Q: I am intrigued by Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast. Where did the wild horses come from?
A: Horses and history: Cumberland Island is filled with both.
Georgia’s southernmost and largest barrier island claims Jekyll Island as its neighbor to the north and Amelia Island, Fla., to the south. Unlike its neighbors, however, Cumberland is only accessible by ferry from St. Marys or by private boat.
The tranquil island is roughly 18 miles long and ranges from three-quarters to 2.5 miles wide, depending on the location. Across the sound to the west lies U.S. Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, which houses Trident nuclear-powered submarines.
While submarines may roam the waters around Cumberland, wild horses roam the island.
Today, 125 to 175 horses reside there, said Jill Hamilton-Anderson, chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for Cumberland Island National Seashore, part of the National Park Service. The horses keep to smaller groups, often staying within certain areas, such as the island’s south end.
The earliest account of horses on the island dates back 275 years to a battle over Fort St. Andrews in 1742. When the Spanish entered the British colonial fort on the island’s north end, they found about 50 to 60 horses in a corral, according to the NPS. However, while evidence is scarce, the NPS believes that horses were brought over in the late 1500s when the Spanish missions were established.
The number of horses grew to about 200 by the late 1700s, and plantations used horses and mules on Cumberland during the early 1800s. During the Civil War, however, many of the horses were sold or removed.
About 20 years after the war, the Thomas Carnegie family bought land on the island and brought over about 50 domestic horses to Dungeness, a winter retreat they built. Throughout the early 1900s, more horses came, while some were sold off the island. By the 1940s and 1960s, property owners were managing the horses as free-ranging livestock, and by the Cumberland Island National Seashore’s establishment in 1972, the horses were deemed feral.
The horses are closely related to Tennessee Walkers, American Quarter Horses, Arabians and Paso Fino, according to a 1991 study by the University of Georgia and University of Kentucky. Hamilton-Anderson said the current horses are genetically related to domestic stock of the Carnegie era.
A herd of horses typically can be seen near Greyfield Inn, which was established in 1900 by the Carnegies as a home for their daughter, Margaret Ricketson. In 1962, it was converted to an inn by Ricketson’s daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson.
While the horses are considered feral and non-native, they do impact the island’s ecology. They eat between 200 and 400 pounds of vegetation each year and remove up to 98 percent of it in the areas they frequent, according to the NPS. This led to discussion in 2015 about relocating the horses. Currently, that is not an active discussion, Hamilton-Anderson said.
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