Sunday, September 12, 2010

“That Miserable Engagement”

In his letter of August 26, 1876, to the Misses Cresson, Howard Pyle mentioned “that miserable engagement that detained me at the Newspaper Office, until half past one on that Tuesday when you passed through Wilmington.”

But what miserable engagement? What Newspaper Office? What Tuesday? I needed to find out. Fortunately, there were only a couple of newspapers published in Wilmington at that time, chiefly Every Evening and the Wilmington Daily Commercial. Pyle had an established relationship with the former: his first known published work of any kind was a drawing for Every Evening’s masthead in 1871. But for some reason that I can’t recall now (this was 15 years ago), I decided to search the Commercial first; perhaps it was because its editor, Howard M. Jenkins (1842-1902), was a friend of the Pyle family and a fellow member of the Friends’ Social Lyceum (plus Swarthmore College has a letter Pyle wrote him in 1889). Jenkins, incidentally, went on to edit The American - a Philadelphia-based periodical which published several works by Pyle’s mother and sister - and The Friends’ Intelligencer. An account of life and tragic death can be found here.

Anyway, the Library of Congress had bound volumes of the newspaper - which were less blinding to go through than microfilm - and I set to slog. As the volume for 1876 wasn’t delivered right away, I started with earlier years, which gave me a better sense of what life was like in Wilmington during Pyle’s youth (I was struck, in particular, by the number of stories about spelling bees and cases of epizooty).

Now, in his Cresson letter, Pyle also mentioned that “duty called me to make a visit to Chincoteague.” This was equally intriguing: after all, Pyle’s “Chincoteague, The Island of Ponies,” (Scribner’s Monthly, April 1877) helped launch his career. He called the article "the first I ever wrote for publication” (in a letter to Henry Troth, April 13, 1897) and it is routinely mentioned in interviews and biographical sketches. In 1903, for instance, Pyle said:
"Then I went to an island off the coast of Virginia, where roamed at will a breed of half-wild ponies. Once a year they were corraled and branded. I wrote an article about them and made some pencil drawings, which were redrawn; and on its publication I felt my art was of some practical use. This was confirmed by Mr. Roswell Smith, who advised me through my father, who had dropped in at Scribner’s to inquire if an article of mine were acceptable, to come to New York." (Interview with Charles Hall Garrett in The Reader, May 1903)
Well, I eventually got to August 1876 in the Wilmington Daily Commercial - and this jumped out at me:

Wilmington Daily Commercial, Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, August 15, 1876.



Correspondence of the Commercial.

Chincoteague, Va., August 12. - Could a man be suddenly transported from one country to another, as in eastern fables, he could meet with no more strongly marked and different peculiarities than he will discover when a day’s ride from Wilmington lands him on the Island of Chincoteague, just off the northernmost coast, or Eastern Shore, of Virginia.

The inhabitants themselves, are a peculiar race, for the most part of a sallow, leathery, smoke-dried complexion, with back and shoulders rounded like the bowl of a spoon. They generally roam in bare feet in summer, thus avoiding the unnecessary expense of shoe leather, their chief costume consisting of a pair of extraordinarily patched trowsers, strapped up to the seventh rib, a red or checked shirt, and a straw hat with wonderful breadth of brim, sheltering a placid face from the torrid glare of the sun.

Immediately to the eastward of Chincoteague, between it and the ocean, stretches Assateague Island, or, as the natives call it, “the beach,” upon the middle of which stands Assateague light-house, a first-class light and one of the finest in the country.

The ponies for which Chincoteague is so widely celebrated mostly roam in a wild state over the whole island, though some are now confined by their owners to large tracts of salt meadows fenced off, while others are swum across the narrow channel that separates Chincoteague from Assateague, to run at large upon the latter island, which, in spite of its quite heavy pine timber, is still in many portions unclaimed land.

Land-locked as Chincoteague is, separated by interest as by water from the rest of Virginia, its inhabitants seem to have retained the thoughts and prejudices of the state of civilization of seventy-five years ago. Not more than one or two of the older native inhabitants can read, and though in the last few years many people from the mainland have settled upon the island, you may still live there for weeks without beholding a newspaper, or a book of any kind for that matter.

