Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg

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Cumberland Island, one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world, is almost 3 mi/4.8 km wide at one point and nearly 18 mi/30 km long. Unlike the other American coastal islands inhabited by free-roaming horses, Cumberland is mostly lush, dense subtropical forest. Moss-draped limbs of live oak spider out in all directions among palms and saw palmettos, magnolia, cedar, holly, pine, and sea myrtle. White sand beaches rim the eastern shore, and green salt marsh fringes much of the western side. Off the southernmost coast of Georgia, the island is a mosaic of diverse ecosystems including primary and secondary dunes, interdune meadows, wax myrtle thickets, mowed lawns, fresh and salt marshes, and pristine beaches, as well as one of the largest maritime forests in the United States. More than 15 mi2/40 km2 are federally designated wilderness.

Popular legend holds that the wild horses of Cumberland Island descend from Spanish Jennets imported and maintained there between 1566 and 1675, when Spain had a fort and missions on the island. Some speculate that when the Spanish withdrew, they set horses free, perhaps only animals too old, lame, or intractable to be useful elsewhere. Though this origin is possible, there is no evidence.

English horses probably came to Cumberland Island with James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, when he established two forts on the island in 1736—Fort St. Andrew at the north end and Fort Prince William to the south. After the Revolutionary War, General Nathanael Greene, commander of American forces in the South, acquired extensive property on Cumberland Island, intending to harvest live oak to sell for shipbuilding and to build a home for his family on the site where Oglethorpe had maintained his hunting lodge, Dungeness. Unfortunately, Greene died before he could begin to build or turn a profit.

Free-roaming horses were first documented on Cumberland Island in a 1788 letter to Edward Rutledge from Phineas Miller, but we do not know whether any descendants of the early lines remain (Goodloe, Warren, Osborn, & Hall, 2000). In a 1789 letter to Captain John McIntosh, a Cumberland wrangler arranged shipment on a flat boat for 13 young horses gathered from the island, “much better ones than the last” (Bullard, 2003, p. 70). Some of the remainder were probably eaten by 900 starving soldiers and freedmen during this time .

From the end of the Revolution to the Civil War, Sea Island cotton—a variety that commanded higher prices by virtue of its unusually long fibers, was the major cash crop of Cumberland Island. More than half of the island was cleared for farming. Other products cultivated included timber, citrus fruit, figs, dates, olives, and pomegranates. Horses were necessary for working these plantations and for traversing the 18-mile/30-km length of the island.

During the Civil War, most horses were removed from the island. Some of the remainder were probably eaten by 900 starving soldiers and freedmen during this time. After the Civil War, Cumberland residents used most of the island for grazing free-range livestock .

Records indicate that semi-gentled horses were swum from Cumberland Island to be sold on the mainland in 1866 much as the Chincoteague Ponies are penned today (Bullard, 2003). This gather and swim might have been an annual activity, the drive probably starting in the marsh south of the Plum Orchard dock. At slack low tide, wranglers would press the horses to swim the Brick Hill River, then to the eastern shore of the shell-bottomed Cumberland River, to land at a point about 300 yards/274 m south of Cabin Bluff (Bullard, 2003).

Thomas Morrison Carnegie, brother and partner of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, bought the plantation at Dungeness in 1881 for his wife, Lucy, and their family. They built another Dungeness mansion on the site of the original, graced by verandas, turrets, and gables and boasting 50 rooms. Dungeness was evidently built on a prehistoric shell midden, which undoubtedly provided the material for the 6-inch-thick (15-cm.) walls of the tabby structure. Like the earlier Dungeness, this great house soon became a social center for the wealthy. Thomas and Lucy entertained guests with activities such as hunting, fishing, golfing, and cruising aboard their yacht, also named Dungeness.

Thomas Carnegie died in 1886 at the age of 43, leaving Lucy with nine children and a large inheritance. Lucy went on to acquire 90% of Cumberland Island, turning it into a vast, self-sufficient family preserve staffed by about 200 employees. She set about expanding the Dungeness complex to include more than 20 buildings, as well as walls, decorations, and a pergola (colonnaded walkway that supports climbing plants). A guest house east of the mansion included a heated pool, a steam room, a recreation room, a squash court, and several bedrooms. Other houses, docks, and structures were built all over the island. Seven of Lucy’s nine children married, and she presented four of them with mansions on Cumberland Island.

When Lucy died in 1916, Andrew II, Thomas II, and Margaret remained trustees of the estate. Initially, the Carnegies maintained their affluent lifestyle, but finances grew tight in the mid-1920s and tighter with the stock market crash of 1929. Although the Carnegies valued the primitive nature of the island, financial difficulties forced the family to generate income by closing Dungeness and capitalizing on Cumberland’s resources. In the 1920s, A.A. Ainsworth of New York almost purchased Cumberland to found a major development similar to Coral Gables, Florida, but the project never materialized.

By the 1950s, the gardens at Dungeness were no longer maintained. In 1959, Dungeness was destroyed by a fire that could be seen for miles along the mainland coast. Several Florida poachers were the likely culprits, but nobody was ever arrested for the crime. The ruins of Dungeness remain a popular feature of Cumberland to this day, and wild horses favor grazing on the grassy grounds.

