Chincoteague, The Island of Ponies
by Howard Pyle
Off the north-eastern shore of Virginia, and about five miles from the main-land, lies a small island known as Chincoteague - an island possessed of peculiarities shared by no other portion of the eastern United States; for here roams, in an entirely untamed state, a breed of horses, or rather ponies, as wild as the mustangs of Texas or the Pampas.
How these ponies first came upon the island is not known except through vague tradition, for when the first settlers came there, early in the eighteenth century, they found the animals already roaming wild about its piney meadows. The tradition received from the Indians of the main-land was that a vessel loaded with horses, sailing to one of the Elizabethan settlements of Virginia, was wrecked upon the southern point of the island, where the horses escaped, while the whites were rescued by the then friendly Indians and carried to the main-land, whence they found their way to some of the early settlements. The horses, left to themselves upon their new territory, became entirely wild, and, probably through hardships endured, degenerated into a peculiar breed of ponies.
In 1670 the island was first prospected; it was subsequently granted by King James II. to a person by whom it was sold in minor sections to various others. At present it is greatly subdivided, though one land-owner, Kendall Jester by name, holds over six hundred acres of marsh and pine land, and there are other holdings scarcely less in extent. Among the earliest settlers were the Thurstones, Taylors, and Mifflins; the head of the last-named family was a well-known Quaker, who, upon the introduction of slavery to the island, removed thence to the town of Camden, in the upper part of the province of Maryland, near Delaware.
It was long before Chincoteague was fairly settled, and even as late as 1838 there were but twenty-six houses there; now, however, many strangers, tempted by the exceptionally good fishing and oyster-dredging of the place, are pouring in from the main-land to settle there. To mere visitors the ponies are still a great, if not the main, attraction, and during the periods of “penning” - driving them into corral - numerous guests arrive daily from the coast.
When one puts foot aboard the puffing, wheezing little steamboat “Alice,” it is as though the narrow channel, across which he is ferried in about an hour, separates him from modern civilization, its rattling, dusty cars, its hurly-burly of business, its clatter and smoke of mills and factories, and lands him upon an enchanted island, cut loose from modern progress and left drifting some seventy-five years backward in the ocean of time. No smoke of manufactories pollutes the air of Chincoteague; no hissing steam-escape is heard except that of the “Alice;” no troublesome thought of politics, no religious dissension, no jealousy of other places, disturbs the minds of the Chincoteaguers, engrossed with whisky, their ponies and themselves.
Chincoteague is land-locked. Assateague Beach - a narrow strip of land, composed of pine woods, salt marshes and sand flats - lies between it and the ocean, separated from it by a channel about half a mile in width. Midway upon this beach stands Assateague light-house - a first-class light, and one of the finest on the coast. Between this beach or island upon the one side and the main-land on the other, in a calm, sleepy bay, lies lazy Chincoteague. There is but little agriculture; the inhabitants depend upon the sale of ponies and upon fishing for the necessaries of life, and mere necessaries suffice them. A little pork and bread, rank tobacco and whisky, in the proportion of Falstaff’s sack, and the acme of the Chincoteaguer’s happiness is attained.
Thick pine woods cover the island, in virgin growth, here and there opening into a glade of marshy flat, stretching off for a mile or more, called “the meadows,” where one occasionally catches a glimpse of a herd of ponies, peacefully browsing at a distance.
Tramping through the island, which is barely a mile in width, one emerges suddenly from the pine woods upon the western shore, where broad extended salt marshes, rank in growth, lie weltering in the hot sunlight the whole length of the island. A fence protects this marsh from the encroachments of the ponies, which are turned out here in the winter, and find a plentiful supply of fodder in the dead sedge underneath the snow.