Among the quaint and curious characters of the island is one popularly known as “Uncle Ken” Jester, one of the largest pony owners of the place, all whose thoughts seem to bear directly or indirectly upon “beach-hosses,” and to the one additional topic of whiskey. Of this favored liquor Uncle Ken imbibes on an average a quart or three pints a day, but drunk or sober he knows all that is to be known about ponies, and can catch them when at their wildest.

The wisdom evolved from the inner consciousness of these illiterate people is often quaint and shrewd enough. An old negro who goes by the name of “Ole Dan Tucker” was very entertaining in this respect. A pencil sketch of his queer figure was much desired, and he was offered ten cents as an inducement to stand still for that purpose. “Look yeh, Mass,” said he, in his broad Virginia accent, “reckon I’s ugly ’nough ’out puttin’t on paper. Land knows I want money too, I reckon. Money’ll take a man anywhe’s - ’cept to Heaven.” So Dan could not be persuaded to “pose,” but was subsequently caught upon the wing, so to speak, in front of the hotel.

Curious to northern eyes were the interior of some of the houses visited on Chincoteague, but with hospitable inhabitants. On the visitor’s entrance to the first the good woman of the house who was smoking vile tobacco in a very dirty short pipe, spanked a child who was rolling nearly naked upon the floor, whipped a sauce pan and a dirty pair of trousers off a chair and bade her guest sit down, all in a breath. One or two cheap prints, a highly-colored circus advertisement, and bottles with red flannel inside them were hung here and there, ornamenting the walls. The housekeeping arrangements consisted of three or four rickety chairs, a saucepan, a cracked pitcher, a griddle and a coffee pot; the smaller properties heaped in a rickety wash tub in one corner of the room. Then the bed! a voluminous mass of feathers rising in a mountainous heap quite five feet in height, with tawny counterpane and spindle bed-posts decked at the top with bits of parti-colored worsted. So hospitable are the owners of these dwellings that it requires some ingenuity to escape from the pressing invitations to share the meal which spread their board, consisting of fried potatoes, nodules of fat pork fried and floating in molasses, and conical chunks of bread which they dip in the same.

Some of the houses of a better class are equally curious in their way. One such is the residence of Capt. Caulk, an ex-Delawarean, a frame structure of hexagon shape in front of which is a collection of immense bones, relics of an enormous whale that was stranded upon the beach in a storm.

The Island of Chincoteague claims to have been, during the late war, the only loyal spot in East Virginia. The interests of the islanders were all against secession; they dealt with the North and held intercourse with it, while with Virginia and the South they had little or nothing in common. Only one man upon the Island, Joseph Hill by name, voted for the ratification of the secession act of the Virginia Assembly. The inhabitants of Chincoteague raised an immense flag-pole, a hundred and odd feet in height, to which, being Bell-Everett men, they hung a great bell and a United States flag. Prominent in this action was Mr. J. A. M. Whealton, a man of an intellect and education not often found among native Chincoteaguers. Upon a deputy coming from the mainland to protest and threaten, “Gentlemen,” said the courageous loyalist, “I hung that flag and bell, and when they go down I go down with them, but they hang there so long as I have powder and bullets and can use them.” And the Mainlanders were satisfied and let them hang!

At this season of the year Chincoteague is visited by quite a number of guests from other sections of the country, drawn by the exceptionally good gunning and fishing to be found upon the island no less than by the legitimate attractions of the ponies. Among these we had great pleasure in making the acquaintance of Prof. Otto Leugger, the German naturalist of the Baltimore Academy of Natural Sciences, who was there, puzzling the natives with his strange implements and proceedings; his butterfly nets and insect chasing; his seines and dredges and deep sea fishing. A pleasant expedition we had through the pine woods and thickets that clothe the island, though from that expedition and those thickets we emerged covered with myriads of seed ticks. Seated upon the edge of a stranded boat we endeavored to remove them from our persons with but indifferent success. Among the many insects which the Professor has collected it may be doubted if any have cost him more pains than those he doubtless still carries about him.

