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Ocracoke Pony Pen: Home of the Wild Horses of Ocracoke Island

Ocracoke Pony Pen: Home of the Wild Horses of Ocracoke Island

Photo: Trip Advisor

From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial to Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the site of the Lost Colony, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are brimming with attractions and activities for everyone in the family to enjoy—and when it comes to area wildlife you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to witness unique species in their natural habitat. While most people planning a vacation on the Outer Banks are familiar with the wild horses of Corolla, far fewer are aware of another herd of ponies that have called the barrier islands home for centuries: the wild horses of Ocracoke Island.

Photo: VisitOcracokeNC.com

Situated to the south of nearby Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island spans just 16 miles of land from one end to other, and ranges from three miles wide in some spots to only a half-mile wide in others. Because the narrow spit of sand is only accessible by air or water, Ocracoke Island has retained a laidback island vibe and experienced minimal development over the past several decades, making it a prime vacation destination for those in search of a relaxing Outer Banks vacation off the beaten path and away from many tourist attractions that dot the northern beaches from Corolla to South Nags Head. But if there’s one thing everyone traveling to Ocracoke Island should put on their to-do list, it’s taking a trip to the Ocracoke wild pony pen to check out the island’s most famous residents.

Photo: National Park Service

Following a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Village to the port at the northern tip of Ocracoke Island, visitors who travel south along N.C. Highway 12 toward Ocracoke Village will discover a small paved parking area on the west side of the road. Upon pulling in to park, you’ll spot a wooden fence that sections off a 188-acre plot of land that extends along the soundside of the island and serves as the home of Ocracoke’s herd of wild horses whose story dates back several centuries. Although the herd that once freely roamed the island consisted of as many as 300 horses, the Ocracoke pony pen currently contains only 16 horses, the youngest of which is a female named Hazelnut who was born in February 2015.   

Photo: Britannica.com

Just like their neighbors to the north—the wild horses of Corolla—the wild horses that call Ocracoke Island home are the direct descendants of Spanish mustangs who swam to shore when the ships upon which they were traveling ran aground while attempting to navigate the shifting shoals that make up the infamous Graveyard of the Atlantic. Beginning in the 1500s, European explorers started to set sail across the Atlantic Ocean with their sights set upon North America, where they eventually landed and established colonies within what is frequently referred to as the “New World.” Before the explorers embarked on their long and arduous journey from Europe to the present-day United States, they loaded their vessels with an abundance of supplies ranging from food and clothing to a variety of livestock—including, in many cases, domesticated Spanish mustangs.

Photo: Sara Maglieaene

As the ships neared the coast of the Outer Banks, however, they encountered the dangerous Diamond Shoals—a series of underwater sandbars that begin near Cape Hatteras and extend outward from the shoreline for several miles in different directions depending upon the currents. Frequently hidden well beneath the waves and constantly shifting into new formations of varying sizes and depths as the currents flowed around them, the Diamond Shoals posed a considerable threat to sailors, who often didn’t know the treacherous sandbars sat in their path until their ships crashed right into them, causing them to run aground and remain stuck—or to take on water and slowly sink to the seafloor. An extreme challenge to spot from the surface of the water and virtually impossible to navigate, the Diamond Shoals were responsible for approximately 600 shipwrecks along the coastline of the Outer Banks, earning the region its nickname of “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Photo: National Park Service

Desperate to lighten their loads enough to free a ship that had become stuck on one of the sandbars in shallow water, sailors frequently tossed unnecessary and heavy supplies overboard. According to the Ocracoke Current, the herd of wild ponies that occupies Ocracoke Island are believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs unloaded onto the beach by Sir Richard Grenville, the captain of an English ship called Tiger, when the vessel ran aground near Ocracoke Island in 1585 during Grenville’s voyage in search of the missing settlers of the Lost Colony who had just mysteriously vanished from nearby Roanoke Island. Although this theory has never officially been proven, historic documentation indicates that the wild ponies of Ocracoke were definitely present on the island as far back as the 1730s, and in the years since they have played an integral role in the lives of many residents and visitors.

Photo: Pinterest

As the population of Ocracoke Island slowly grew, its residents began to see an array of opportunities in which they could use the herd of wild horses that roamed the area beaches and salt marshes to their advantage. After capturing and taming some of the horses within the 300-member herd, the Outer Bankers living on Ocracoke Island put them to work pulling carts that were loaded with heavy cargo and supplies that were otherwise difficult to transport from one location to another. The wild ponies of Ocracoke Island continued to be used for the residents’ benefits in the centuries that followed, with the men who served in the United States Life-Saving Service riding the horses during routine beach patrols and using them to pull heavy equipment to and from the site of shipwrecks in the late 1800s. This trend continued in the 20th century, when the United States Coast Guard rode domesticated members of the Ocracoke pony herd as they conducted beach patrols in search of the German U-boats that patrolled the waters just offshore from the Outer Banks during World War II.

Photo: Ocracoke Island Journal

In the 1950s, the wild ponies of Ocracoke were cared for by the Ocracoke Boy Scouts, who earned the distinction of being the only mounted troop in the United States. In 1957, N.C. Highway 12 was paved, resulting in a dramatic increase in the numbers of vehicles traveling along the island—and ultimately leading to ponies being accidentally injured or killed. When it became evident that the ponies’ presence was contributing to an increase in traffic accidents on the island and causing issues related to over-grazing, a law was passed in 1959 that required the ponies to be permanently penned for their own safety as well as that of the island’s residents and visitors. The nearly 200-acre soundside pen in which the herd of horses is free to roam was constructed that same year by the National Park Service, who has been in charge of caring for the ponies since the 1960s.