“A son of the soil”
There are two distinct classes of inhabitants upon Chincoteague: the pony-owners - lords of the land - and the fishermen. Your pony-owner is a tough, bulbous, rough fellow, with a sponge-like capacity for absorbing liquor; bad or good, whisky, gin, or brandy, so that it have the titillating alcoholic twang, it is much the same to him. Coarse, heavy army shoes, a tattered felt hat, or a broad-brimmed straw that looks as if it had never been new; rough homespun or linen trowsers, innocent of soap and water, and patched with as many colors as Joseph’s coat; a blue or checked shirt, open at the throat, and disclosing a hairy chest, - these complete his costume. Your fisherman, now, though his costume is nearly similar, with the exception of shoes (which he does not wear), is in appearance quite different.. A lank body, shoulders round as the bowl of a spoon, far up which clamber his tightly strapped trowsers; a thin crane-like neck, poking out at right angles from somewhere immediately between the shoulder-blades; and, finally, a leathery, expressionless, peaked face, and wiry hair and beard complete his presentment. Hospitable in the extreme are these rough people. Any one visiting them at the time of their noonday meal will find some ingenuity necessary to parry their pressing solicitations to share those nodules of fat pork fried and floating in a dead sea of black molasses, fried potatoes, and chunks of bread - the last to he dipped in the molasses, and eaten with the pork. If sickness is pleaded in excuse, equal difficulty will be found in avoiding the administration of a dose of villainous whisky.
“The lady of the house”
In visiting their houses, you pick your way with some trouble through a flock of geese, over a pig, a dog, and probably a nearly naked baby rolling over the floor, and find yourself at last safely ensconced in a rickety chair. The good-woman of the house, who is smoking a very dirty pipe with a short stem, is profuse in the offices of hospitality, - spanking the rolling baby with one hand and handing a tin cup of water with the other. She may then, if you are a good listener and quiet enough, recount in much detail the ins and outs of her last attack of fever-’n’-ager, or how our Mariar married Jim Strand; in the meantime you can be making your own observations of an interior well calculated to repay the trouble. A rusty stove, a broken pitcher, a griddle, a skillet, two tin cups, a coffee-pot, and a dirty bucket, the smaller properties deposited in a rickety wash-tub in one corner of the room, which is mounted upon a crippled chair with a broken back; walls highly ornamented with cheap prints, labeled respectively “Ellen” or “Maggie,” circus bills and advertisements of patent soap; and, to crown all, a dozen or more bottles with little bits of red flannel in them hung here and there, enlivening the monotony like Turner’s daub of red in his gray sea picture. Then, lastly, the bed! We of the North have no conception of such beds - rising, a voluminous mountain of feathers, five feet in height, and bedecked with a gorgeous patch-work quilt, the valance slats at the top of the narrow spindle posts hung here and there with parti-colored worsted bobs. Let the family be ever so poor, the bed is the glory, the soul of their cottage. It is the pride of the good-woman’s heart, and in it she will swelter and suffocate in the hottest day of summer. Visiting, one day, a house where the woman was sick with bilious fever (quite a common complaint in Chincoteague), we saw nothing of her upon first entering, but a smell of tobacco-smoke stung our nostrils like vapor of oil of vitriol. Looking toward the bed, we saw a thin column of smoke ascending, and, approaching, saw the patient peacefully reposing and smoking in the midst of a feathery Yosemite.
Quaint and unique are the characters one meets. Kendal Jester, more popularly known as “Uncle Ken,” the beau-ideal of a Chincoteague pony-penner: one need have no fear of failing to make his acquaintance. An old fellow approaches, his face good-humored and redolent of innumerable potations of the favorite beverage. His daily life is comprised in three stages of existence: morning, when he is sober; noon, when if his thoughts are steady, his tongue is thick; night, when his thoughts are wool-gathering, and his stumbling tongue in vain tries to overtake them, - like a man pursuing one of his own ponies in the dark. He approaches with, “My name’s Kenneljester” (pronounced all in one word), “’s no harm in me.” We assure him we know that.
“I drink a little whisky now an’ then.”
We know that too.
“Doctor says got’s drink quart ’er whisky day - keep away bilious. Drink quart an’ pint - never have bilious.”