The most important event in the routine of Chincoteague life is the occasional penning of the ponies, or driving them into corral, one of which took place during our visit last week, when the ponies were penned for public sale. The pen was located immediately behind and to one side of a curious old frame building called the Virginia Hotel. It was quite early in the morning when the penning came off. Along the beach that stretches up the Island a mile or more, came suddenly in sight a crowd of ponies dashing along, now pattering over the moist sand, now splashing through shallow salt-pools that lay here and there along the strand. Behind came clattering with noise and gesticulation the figures of the drivers, men and boys, riding for the most part stirrupless and upon simple sheep-skins strapped to their ponies’ backs, bending almost level from their seat, every now and then dashing ahead to head off some fractious animal. Presently they approach the pen and squealing, whickering, biting and kicking, the ponies are headed tumultuously in. Then comes the tug of war, the capturing and haltering for the sale.

The lasso used is a rope about fifteen yards long with a running noose at one end. They do not cast the lasso after the manner of the Western mustang catchers, but hanging the noose around the end of a pole eighteen or twenty feet long, they approach near enough to drop it over the pony’s head. Now “Uncle Ken” takes the pole. Cautiously approaching, he keeps his eye fixed upon the one he wishes to secure, keeping the pole and noose well raised so as not to scare his intended captive. Suddenly, one of them taking fright, away they all plunge, scattering the spectators right and left. In the meantime the chosen pony is wedged in the midst of a crowd of his fellows. Uncle Ken sees his advantage; he runs forward, the noose is dropped and the pony captive. Then, as the animal feels the noose tighten upon his neck, ensues a shouting and struggling, half a dozen negroes at one end of the line and the pony at the other. He rears and plunges, dragging Ned and Sambo and the rest through the soft sand in a cloud of dust. Sometimes they are thrown completely off their feet as the pony makes a side plunge; then over they go, their heads plowing through the sand and stink-weed, but still gallantly and with much perspiration they retain their hold upon the line. At length the choking noose overcomes the pony’s courage; he stands still, trembling, with eyes rolling, while he emits a wheezing noise from his contracted larynx. Now is the time; a parcel of negroes rush quickly forward seizing the pony by every available point, legs, mane and tail. In vain the creature struggles; a sudden heave and over he goes, amid the tumultuous cheers of the surrounding spectators. Even yet he does not cease from his struggles, and sometimes by a sudden kick, he will send his captors tumbling right and left through the scattering crowd. But it is a last effort; a running noose is slipped over his nose and a piece of string tied from his forelock to this new loop. From this moment a sadder change comes over the pony. Now and then he will kick and plunge, of course, but as a general rule, he stands with half closed eyes as though nearly asleep, so that one would scarcely imagine that this was a veritable wild pony. But should you imagine that all the spirit has died out of him, attempt to mount him and you will discover your error.

The game in Chincoteague is excellent. Trout are caught by the fishermen in great abundance and sometimes of very large size. One that was shown me must have weighed two pounds. Another sportsman claimed to have shot one hundred and twenty snipe in less than two hours. The oysters and crabs are delicious, and indeed the island upon the whole abounds in good things; an interesting place to visit, though not altogether favorable for a permanent abode.


So, as Every Evening’s masthead is Pyle’s first known published drawing, this article represents Pyle’s first known published piece of prose. It predates the publication of “Chincoteague, The Island of Ponies” by more than seven months.

It also begs a few questions: Was Pyle working - even occasionally - as a reporter? Possibly, but I was unable to find any other pieces with his byline in the Commercial (or, for that matter, in Every Evening). Did he write the article on speculation, then submit it to Jenkins, or did Jenkins commission it? I wish I knew. But “that miserable engagement” probably involved Jenkins prodding Pyle at the Commercial offices (at the southwest corner of Fifth and Market Streets in Wilmington) to tweak and polish his text until it was good enough to be printed in that day’s paper.

As luck would have it, just as an Every Evening reader had criticized Pyle’s masthead drawing back in 1871, a disgruntled Commercial reader found fault with his Chincoteague letter. On August 29, 1876, the paper printed the following:

Chincoteague’s Bright Side.


Correspondence of the Commercial.

