In order to understand the Banker Horse, one must understand the location and environment from which they developed. Until recent years, the Outer Banks of North Carolina were considered some of the most isolated and under-developed areas in the country. The banks consist of a string of sand dunes that serve to protect the mainland of North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean. They are separated from the mainland by large bodies of water called “sounds.” The Outer Banks are approximately 175 miles long from the Virginia line to below Cape Lookout. Perhaps the islands are best described by the name of one of the Indian tribes that lived there….”Hatterasil”, an Algonquin word meaning “there is less vegetation”.



The following history was derived from historic journals of sailing vessels researched from archives in England and Spain, regarding exploration and colonization in the 16th century. The author, the late Dale Burrus,was a lifelong resident of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, and was Senior Inspector for the Spanish Mustang Registry at the time he wrote this history. 


Lucas Vasquez de Allyon’s Expeditions



Among the first explorers to visit the North Carolina coast was a Spaniard named Lucas Vasquez de Allyon, who had received a charter from the Spanish king which gave him the right to explore and colonize much of the eastern seaboard. In 1521, Allyon sent one of his captains, Gordilk, in charge of an expedition which landed at River John the Baptist (thought to have been Cape Fear). Other Allyon explorers spent considerable time at a place called “Chicom,” thought to be in the same vicinity. 


The Spaniards had trouble with the Indians. It seems they were taking Indian children as slaves and sending them to the West Indies. There was a great Indian uprising led by Corees, and the Spaniards were forced to flee to stronger Spanish holdings in Florida, leaving behind all their livestock. 



Richard Greenville’s Expeditions



The next direct line of history comes from vessel logs detailing the importation of livestock to the Outer Banks by Richard Greenville’s expeditions from 1584 to 1590. For four years, Raleigh’s ships maintained a steady traffic between England and the Outer Banks, in spring of 1584, 1585, 1586, and 1587. They followed the same general route to the Canary Islands and across the Atlantic, stopping at the same places in the West Indies such as Tallaboa Bay and Puerto Rico. They reached the Outer Banks in early summer. A Spaniard concerned over these activities, could have set his calendar by the comings and goings of these vessels carrying colonists and supplies to the land the English called Virginia, in honor of their virgin queen.



Although Spain and England were at a state of war during this period, trade was still carried on between the Spanish colonists of the West Indies and the ships of Greenville. The Spanish authorities in Puerto Rico were not passive while this was going on. The Governor, Diego Menendez de Valdez, claimed that he received news at San Juan de Puerto Rico of Commander Jones’ (commanding the Tyger) approach to the southern shore on May 10. He ordered his lieutenant at San Jerman who had 40 men, to keep watch on the English who had, he assumed, only landed to water. On May 16, a patrol of eight Spanish horsemen made their appearance at an encampment, but soon disappeared when challenged by ten of Jone’s arquebusman. 


On May 22 a further party of twenty horsemen appeared, led by the commander if the local garrison. This time Greenville sent out two horsemen of his own and some footmen to arrange a parley. Two men from each side exchanged formal courtesies, the English declaring they were anxious to trade and to purchase food. A rendezvous for an exchange was arranged two days ahead. The lieutenant was now in a position to send a full report to the governor, which reached him on May 25. He at once sent off 35 arquebusmen to assist the lieutenant in harassing the English if they emerged from the encampment. 


These reinforcements were only a one-day march from San Juan, when they were met by news that the English had “quitted their fort.” Greenville, after launching his pinnance on May 23, had gone to the rendezvous the next day, but the Spaniards did not appear. He returned to the camp, where he found the huts were burned and the embankments thrown down. 


In a prominent place he erected a post and carved it with an inscription announcing the safe arrival and departure of the Tyger and Elizabeth as a guide to the missing vessels of the squadron, should they arrive later. The Spanish, however, uprooted the post soon after and with some difficulty had its inscription translated and forwarded to Spain. 