Photo: Crystal L. Canterbury

Today, visitors can stop by the pony pen to see the 16 horses that comprise Ocracoke’s herd of wild ponies up close and personal. Although the herd is free to roam the soundside beach and the salt marsh that sits within the confines of their protective pen, the ponies often spend time around the stable and paddock, making it easy for them to be spotted from the parking area along the fenced enclosure. An elevating viewing platform and pathway alongside the pasture offer additional opportunities to view the wild horses, and the National Park Service offers a variety of programs at the pony pen to teach visitors all about the herd of Spanish mustangs who have called Ocracoke Island home since their ancestors first swam ashore from shipwrecked vessels several centuries ago.  

The Background of Blackbeard the Pirate’s Flagship Vessel

Photo: History.com

The waters off the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina have claimed the lives of thousands of ships throughout the past several centuries. However, few vessels that have met their fate in their shoals along the Graveyard of the Atlantic are as well-known as the one sailed by a pirate named Edward Teach—better known as Blackbeard—in the early 1700s. In true pirate fashion, Blackbeard commandeered the merchant vessel—which he renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge—then overtook its crew and outfitted the ship with a series of armaments he would need to wreak havoc on the high seas and earn his title as one of the most notorious pirates who has ever lived.

Photo: Trip Advisor

Although Blackbeard—who was seen as a menace by merchants and a threat to the supplies sailing in and out of area ports—was killed by a lieutenant in the Royal Navy in 1718, the whereabouts of his infamous vessel remained a mystery for hundreds of years, until it was discovered at the bottom of the ocean in 1996. The flagship of Blackbeard’s small fleet of ships, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was a 200-ton frigate built in Rochefort, France. Originally named La Concorde, the ship was owned by Rene Montaudoin—a prominent French merchant who ran a slave-trafficking company—and used primarily for slave-trading operations. According to the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project, the ship operated out of a port in western France called Nantes, which was situated at the mouth of the Loire River and became the heart of the French slave trade during the 18th century.

Photo: Leah Marie Brown Historicals

From 1713 to 1717, La Concorde made three journeys. Each trip, the vessel was stocked with trade goods at the port of Nantes during the spring, and then it sailed south to the west coast of Africa, where its captain was responsible for purchasing enslaved Africans who would be kept as “cargo.” La Concorde would then set sail from the shores of Africa and head to the New World—a transatlantic voyage that typically took up to two months. The 500-plus slaves transported as human cargo during each trip were typically taken to islands in the Lesser Antilles, where they were sold as laborers to work in the sugar cane fields. Once the enslaved Africans were taken off La Concorde, the ship was loaded with new cargo—often sugar from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe—before it set off en route to France once again.

Photo: Replica of the Queen Anne’s Revenge pirate flag

During La Concorde’s third and final voyage transporting slaves from Africa to these island nations, the vessel was sailing through the shipping lanes of the Caribbean—an area known for the presence of pirates who would commandeer the ships and ruthlessly pillage any trade goods they found onboard. On November 28, 1717, La Concorde was captured by Blackbeard and his pirate crew as the ship was sailing near the island of Martinique. Blackbeard quickly converted the former merchant vessel into a ship better suited for acts of piracy, mounting 40 guns on the 103-foot-long frigate and renaming her the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Photo: PirateShipVallarta.com

Blackbeard and his crew of 300-plus men—including some who had worked aboard La Concorde before it was plundered—continued to sail back and forth between Africa and the islands of the Caribbean, attacking merchant ship after merchant ship along the way. Eventually, his flotilla made its way up the Eastern Seaboard to South Carolina, where Blackbeard famously blockaded the port of Charleston and looted virtually every vessel that sailed into or out of what was at that time one of the busiest ports in the southeastern United States. After successfully plundering dozens of ships in South Carolina, Blackbeard headed up the coast toward the Outer Banks, where he would frequently anchor the Queen Anne’s Revenge in the waters of Ocracoke Inlet—a high-traffic waterway that vessels making their way from the open ocean to mainland settlements along the Pamlico Sound frequently passed through.

Photo: Daily Mail

However, during a voyage that took his flotilla of pirate ships farther south, toward the Shackleford Banks on June 10, 1718, Blackbeard ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground on a sandbar near Beaufort Inlet. Supplies and stolen goods from other vessels were quickly transferred from his flagship to a smaller vessel in his flotilla, and Blackbeard and his crew escaped the ordeal. The damaged Queen Anne’s Revenge, however, was left stranded on the sandbar, where it eventually was claimed by the shifting shoals and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo: Queen Anne’s Revenge Project

The notorious 18th century pirate was later killed in combat on November 22, 1718, when he and his crew were the recipients of a surprise attack by British sailors who sought to put an end to piracy. For centuries, the exact whereabouts of his sunken flagship were unknown—that is until a marine archaeology team found what they believed to be the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge on November 21, 1996. Strewn along the seafloor, the team discovered several 18th century artifacts, including anchors and cannons. In 2004, the site where the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of the artifacts were transported to a conservation lab in Greenville, North Carolina, where visitors can view these pieces of piracy up close and personal during a tour of the facility.

*Stay tuned for our upcoming blog about the discovery of the Queen Anne’s Revenge off the coast of North Carolina as well as the numerous centuries-old artifacts that were found within the wreckage of Blackbeard the pirate’s famous flagship.

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