Chincoteague, Va., August 22. - Chincoteague boasts to-day of her public institutions; though the youngest settlement on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, hers is the only school district that runs a graded school. Its session covers ten months in the year, with an average attendance of scholars which exceeds one hundred, and to the expense of which the trustees of the Peabody Educational Fund made an annual appropriation of three hundred dollars.

Chincoteague has her Cornet Brass Band of fourteen instruments, under the leadership of Mr. J. T. Kenney, a gentleman of extraordinary musical ability, and though the organization has been in existence but twelve months, it stands side by side with similar institutions of longer standing.

We invite your correspondent “H.P.” to visit our churches and Sabbath schools, of which we have three, claiming that Chincoteague in her pulpits and pews, has as much ability and intelligence as is usually found in country churches.

Instead of the islanders, as “H.P.” asserts, being of a “sallow, leathery, smoke-dried complexion, with back and shoulders rounded like the bowl of a spoon,” they are in complexion the picture of tanned health; and in stature they resemble the North American Indian, from which race a few of them claim to have descended. An acquaintance with the Birch family, the Whealton and Lewis families, and a host of others, will fully corroborate the above statement. Whatever else may be said of the natives, to their credit we will say that in their homes and persons, though many of them are poor, they are the personification of neatness and cleanliness.

It is a strange fact, that while, as “H.P.” asserts, “one might live here for weeks without beholding a newspaper or a book of any kind,” we should read his article in the Commercial of the 15th the following morning; and we would say, just here, that if “H.P.” had made the acquaintance and associated with the better class of our island, they would have supplied him with the following leading publications: Harper’s Weekly, N.Y. Herald, N.Y. Sun, Philadelphia Times, Philadelphia Ledger, Wilmington Commercial, Baltimore American, Baltimore Sun, Richmond Dispatch, N.Y. Christian Advocate, Baltimore Methodist Protestant, with a host of lesser lights, all of which are received at our post office by actual subscription. The fact that H.P. failed to get a copy of Appleton’s Journal was not a proof of his assertion. We boast too of our commercial importance. Chincoteague Bay and tributaries yield to the toilers of the sea an annual income of two hundred thousand dollars, while from our agriculture, ponies, and sheep comes no small revenue.

Among our summer visitors we have had Hon. John A. J. Creswell, Col. H. R. Torbert of the Baltimore Custom House, Lieut. Thomas Traviss of the U.S.R.M. service, Mr. James Maffitt, theatrical manager, of Boston, Capt. C. H. Smith and family, of Wilmington, and a host of others, who spent their summer vacation here.


(Our correspondent, as may be inferred from some expressions, takes strong exception to a letter from Chincoteague, published in the Commercial of August 15th. He does not give fair credit, we think, to the generally kind and friendly tone of “H.P.’s” letter, but as he presents a number of additional facts, we print his letter with pleasure, and should be glad to hear from him again. - Ed. Commercial)

But Pyle ignored “Jonadab.” Rather, he broadened his text threefold, added more anecdotes and local color, retained all of his grotesque descriptions, and further lampooned the islanders. In doing so, however, he was emulating the travel-writing of his day, which combined autobiography, history, and humor - as well as prevailing prejudices. He had excellent models: both Mark Twain and Bayard Taylor, America’s first professional travel writer (and Pyle’s “cousin” - at least according to Pyle), had grown wealthy and world-renowned on the genre. When completed, the second version of Pyle’s Chincoteague article surely lacked the finesse of these masters, but it was a creditable, even precocious effort - and worthy enough to appear in Scribner’s Monthly the following April.

The sketches Pyle had made, though, weren’t quite up to snuff, so the magazine had them redrawn by more seasoned illustrators. Still, as this and his illustrated fable, “Drummer Fritz and his Exploits” (St. Nicholas, September 1877), had been accepted by national publications - and even some commissions had begun drifting his way - Pyle felt encouraged enough to set out on what he later called his “new life” as an artist-author. And by mid-October 1876, he had left Wilmington for New York.

Howard Pyle’s text and the redrawn pictures for “Chincoteague, The Island of Ponies” will be in my next post.

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