The reason for Greenville’s desertion of the encampment was the likelihood of a Spanish attack, but he did not at once leave the coast. He lay in wait for “prizes” in the Mona Channel and he took a small frigate, but she proved to be empty. A more valuable prize was made the same night, belonging to Lorenzo de Vallejo, which had come from Spain with the flotilla carrying cloth and other merchandise. She had put into Santa Domingo and was making her way with cargo and passengers to San Juan when she was taken without struggle. Greenville put “prize crews” on board and retired to a nearby anchorage, having apparently sent word ashore to San Jerman that he again wished to trade.

One of the commanders, Commander Lane, was persuaded to take the smaller prize with some Spanish prisoners, and to bring salt from what was apparently Salinas Bay, near Cape Rojo. Finding two salt mounds ready, he enclosed them with entrenchments and began removing them, but a Spanish force came up. Lane believed this force to be commanded by the governor himself, and the force consisted of 40 horses and 300 footmen. They did not attempt to try Lane’s defenses.  Lane, on rejoining the Tyger, protested violently at having been placed in jeopardy with a handful of men, and began a series of quarrels with Greenville, which destroyed the harmony of the expedition. 


Meanwhile, the Tyger, the Elizabeth, the pinnance and the larger prize had been trading with the Spaniards in the vicinity of Guanica or Guayanilla. Neither the English nor the Spanish documents are quite clear how this was arranged, but it appears that Greenville offered one of the frigates for sale, attempted to ransom his prisoners (“getting good round summes, but nothing at allone of the released Spaniards claimed”, he said). The ships logs show that Greenville acquired livestock, hogs sows, young cattle, mares and male horses, foodstuffs, plants of sugar cane, bananas and other fruits to supply the colony which it was intending to grow there. The governor, hearing of such exchanges, sent orders that they were to cease, but again Greenville had moved before his instructions had taken effect. The squadron (now of five vessels) sailed on May 29 for the north coast of Hispaniola.

According to Spanish documentation, the Spaniards put in at Puerto-de-Plata and then moved on to the Bahia Isabela, the harbor immediately to the west. After two days at Isabela, Governor Alcade and Captain Regifo de Angulo made friendly overtures to Greenville, promising to come to visit him. The English ships were in an area which had a long record of illicit trade that took place with the French. On June 5, Greenville and his company were invited onshore, where an elaborate entertainment was prepared for them. Feasting was followed by a bullfight and sports by commerce. On June 6, male horses and mares (with saddles and bridles), cows and bulls, sheep and swine were purchased for the colony, together with hides, sugar, ginger, tobacco and pearls (most of which were evidently for the English market). The English had already been observed on Puerto Rico collecting banana plants and other fruit trees along the shore and they continued to do so in Hispaniola. John White, a commander, recorded a number of plants and animals on paper.


Whatever Greenville’s views on the missing vessels were (and we do not know precisely how stores and men had been distributed between them) it is clear that he did not regard their absence as sufficient enough to make him abandon the projected colony. His men were well, and his supplies of livestock, plants and food improved the prospects of settlement, though the delays had sacrificed valuable planting time. He sailed from Hispaniola on June 7 northwest, being nearly lost when he visited a small island the next day to take seals. The following day, they failed to find salt on one of the Caicos Islands and entered the Bahamas, landing at Eleuthera, Guanima on June 12, and Ciguateo (Great Abaco) on June 15. Then, sailing through Providence North West Channel, he sighted the American mainland on June 20, between 27 degrees and 30 degrees north.

On June 23 they encountered the shoals of a headland which they believed to be, and most probably was Cape Fear. Rounding the shoals with difficulty, they anchored the next day in a harbor which is likely to have been that of Beaufort, North Carolina. They were now clearly probing the coast closely. On June 26, they came to an inlet through the Carolina Banks, called Wococon, which is about in the middle of the present Portsmouth Island. 