To do Uncle Ken justice, he implicitly follows the advice of his physician.
Should you imagine that when Uncle Ken is drunk he no longer has his wits about him, you will be vastly mistaken. A man who came over from the main-land to buy ponies from him thought that by making him drunk he could “skin him out of a bargain,” but his horror was unbounded when upon every drink that Uncle Ken took he increased his original price by ten dollars.
“Old Dan Tucker”
Here, too, is old Dan Tucker, boot-black and white-washer, with his pock-marked face and rich guttural “ki-he!” of a laugh. The artist wanted to make a sketch of this worthy, and ten cents were offered as an inducement for him to stand.
“See yeh, mars’! Guess I’se ugly ’nough ’out puttin’ on me on paper.”
“But we only want you as a - ah - memento, - a remembrance of our trip to Chincoteague.”
“Ke-he! Can’t fool me, wa - wat yo want me fo’?” (A sudden burst of righteous indignation.) “Go long, sketch some o’ de gals, dey’s heap puttier ’n me. Black yo’ boots fo’ ten cents. An’ I wants money, too. Money takes a man anyways - ’cept to Hebben.”
Nothing could induce him to be sketched, though we subsequently caught him on the fly, so to speak in front of the hotel.
Here, too is old Uncle Benny, ex-slave and now boot-black, freighted with glorious reminiscences of by-gone plantation days, possum and coon hunts, pumpkin pie and turkeys.
“Thankye, Mars’; sarvent:” says the poor old cripple, as he takes our ten cents, little knowing that we had made a hasty sketch of him as he bent over our shoes putting on the old-fashioned gloss he had acquired as a “boy” on the plantation.
Many more rise to memory: old Aunt Sally Jones, with her great scoop bonnet, her blue yarn stockings and her manifold complaints; old Mrs. Grant, who charms away cancers; and scores of others, the enumeration of whom would tire the patience of the reader.
Once or twice in a year the ponies of the island are driven together in a pen or corral for the purpose of branding the foals or for sale. Then is there excitement in Chincoteague. The natives are all agog. Rose and Hannah in the hotel kitchen are hard at work broiling, baking and stewing, preparing a brisk campaign against the appetites of the guests that assemble at such periods. Every now and then, above the frizzling of mutton-chops and frying of potatoes, arises a sudden burst of that rich minor hymn music heard only at its best among the southern plantation negroes - the wild music holding something half savage in its cadences - a music one might imagine their barbaric ancestors sang at some secret sacrificial feast.
And so on ad infinitum, now rising full and lusty, now sinking into the sputtering of the frying-pan.
It is a still morning and the broad white sand beach stretches far up the island. Here and there lies a pool of salt water glassily reflecting the clear sky.
Suddenly some one cries, “Here they come.” Down the beach come the ponies, pattering over the moist sand and dashing the placid salt pools into a myriad sparkling drops. Close behind ride the drivers, men and boys, gesticulating wildly. For saddles most of them have tanned sheep-skins, the woolly side out, strapped around the bodies of their ponies. Now a driver, bending almost level with his pony’s back, dashes on to head off some fractious animal. At length they approach the pen into which, after some trouble, they are headed, a tumultuous crowd, kicking, biting and squealing; then a rush and they are in! Now comes the tug of war, the lassoing and haltering; but that is left till the afternoon. It is well; for there goes the dinner-bell and we are ready for the summons.
Merciful Providence! What a crowd of hungry excursionists are coming from the main-land in the little steamer to attend the sales! From upper deck to lower the vessel is crowded with passengers. Can even Rose and Hannah’s labors suffice to stay the appetites of all these hungry wights? But to look at the face of Mr. English, the hotel-keeper, re-assures one. He is as calm and courageous as Napoleon at Austerlitz, or Nelson at Trafalgar. But we hasten into the dining-room and are seated by the time the boat touches the wharf and then the rush begins. Meal tickets are given, and Captain Caulk (pronounced Cork) stands at the door and collects them.