Many breeds have contributed genes to the free-roaming herd. In 1896, the Carnegies bought a white stallion from the stud farm of Czar Nicholas II. From the 1880s through the 1960s, horses including Appaloosas, Tennessee Walking Horses, Thoroughbreds, and retired circus horses were released at various times to add desirable genes to the herd. In 1921, Oliver Ricketson Jr. purchased a number “fine, American-bred three and four year old mares” for a bargain price in Fort Apache, AZ (Bullard,2003).  In 1933, “marsh ponies” were sold from the Stafford plantation, suggesting that a population of small, Spanish-type horses was in residence at the time. In the 1950s, Lucy Ferguson and her staff castrated every wild male foal that they could capture, then released their own fine stallions to breed with the wild mares. In 1992, a resident added four registered Arabians to the wild herd in an attempt to improve conformation.

In 1971 most of the Carnegie property was sold or donated to the Park Service. On October 23, 1972, President Nixon signed legislation to establish Cumberland Island as a 40,500-acre/16,400-ha national seashore, making it one of the largest mostly undeveloped barrier island preserves in the world (Sharp & Miller, 2008).

When well-watered, Cumberland can support a herd near the top if its historical census without environmental compromise; but when drought conditions prevail, as often they do, there is fierce competition for food resources, and mares become emaciated even if the population is comparatively small. Moreover, hungry horses can exert excessive pressure on plant species and change the environmental balance.

Horses can live on barrier islands without destroying habitat, but they must be maintained below the carrying capacity of the island. In 1995, the Park Service assembled 26 agency, state, and university specialists to discuss options for managing the herds at both Cumberland Island and Cape Lookout NS (Dilsaver, 2004). The experts agreed that the horses were causing environmental damage and the herds should be reduced or removed, a sentiment echoed by several environmentalist groups.

Dense wilderness forests with saw palmetto understory and large equine home ranges make population control programs difficult to implement on Cumberland Island. Immunocontraception has effectively limited equine population size on other islands, but on Cumberland it would be difficult to find and vaccinate each mare every spring.

In April 1996, the Park Service chose to limit the herd to 120 and sought authorization to remove a number of horses. But when, a Park Service resource management specialist presented information at a series of public hearings indicating that horses were causing damage, island residents and other locals with strong emotional ties to the herd fervently opposed the removals. (Dilsaver, 2004). Many speakers questioned the motives of the Park Service, the validity of the studies, and the biases of the researchers. They maintained that the horses had been in residence for centuries and had not caused environmental collapse. They pointed out that wild horses were an integral part of the history, character, and beauty of the island and that their presence increased visitor satisfaction.

In fall of 1996, U.S. Representative Jack Kingston (GA 1) toured the island with one of the residents and opined that the equine census had decreased and there was little evidence of horse-related damage. Without informing the Park Service, he added a rider to the fiscal year 1997 budget bill banning all horse management at Cumberland Island NS.

The rider expired the following year, but hampered by budget cuts and political resistance, the Park Service has not written a new management plan. A scientifically sound management plan will be based on accurate environmental assessment, but the Park Service says that it does not have the funds for such an undertaking. Scientists are currently studying the impact of horses on the environment in the hope that their findings will clarify the best options for management.

Since 1991, Cumberland Island NS has been monitoring the sex, age, coat color, habitat, body condition, and location of horses and the number of horses in each band through an annual census. “If and when the time comes that NPS develops a management plan” said Doug Hoffman, wildlife biologist at Cumberland Island NS, “I envision that we would draw from other management experiences along the Atlantic Coast and likely establish a committee including personnel from various federal and state agencies and private groups that have been involved in the development of plans for the other feral horse herds. Representatives from the local public would be included in the committee as well” .

The free-roaming herd at Cumberland Island has persisted amid controversy, political and public pressure, conflict between interest groups, disagreement over management priorities, and contradictions of policy. There is every hope that in time, concerned parties will find a compromise that will benefit both the horses and their island environment.


Dilsaver, L.M. (2004). Cumberland Island National Seashore: A history of conservation conflict. Charlottesville:University of Virginia Press.

Bullard, M. (2003). Cumberland Island: A history.Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Goodloe, R.B., Warren, R.J., Osborn, D.A., & Hall, C.(2000). Population characteristics of feral horses on Cumberland Island, Georgia and their management implications. Journal of Wildlife Management, 64(1), 114–121. doi: 10.2307/3802980

Seabrook, C. (2002). Cumberland Island: Strong women, wild horses. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair.

Sharp, R.L., & Miller, C.A. (2008). Wilderness, wildness,and visitor access to Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia. In D.B. Klenosky & C.L. Fisher (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2008 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium (Gen.Tech. Rep. NRS-P-42) (pp. 216–222). Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

Urquhart, B. S. (2002). Hoofprints in the sand: Wild horses of the Atlantic Coast. Lexington, Ky.: Eclipse.




Cumberland Island, GA


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Cumberland Island, NC

Respect free-roaming horses as wildlife. Keep at least the length of a large bus between you and the horses at all times., And try not to disrupt their behavior with your presence.


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