Commander Lane said, in his journal book, that all their ships went aground on the shallow bar, but were floated off without too much difficulty. However, the Tyger had been lying offshore, and when an attempt was made on June 29 to bring her into harbor, serious disaster occurred. She struck, according to the Tyger journal. Two hours of struggle went on to prevent her from breaking up. Finally she was beached. The damage was a severe blow to the intended colony, since all the corn, salt, meal, rice, biscuits, and other provisions were destroyed or damaged by the salt water. Livestock was either lost, or swam ashore. This was a first and salutary example of the dangers which threatened shipping along this most risky stretch of coast.



For many years, it has been very difficult to put together the needed information concerning the early exploration and colonization attempts by Sir Walter Raleigh’s ships, especially the parts dealing with his exploits and trading in the West Indies, but in 1955 the Halkuyt Society published a two volume set which included all of the old material, plus considerable new information, most of it located in archives in England and Spain.



John Lawson’s Observations (Early 1700’s)

A quote from an English historian, John Lawson (who explored and documented southeastern North Carolina from 1700 until his death at the hands of the Tuscaroras in 1711) says, “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. They are troubled with very few distempers, neither do the cloudy-faced grey horses go blind here as in Europe. As for sprains, splints and ringbones, they are here never met withal, as I can learn. Were we to have our stallions and choice of mares from England, or any other of a good sort, and careful to keep them on the highlands, we could not fail of a good breed; but having been supplied with our first horses from the neighboring plantations, which were but mean, they do not as yet come up to the Excellency of the English horses; tho we generally find that the colts exceed in beauty and strength….”



John Lawson also reported how well the horses were treated by the Indians…. “These creatures they continually cram and feed with maize, and what the horse will eat — ‘til he is as fat as a hog, never making any farther use of him than to fetch a deer home”.



Edmund Ruffin’s Report on Banker Horses (Mid 1800’s)



In 1856, another historian visited the Outer Banks. His name was Edmund Ruffin, famous as an authority on agriculture and as an editor (but more usually credited with firing the first shot in the Civil War). He said “Twice a year on the Banks, the stock owners hold a wild horse penning, at which time all of the wild horses on the island were corralled and the colts branded. The horses pennings are much attended, and are very interesting festivals for all the residents of the neigh-boring mainland. There are few adults residing within a days sailing of the horse pen that have not attended one or more of these exciting scenes. A strong enclosure, called the horse pen, is made at a narrow part of the reef and suitable in other respects for the purpose – with a connected strong fence stretching quite across the reef. All of the many proprietors of the horses, and many assistants, drive the horses from the remote extremities of the reef, and easily encircle and bring all the horses to the fence and near to the pen”. 



Ruffin said that all of the horses in use on the reef, and on many of the nearest farms on the mainland are of these previously wild “banks “horses. He described them as “all of small size, with rough shaggy coats, and long manes; their hoofs in many cases grow to unusual lengths, they are capable of great endurance of labor and hardship, and live so roughly that any others from abroad seldom live a year on such food and other such great exposure. By the same token, he said when the banks horses were removed to the mainland, away from the salt marshes, many die before learning to eat grain or other strange provider, while other injure or kill themselves in struggling in vain efforts to break through the stables or enclosures in which they are subsequently confined. The horses fed entirely on the coarse salt grasses of the marshes and supply their want of fresh water by pawing away the sand deep enough to reach the fresh water which oozes into the excavation, and which reservoir serves for this use while it remains open”. 



Federal Writers Project (Late 1930’s)



In 1939 a book was compiled and written by the Federal Writers Project of the Federal Works Agency Work Projects Administration for the state of North Carolina. They write “On Cape Hatteras, wildlife is abundant. For years herds of wild horses, cattle, and hogs ranged at will, until the Federal Program of Sand Fixation by Grass Plantings necessitated a strict stock law. In 1938, the county placed a bounty on the few remaining wild horses, traditional descendants of Barbary horses brought over by the Raleigh colonists or saved from wrecked Portuguese ships. In winter, the waters are dotted with ducks and geese, and there is frequently the gleam of a white swan. Sandpipers and gulls feed in flocks, undisturbed by scurrying sandfiddlers. Eagles and Ospreys wheel above the water on the lookout for prey, and schools of porpoises sport just beyond the breakers of the roaring Atlantic.”

