The famous ponies of Assateague Island have a history tied up with tales of pirates, treasure and revenge that would make Jack Sparrow proud.
For centuries wild horses have roamed Assateague Island, a barrier sand bar that lies off the coast of Maryland and Virginia in the United States.
Legend suggests that these horses swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon centuries ago.
On Wednesday (US time), thousands of spectators will line the shore as 150 or so horses make the annual three-minute swim across the channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.
Younger stock are drafted off and auctioned to raise funds for the local fire brigade, before the remaining horses are swum back across the channel. The swim is a tradition that dates back to 1925.
The horses have a rich heritage that dates back long before the swim began, and long before Marguerite Henry wrote “Misty of Chincoteague” in 1947, which made the horses known around the world. In 1961, her story was made into a movie.
The horses’ ties to the island go back to the 1700s, whether they arrived as survivors from shipwrecked Spanish galleons or were taken to the island by 17th century colonists looking to escape livestock laws and taxes on the mainland.
Wherever the truth lies, there is no doubt that Spanish galleons found more than their share of trouble in the treacherous waters off Virginia and Maryland, where the history of the horses became intertwined with tales of pirates, treasure and revenge that would make Jack Sparrow proud.
In 1983, American maritime historian John Amrhein, Jr located the legendary Spanish galleon, called La Galga, which ran aground on Assateague in a hurricane on September 5, 1750.
But, unlike most shipwrecks, she was found in a long forgotten inlet buried beneath the sands of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Amrhein reported his discovery in a formal report to the US Department of the Interior which was duly recorded in the database of shipwrecks kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 1987, Amrhein published “The Hidden Galleon“, which not only documents his discovery but provides a complete history of La Galga as well.
His painstaking research led him to another story about buried treasure and La Galga’s role in it.
In August of last year, he published “Treasure Island: The Untold Story“, a book that not only documents that there was a real Treasure Island, but that the story was an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote his classic.
La Galga was not alone in her journey that began August 18, 1750, in Havana, Cuba. There were six other ships that had joined with La Galga to make the trip back to Spain.
None of them realized that this decision would prove fatal, even though their sole purpose was to take advantage of La Galga’s armament that consisted of 56 cannons carried on two decks.
The six other ships had to wait for last-minute cargo changes and for crew to come aboard La Galga. These delays put them in the path of an approaching hurricane.
One of the ships, the treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, ultimately came to anchor disabled in the harbor of Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, in what is known today as Teach’s Hole, named after the legendary pirate Blackbeard who was killed there in 1718.
The treasure was threatened from many directions.
The governor of North Carolina wanted it, and dispatched a British warship; the Spanish crew wanted it and was prepared to mutiny; and the locals who lived along the beach who remembered the Spanish atrocities committed only a few years before, were making their own plans for revenge.
Enter Owen Lloyd and his peg-legged brother, John. They were two merchant captains from Hampton Roads, Virginia, who had been diverted from their intended voyage to St. Kitts because of a leak in their sloop. They too suffered at the hands of the Spanish in the recent war.
Owen Lloyd was clever and bold. After the Spaniards transferred the treasure onto two English sloops in the harbor for shipment to Norfolk, Lloyd saw his window of opportunity. He convinced the English sloop captains to give him and his brother control of the sloops.
On October 20, 1750, while the Spanish guards were having lunch, the sloops weighed anchor and made for the inlet without firing a shot. John Lloyd ran aground and was captured. He later escaped but without his share of the booty.
Owen and 11 others made it to the British Virgin Islands where in November 13, 1750, the treasure was divided up – four chests per man – and was buried on Norman Island. Lloyd then returned to his wife at St Kitts, only to find he was a wanted man. He was captured at nearby St Eustatius and condemned to hang.
Once again, using his cunning and charm, he was able to bribe the guards and made his escape in the middle of the night.
Lloyd then sought refuge at St Thomas with his wife. Two years later, at the age of thirty-five, he was dead.
Soon after Lloyd had buried his treasure it was recovered and found its way into the hands of peasants and governors alike as it was disbursed around the Caribbean.
His story became the stuff of legend.
Exactly 100 years later to the day, on November 13, 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson was born.
In 1883, he published the fictional story that was the sequel to this true life adventure.
The story revolves around a treasure map dated 1750 found in a dead pirate’s sea chest.
Coincidentally, Norman Island lies only four miles from Dead Chest Island. (Yo-Ho-Ho and a bottle of rum!)
Treasure Island has been made into numerous movies and plays.
In 1950, Walt Disney made the first color version of Treasure Island which was Disney’s first non-animated film.
From this movie, Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver, gave us the now infamous pirate growl, “Arrrr!” Inspired by its success, Disney later graduated into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
At Assateague, the legacy of the 1750 event is still celebrated with the annual pony swim and auction held each year at Chincoteague Island during the last week of July.
The tomb of the shipwreck of La Galga, the only known remnant of this great historic event that gave us two classics in literature, has been embargoed by the Kingdom of Spain.
Despite of the fact that it rests under sovereign US soil, in a federal wildlife refuge, and no one died on board in 1750, the US has allowed Spain to block any archaeological verification of the wreck without benefit of any treaty or act of Congress.
The horses are recognized as iconic symbols of Assateague. Unfortunately, says Amrhein, the federal government does not want to recognize the shipwreck that legend says brought them there.
The history of the 1750 fleet as told by Amrhein has won several awards in history.
On Wednesday, the famous channel swim serves as a reminder that mankind shares a colourful and at times dramatic history with these horses that presses back more than 250 years.
More information: www.newmaritimapress.com
John Amrhein, Jr can be followed on Twitter @1750treasure