The origins of the Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs date back nearly 500 years, making them the earliest settlers of the Outer Banks, second only to the local Native American tribes. While historical journals, documents, and ship's logs hint to the wild horses' origin, it's hard to determine one specific set of events that lead to their presence on the Outer Banks.
It's possible that the horses were left behind by one of the first explorers to the North Carolina Coastline, a Spanish explorer named Lucas Vasquez de Allyon. In 1521, Vasquez de Allyon commissioned his commanders to explore and colonize the entire American eastern seaboard, and at least a handful of these commanders landed somewhere along the North Carolina shoreline. While many modern historians believe the majority of these initial explorations happened somewhere around Cape Fear, (due to multiple references to the large saltwater river), it's possible that these expeditions led them to the Northern Outer Banks.
Unfortunately for these first explorers, the local Native Americans did not appreciate the intrusion. Several attacks and minor wars broke out along the North Carolina coast, prompting the Spanish to abandon their early ramshackle settlements and leave their livestock behind. Though remote, there is a slight possibility that this is the origin of some of the NC banker ponies, which are scattered from the Cape Lookout National Seashore to Ocracoke Island and all the way to Carova.
A more feasible origin story dates back to just 60 years later, during one of Richard Greenville's expeditions along the North Carolina coastline. Greenville was an English commander overseen by Sir Walter Raleigh, who made regular routes along the shoreline from the West Indies, to the early colonies of North Carolina and Virginia, and back to England. The late 1500s were a time of English expansion and colonization, as well as trading and commerce in the southern West Indies (even among the Spanish who still frequented to coastline but were technically at war with England). As a result, many European ships would pass by the Outer Banks waters.
In June of 1587, Greenville was leaving the West Indies with a healthy cargo of sugar, food, and livestock, (including Spanish mustangs), and was heading up the coast along with a small fleet of ships to carry and deliver supplies to the newly established English colonies. Historical records indicate that Greenville and his small fleet had trouble along Cape Fear, and then on the outskirts of Portsmouth Island, with the ships catching in the dangerously shallow Diamond Shoals. One ship in particular, the Tyger, was lost to the battering waves and the livestock floated ashore or were lost at sea.
While these cases are two of the most documented rationales for the wild horses' presence, they certainly aren't the only explanations. A number of local experts believe that the horses, which are clearly descendants of Spanish Mustangs, were washed ashore by Spanish or English shipwrecks in the 1500s. This theory is based on the appearance of the horses themselves, as well as early 1700s to 1800s accounts of Outer Banks visitors or settlers who spotted them and made note of the horses in their journals.
For example, English explorer John Lawson - who explored the North Carolina Coastline in the 1710s, mentioned them in his reports, noting that "The horses are well-shaped and swift. The best of them would sell for ten or twelve pounds in England. They prove excellent drudges, and will travel incredible journeys."
Regardless of their actual roots, one of the allures of the wild horses is, and has been for centuries, their mysterious appearance on the Outer Banks. Whether they are brave survivors who indeed "traveled incredible journeys" from ancient shipwrecks off the coastline, or the descendants of livestock that were left behind by the earliest of colonists, the unclear ancestry of the Outer Banks Wild Horses is clearly part of the allure of their story.
21 Wild Horses roam on & around Cedar Island and the herd is growing!