Spanish Mustang Registry Observation (Early 1980’s)



Dare County is only one of the counties that make up the North Carolina Outer Banks. Currituck County borders Dare on the north, and Hyde County on the south. In more remote areas of these counties, some of the pure Banker Horses were able to survive. In June, 1982, members of the Spanish Mustang Registry came to the Outer Banks and “due to feats of great endurance”, were able to observe the last known remaining bands of Banker Horses still existing in the natural state as they have been for the past 500 years – on the Currituck County Outer Banks. 



Accounts of Spanish explorations and colonization attempts in the early 1500’s state that Spanish Barb and Arabian horses were imported. One colony, d’Allyon’s, describes topographical features which Lefler and Newsome (A History of North Carolina, UNC Press, 1973) believe were around Cape Fear, North Carolina. The colony failed and the Spaniards retreated to their stronger holdings in Florida. The circumstances of the retreat, manner of travel and the coastal topography offer a combination of events conducive to the establishment of feral herds along the barrier islands. 



Present day Ocracoke and Corolla wild horses carry the distinguishing features of Spanish type horses. One striking similarity to the Arabian ancestry is the number of vertebra (one less than most breeds) which occurs in the Banker Horse Breed. Their even temperament, endurance, size, and the startling beauty which crops up frequently in the Banker Horses all point strongly to their dramatic history…these are the remnants of once numerous herds of Spanish stock which ran free along the sandy islands of our coast.


The Spanish Mustang Registry is satisfied that the Banker Horses, in particular the Corolla strain, are as lineally pure to the 16th century Spanish importations as can be found in North America today, and that they compare closely to the selectively bred South American Spanish derivative stock.

(Late 1980’s)

The paved road (RT 12) stopped north of Duck until 1985. When the road was paved to Corolla, horses began to be hit by cars. Formed in 1989 as an all-volunteer group, it took the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, and other supporters, nearly six years to get the required permissions and to raise the money to build a sound-to-sea fence, install a cattle guard in the paved road, and move the remaining horses north of the populated areas of Corolla. Today the wild horses roam 7,544 acres that they share with nearly 700 houses, and thousands of cars and people.

(1990’s)

Since the formation of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund in 1989, so many caring people have dedicated themselves to the well-being of the wild horses. Working tirelessly, they have made tremendous progress in creating state, national, and international awareness regarding the historic importance of the Banker Colonial Spanish Mustang and the pressing need to preserve and protect them. Their mission to save the horses of kings has taken over two decades and the number of supporters has grown from a handful to thousands over the years.

In 1997, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks found a champion in United States Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr. In order to ensure that the National Park Service would maintain a genetically healthy herd size, Congressman Jones worked with the nonprofit Foundation for Shackleford Horses, and Dr. Cothran. The Congressman sponsored federal legislation entitled the Shackleford Banks Act. A law since 1998, the Act mandates that the wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs roaming 3,000 acres of Cape Lookout National Seashore be managed at a target population of 120 – 130, with never less than 110.

Although the same endangered breed as the horses on Shackleford, the wild horses of Corolla have not had similar protection. Consequently, the low Corolla herd size poses a critical danger to the survival of the horses that goes beyond high levels of inbreeding. When the number drops below the recommended absolute minimum of 110, the herd is at extreme risk for being completely devastated by disease, drought, fire, flood, or hurricane. They could easily be gone forever. Click here to read the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act and learn how you can help make it a law.

The current management plan that was put together in 1997 after the horses were moved north, calls for a maximum herd size of 60. The selection of that number was not based in any science but merely a number upon which all parties were able to agree. Managing at 60 is managing for extinction. Click here to learn what the Fund has been doing to change the management plan and maximum herd size.