“Sir,” cries he to one old man, as the crowd pushes tumultuously against him, “for the love of Heaven do not tread on my cork foot!”
“Have you a cork foot, sir?”
“Two of ’em.”
“Tut, tut, tut! Well, I’m sorry! “ cries the sympathetic old gentleman from Snow Hill.
“The pony pen”
At length dinner is completed, and we start once more for the pony pen. The momentous time arrives for casting the lasso; not as they do in the West, but by hanging it on the end of a long pole, and then dropping it skillfully over the pony’s head. Uncle Ken takes the pole. Holding the noose well aloft on the top of it, so as not to frighten the intended prey upon which he has fixed his eye, he cautiously approaches the herd, around which the crowd has gathered. One of the ponies takes a sudden fright and a stampede follows, the spectators scattering right and left. For a moment the intended captive is wedged in the midst of the rest of the herd. Uncle Ken sees his advantage. He rushes forward, the noose is dropped and settles around the pony’s neck. Immediately six lusty negroes, with glistening teeth, perspiring faces and glittering eyes, are at the other end of the rope. The animal makes a gallant fight. This way and that he hauls his assailants, rearing and squealing. Now he makes a sudden side dash and sends them rolling over and over, plowing their heads through the shifting sand till their wool is fairly powdered; still, however, “the boys” hold on to the rope. At length the choking halter commences to tell; the pony, with rolling eyes and quivering flanks, wheezes audibly. Now is the moment! In rush the negroes, clutching the animal by legs and tail. A wrestle and a heave, a struggle on the pony’s part, a kick that sends Ned hopping with a barked shin like a crazy turkey, and Sambo plowing through the sand and stinkweed in among the spectators, and then over goes the pony with four or five lusty shouting negroes sprawling around him. The work is done: a running noose is slipped around the pony’s nose, his forelock is tied to this by a bit of string, and soon his tantrums cease as he realizes that he is indeed a captive.
“Catching a pony”
Many of the ponies are taken over the narrow channel that separates Chincoteague from Assateague, to run wild upon the latter island, which is largely unclaimed land. We were so fortunate as to witness the lively scene of the swimming of a number of ponies across this channel or inlet. For a mile we tramped through salt meadows rank with sedge, while everywhere from beneath our feet scattered innumerable ridiculous little fiddler-crabs about the size of a silver quarter of a dollar, one claw of enormous magnitude and conspicuousness and the other preposterously small and insignificant, like the candidates for President and Vice-President. At length we arrived at the edge of the channel, the ponies whickering as their nostrils fill with the salt air. One man enters the boat and poles it along, the channel being very shallow, while another with a rope in his hand drags at a pony. The pony is stubborn and will not enter. Kicks and blows rain freely upon him, the negroes running up to give him a kick and then rushing frantically away in mortal terror of the returning kick of the animal. Presently, with a splash the pony is in, and then all goes smoothly until his feet touch the sheltering bank on the other side, when the plunging recommences, and one poor wretch who has hold of the halter, and whose thoughts are wandering, awakes to find himself where he has not been for a long time - in cold water.
“Crossing to Assateague”
Among the visitors to the island we made some pleasant acquaintances, chief among whom was a learned naturalist from the Baltimore Academy of Natural Science. The professor was puzzling the natives greatly by his strange proceedings, his butterfly nets and insect-collecting, his seines, dredges, and deep-sea fishing. During a trip we took together through brake and thicket, - the professor wide-awake for specimens - we made, unknown to ourselves, some very unpleasant acquaintances. As we returned to the shore and seated ourselves leisurely upon a stranded boat to smoke and chat, we suddenly discovered that we were literally covered with seed-ticks, minute insects that burrow beneath the skin, causing a maddening irritation. After vain endeavors to pick them off; we started in haste for the hotel, there to scrub, in the secrecy of one’s chamber, in a tub of salt water.
