silver doubloons, but anything of useful value that could be traded in their port o’ calls. While in today’s time we think of pirates as only conducting raids on other sea faring vessels, they often made long treks by foot and horseback to subdue inland towns and villages. Transcending both “legal” and “illicit” activities, the Spanish Mustang became an invaluable tool.
Gradually, these explorers, raiders, pirates, and merchants worked their way along every coastline of the New World. The mysterious and jagged North Carolina coastline became a busy, prosperous, and frequently dangerous destination. With relatively safe havens along the numerous sounds, protected from the direct harshness of the open ocean, settlements were attempted. The most famous of these attempts is now known as the “Lost Colony” on Roanoke Island.
Other settlements are purported to have been made along the northern sea coast in the Corolla area of the Outer Banks. Difficult to prove within the limits of properly documented historical evidence, such settlements could well indeed been attempted in areas where the last of the wild Spanish Mustangs now roam.
Ask any wild horse tour guide in Corolla and they will recite several scenarios of how the horses probably first arrived. An obvious one is that the Mustangs were brought in to help establish actually settlements and would be used for general farming, hauling, hunting, or scouting purposes. According to historians, the settlers soon became enemies with the Native American tribes along the North Carolina coast after the native children were sometimes kidnapped and sold as slaves in Caribbean ports. A hasty departure was no doubt made by the would be settlers, perhaps leaving behind their livestock in their haste.
Another popular and definitely plausible explanation is one any seafarer will understand. In their explorations of the North Carolina coastline, these early adventurers quickly learned what would eventually become known worldwide as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” This impression certainly pre-dated the high number of Allied merchant vessels sunk during World War II, mainly from January to June, of 1942. In fact, the famed Lifesaving Stations that dotted the Carolina Coast came into being after the famous shipwreck of the Metropolis in 1878, where 85 people drowned when the ship grounded on an offshore sandbar during a vicious winter storm.
Unrecorded are numerous shipwrecks that occurred from the very first years of European discovery. In those early days, as most tour guides and historians will attest, a fleet of ships would be working their way up and down the North Carolina coastline, searching for places to settle, hunt, or replenish their shipboard stocks. The water along the northern Outer Banks is generally more shallow then water off the southern, further offshore regions of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. That shallowness is how the famously beaches of Corolla and Duck are so wide. The more shallow the water, the wider the beach during low tides. Combined with the frequently unpredictable squalls, that shallow water increased the chances of a ship or ships running aground at the sudden emergence of a sand bar.
As in marine warfare or merchant activity, the first method of extraction of a ship from such an occurrence is the offloading of everything but the most necessary of items. Pirate tales often detail situations of near capture by authorities where the pirates actually would dump their fresh water supplies in a desperate means to escape. Waiting for the high tide to roll in and re-float the vessel naturally would take too long, especially when the prospect of a hangman’s noose hung in the balance. So, horses would often be the first item to be jettisoned.
Thus, a fleet of ships, regardless of what side of the law they were on, could have run aground during a storm or hurricane. The ships would inevitably break apart, with both man and animal making their way to shore. After the storm, the remainder of the fleet would come in and rescue the men, but by time time, the horses would have happily scattered.
As the horses bred and exploded in population, at the same time the country was becoming successfully settled, they became rounded up and sold off. At one point, there was an estimated 8,000 Spanish Mustangs living on the Outer Banks. The horse population began depleting at the same rate as the human development of the region increased. Long after land based pirates used lanterns around the necks of horses at night to lure merchant vessels to shore for capture, these horses were gradually pushed northwards to the less developed areas of the Outer Banks. Now, most estimates range from around 100-105.
Yet, despite the smaller number this breed has become one of the most famous groups of horse in the country. In 2010, the State of North Carolina voted it as the official state horse. Tens of thousands of people venture to the northern Outer Banks to see this captivating aspect of American history for themselves. It is a prospect, with the ever-increasing amount of development in the four-wheel drive area, that certainly has a finite end rapidly approaching.
So, if your vacation or travel plans include the East Coast of the United States, don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the most transcending historical experiences imaginable: The wild Spanish Mustangs of Corolla.
J. E. De Steiguer (2011) Wild Horses of the West: History and Politics of America's Mustangs. University of Arizona Press
D. Stick (2000). Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast. North Carolina, The University of North Carolina
C. H. Whedbee (1966) Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater. John F. Blair
J. Alexander, J. D. Lazell (2000) Ribbon of Sand: The Amazing Convergence of the Ocean and the Outer Banks. UNC Press Books