(2000’s)

2001 – Incorporation as 501 (c) 3 nonprofit.
2006 – First full-time staff hired

In February of 2007, inspectors from the Horse of the Americas Registry (HOA) as well as staff from the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC) spent two days in Corolla. They examined the wild herd and horses removed for adoption to determine if they were indeed historic herds of Colonial Spanish Mustangs.

The HOA is a national not for profit organization celebrating North America’s first true horse, the Colonial Spanish Horse. It is a unified registry open to Original Indian Horses, Barbs, and Spanish Barbs & Spanish Mustangs. Also a national not for profit organization, the mission of the ALBC is to conserve and promote endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.

HOA found that both the wild herd of Corolla and wild herd of Shackleford showed the traditional balance and confirmation of Colonial Spanish horses, making them eligible for registration as Colonial Spanish Mustangs. Click here to read the HOA report.

ALBC (as well as the Equus Foundation Trust) has listed the Corolla and Shackleford Banker strain of Colonial Spanish Mustangs as Critically Endangered. The next category is extinction.

DNA testing completed in 1992 by Dr. E. Gus Cothran, an internationally recognized equine geneticist and expert on wild herds, showed that the Corolla horses have less genetic diversity than any other group of horses. In 2008, DNA samples were collected via remotely delivered dart for an updated study of the herd’s current overall genetic health. The herd size at the time was 90. Dr. Cothran reported that the horses had reached a “genetic bottleneck,” with high level of inbreeding and low levels of genetic diversity. Dr. Cothran generally recommends a minimum herd size of 120 – 150 for a feral herd.

Meanwhile, the CWHF staff continued their efforts to draw attention to the need to preserve and protect the heritage horses of the northern Outer Banks. A student driven letter writing campaign to have the Colonial Spanish Mustang designated as the North Carolina state horse was initiated in Currituck County in 2009. Over one thousand letters from school children in three counties were presented to state legislator Bill Owens. In January of 2010, Governor Beverly Perdue wrote, “North Carolina is proud to be home to the Corolla Wild Horse. They have graced our shores for generations, bringing visitors from across the state and beyond to North Carolina to witness this marvel. We are privileged to have these horses as part of our heritage and count on the Corolla wild horse as being part of the landscape for generations to come.” In May of 2010, Governor Purdue signed HB 1251 into law, designating the Colonial Spanish Mustang as the North Carolina State Horse.



Although the Ocracoke strain of Spanish mustang cannot be directly traced to a single breeder, importer, or sire, certain physiological features of present day horses, and historical data lead strongly to the conclusion that the ancestors of these horses were escapees from Spanish stock brought to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the first part of the 16th century. 



Accounts of Spanish explorations and colonization attempts in the early 1500’s state that Spanish Barb and Arabian horses were imported. One colony, d’Allyon’s, describes topographical features which Lefler and Newsome (A History of North Carolina, UNC Press, 1973) believe were around Cape Fear, North Carolina. The colony failed and the Spaniards retreated to their stronger holdings in Florida. The circumstances of the retreat, manner of travel and the coastal topography offer a combination of events conducive to the establishment of feral herds along the barrier islands. 



Present day Ocracoke and Corolla wild horses carry the distinguishing features of Spanish type horses. One striking similarity to the Arabian ancestry is the number of vertebra (one less than most breeds) which occurs in the Banker Horse Breed. Their even temperament, endurance, size, and the startling beauty which crops up frequently in the Banker Horses all point strongly to their dramatic history…these are the remnants of once numerous herds of Spanish stock which ran free along the sandy islands of our coast.



The Spanish Mustang Registry is satisfied that the Banker Horses, in particular the Corolla strain, are as lineally pure to the 16th century Spanish importations as can be found in North America today, and that they compare closely to the selectively bred South American Spanish derivative stock.



Author: Dale Burrus

Senior Inspector (at the time he compiled this history and findings)
Spanish Mustang Registry