Everything at Chincoteague seems conducted in unique and unconventional fashion. The only butcher-shop is no shop at all, but only a spot in the woods, where from two cross-pieces between the trees cattle are strung up by a block and tackle and slaughtered, after which their skins are stretched and dyed. It is a wild, gloomy place, surrounded by towering pines of a century’s growth, straight as arrows. The piney needles have sung to the wind many a dirge of slaughtered cattle.
The chief restaurant of Chincoteague is a piece of sail elegantly draped over a few upright posts, with a canvas streamer above it bearing conspicuously the sign, “Stewed Oysters.”
Upon the western side of the island is a bluff that overlooks the Atlantic toward the south. It is a barren, sandy spot; here and there a cactus crawls along half hidden in the shifting sand, or a clump of coarse grass shivers and whispers in the breeze. It is called the Old Grave-yard, and in this lonely, desolate, silent spot a few rounded stones and pieces of carved wood without letter or sign mark the last resting-places. There is something touching in the sentiment that impelled those rough, uncultured people to lay the weary, fever-burnt bones of their companions here in this lonely spot, facing the ocean they knew so well. Every year, as from the south the tumultuous waves of the Atlantic roll up the Shore, the bluff washes away, and the bones of the departed are brought to a premature resurrection. The burial-ground now in use is farther up the island and in the interior; a ridge dotted with head-stones runs up beneath the shelter of aged pines, with branches crooked as the cedars of Lebanon and draped with pall-like festoons of gray Florida moss.
Upon “Uncle Ken’s” estate of six hundred and sixty-five acres, valued at about four thousand dollars and called Wild-Cat Marsh, numerous flocks of domesticated wild geese are feeding. Every year numbers of those birds are shot in their passage south. The natives sink a barrel into the ground close to the beach in which they hide, and when the geese swimming far out at sea approach the beach to “gravel” they fall an easy prey to the gunners. Those that are only winged are saved and subsequently domesticated. One frequently hears the peculiar resonant “hank” of the wild geese, and, looking in the direction from which it came, sees the black head and neck of a bird stretching above the surrounding sedge. These birds cross freely with the ordinary domesticated geese, producing a hybrid which is called a “mule goose.”
The fishing and gunning of Chincoteague are excellent. Innumerable snipe are shot and sea-trout caught, some of the latter weighing as much as two pounds. The bathing would be excellent were it not for numerous neighboring sharks, some of them twenty or twenty-five feet long. When one sees a triangular fin cutting the glassy surface of the water near at hand, much of the pleasure of bathing is taken away.
Sharing the interest with the pony penning is an occasional camp-meeting in the woods, occurring once in a year or so. In among the great pines of Chincoteague is a noble place for such a gathering, when at night their huge trunks are illuminated by the light of the “pine chunk” bonfires, in the gleam of which the distant trees flash forth for a moment and then vanish into obscurity again, - and when the solemn measured chant of the Methodist hymns is heard and the congregation sways with the mighty religious passion that stirs them, while over all hang lurid wreathings of resinous smoke.
So far as one sees, geese, dogs, children and pigs compose the chief population of Chincoteague. The last thing to be heard in the evening and at intervals during the night is the cackling of geese, and when one wakes in the morning the geese are cackling still. Pigs are almost as much a feature of the place. The natural born Chincoteague porker is a thin, scrawny animal like his owner, the fisherman. He has a meditative air of curiosity and will watch a stranger askance, at the same time grunting in a low tone to himself, as though making his own observations. Quite a different character is the porcine nobleman from the main-land. He is regarded with affectionate reverence by his owner and grows fat upon fish and succulent mollusks, taking his siesta in undisturbed possession of the softest sand-bank.
It is difficult to say to what extent the law may be exercised in Chincoteague, for certainly there is not a place of confinement upon the whole island. We witnessed, however, what we imagine must have been a sample of the enforcement of the law. Two negro “boys” were fighting, rolling over the ground and biting at each other, when up rushed the magistrate of the island, seized a heavy barrel stave and delivered such blows right and left upon the heads of the belligerent blacks as would have stunned any ordinary white man.
