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Wild Horses and Spanish Galleons: The History and Mystery of Assateague Island

Posted by Jody on August 15, 2012

Today’s Featured Writer: John Amrhein, Jr.,  American Maritime Historian and Author

Misty of Chincoteague Shares Common Origins with Treasure Island

Assateague’s Wild Horses linked to two children’s classics

For centuries wild horses have roamed Assateague Island, a barrier sand bar that lies off the coast of Maryland and Virginia in the U.S. Legend says that these horses swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon centuries ago. In 1947, Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague which made the horses known around the world. In 1961, her story was made into a movie. Millions of tourists visit Assateague each year drawn not just by sand beaches but the wild horses.

Wild horses on Assateague Island. Legend says that they came from a wrecked Spanish galleon centuries ago. -Photo by John Amrhein, Jr.

In 1983, American maritime historian, John Amrhein, Jr., located the legendary Spanish galleon, called La Galga, which ran ashore 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 Department of the Interior which was duly recorded in NOAA’s database of shipwrecks.

La Galga was not alone in her journey that began August 18, 1750, in Havana, Cuba. There were six other ships that had joined in with La Galga to make the trip back to Spain. None of them realized that this decision would be a fatal one even though their sole purpose was to take advantage of La Galga’s armament that consisted of fifty-six 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.

Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina. The story of Treasure Island began here. -Photo by John Amrhein, Jr.

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 of 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 one-legged 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 eleven others made it to the British Virgin Islands where on 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 utilizing his cunning and charm, he was able to bribe the guards making 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.

Norman Island, British Virgin Islands is the real Treasure Island. One of these coves is called Money Bay. -Photo by John Amrhein, Jr.

Lloyd’s Legacy

Soon after Lloyd 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 legend. Exactly one hundred years later to the day, on November 13, 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson was born. In 1883, he published the fictional story that was sequel to this true life adventure. The entire 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 map dated 1750 from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island


Dead Chest Island, British Virgin Islands, lies only four miles from Norman Island, the real Treasure Island. -Photo by John Amrhein, Jr.

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 graduated into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Wild ponies swim from Assateague to Chincoteague at the annual pony swim and auction. -Photo by John Amrhein, Jr.

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. In spite of the fact that it rests under sovereign U.S. soil, in a federal wildlife refuge, and no one died on board in 1750, the U.S. has allowed Spain to block any archaeological verification of the wreck without benefit of any treaty or act of Congress.

The Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean. There would be no Pirates of the Caribbean without Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a story based on true events in 1750. -Photo by Kevin Stanchfield/Wikimedia Commons

Photo below: John Amrhein, Jr. with the model of La Galga. Without this shipwreck there would have been no Misty of Chincoteague or Treasure Island. The model was built by his partner in the Galga project, Bill Bane.

Author, John Amrhein, Jr.

John Amrhein, Jr. has written two books that tell the story the amazing history of the 1750 fleet: The Hidden Galleon and Treasure Island: The Untold Story.

You can find John’s blog at Mother Hawkins’ Hole.

9 Responses to “Wild Horses and Spanish Galleons: The History and Mystery of Assateague Island”

  1. Jody said

    Special thanks to John Amrhein, Jr., American Maritime Historian and Author, for sharing his knowledge and expertise with us. Assateague Island has such a rich history, along with beautiful beaches!

  2. Marianne said

    An amazing history!

    • Jody said

      Yes, that’s not something we often think about when we’re enjoying a day at the beach! Every beach has a history, especially in the Carolinas, it seems.

  3. This really is an amazing history! Now I want to go back!

  4. What a great story. We visited Ocracoke briefly last year when we spent a week on Hatteras. (We love the Outer Banks.) Our youngest son was fascinated with the story of Edward Teach. He’s going to love this one.

    • Jody said

      Great! We love that kind of stuff, too! Pirates and treasure and all! We used to live in Virginia Beach and really enjoyed our visits to the Outer Banks.

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