“The majesty of the law”
Many traditions of the island are handed down from mouth to mouth by the natives, but few of them being able to read or write. It is thus we receive a full account of the great storm and accompanying tidal wave of the year 1821; telling how the black wrack gathered all one dreadful day to the southeast; how all night the breathless air, inky black, was full of strange moaning sounds, and pine needles quivered at the forecasting hurricane that lay in wait in the southward offing; how sea-mews and gulls hurtled screaming through the midnight air; how in the early morning the terrified inhabitants, looking from their windows facing the ocean, saw an awful sight: the waters had receded toward the southward, and where the Atlantic had rolled the night before, miles of sandbars lay bare to the gloomy light, as the bottom of the Red Sea to the Israelites; then how a dull roar came near and nearer, and suddenly a solid mass of wind and rain and salt spray leaped upon the devoted island with a scream. Great pines bent for a moment, and then, groaning and shrieking, were torn from their centuried growth like wisps of straw and hurled one against another; houses were cut from their foundations and thrown headlong, and then a deeper roar swelled the noise of the tempest, and a monstrous wall of inky waters rushed with the speed of lightning toward the island. It struck Assateague, and in a moment half the land was a waste of seething foam and tossing pine trunks; the next instant it struck Chincoteague, and in an unbroken mass swept across the low south marsh flats, carrying away men and ponies like insects; rushing up the island, tearing its way through the stricken pine woods.
“The storm of 1821”
Many a time by the side of his bright crackling fire, the aged Chincoteaguer, removing his pipe from the toothless gums where he has been sucking its bitter sweetness, will tell, as the winter wind roars up from the ocean, how Hickman, with his little grandson clinging to his neck, was swept by the great wave to King’s Bush marsh, far up on the main-land six miles away, and caught in the tough branches of its bushes; or how Andrews, with wife and family swept away in his sight, was borne up the island on the waters, and the next morning was discovered hanging in a pine-tree, by his waistband twenty feet from the ground.
“J. A. M. Whealton”
Chincoteague, united by no ties of interest to the rest of East Virginia, and dependent for its necessaries, its flour, tobacco, whisky, and calicoes, upon Philadelphia and New York, claims to have been during the war the only loyal portion of the eastern coast of Virginia. When the ratification of secession was returned to the votes of the people, only one man in Chincoteague, Joseph Hill by name, cast his vote for it - and then died. An immense Bell and Everett flag-pole, one hundred and twenty feet in height, was erected, - chiefly through the instrumentality of Mr. J. A. M. Whealton, one of the most prominent of the present inhabitants of Chincoteague, - and to the top of the pole were raised a great bell and a United States flag. It was distinctly seen from the main-land, and a deputation soon visited Mr. Whealton, demanding its removal.
“Gentlemen,” said the gallant little Unionist, “I erected that flag and bell, and when they go down, I go down with them; but so long as I have a dram of powder and an ounce of lead, and am able to use them, there they stay.” And there they staid.
But when the northern ports were closed to southern trade, Chincoteague suffered much. No flour, calico, or tobacco, and, what was worse, no whisky, could be obtained from the North. As to the South, it was more bitter against the so-called renegades than against the Yankees proper. A boat was loaded with oysters and sent to Philadelphia, only to be immediately captured. Another was started, and met with a similar fate. Then Mr. Whealton went himself, and, after much difficulty, secured the desired articles and conveyed them in triumph to Chincoteague. He then employed Dr. Snow of Snow Hill to plead the cause of the loyalists in Washington, and so well did the Doctor fulfill his mission, that the gun-boat “Louisiana” was sent to lie in Chincoteague Bay for the protection of the inhabitants. For two or three days the Secessionists, some two or three hundred in number, stood upon the main-land, about half a mile from the “Louisiana,” upon which they kept up a running fire, without, however, doing any damage. Soon General Lockwood was stationed upon the eastern shore, and then, with the protecting arm of the Federal Government around her, Chincoteague enjoyed her hominy-pots and whisky in unbroken felicity.