But Dorian destroys remnants of a 50-year effort to save the herd
TREASURE CAY, Little Abaco, Bahamas––“This is like listening to a cosmic version of Ravel’s Bolero. Feeling nervous about when the brass kicks in,” wrote would-be wild horse savior and local dog rescuer Milanne “Mimi” Rehor, in her last posting to Facebook before Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco islands.
That was at 10:34 a.m. on September 1, 2019, just ahead of the 185-mile-an-hour swirling winds and 200-mile-an-hour gusts that knocked out the electricity across the Bahamas and eventually left half the human residents homeless.
Hoping to wait out Dorian in a second floor marina hotel room at Treasure Cay, Rehor spent the preceding day, like many other Bahamians, trying to secure her sailboat home, the Alnilam, and her animals against the most powerful and prolonged hurricane known to have ever hit the low-lying island nation.
Marsh Harbor, the biggest town on Abaco, with about 6,000 residents, was all but leveled. Cooperstown, on Treasure Cay, was underwater except for rooftops. At least 30 people were killed when Dorian hit Abaco.
Seen at Treasure Cay Community Center
A U.S. Coast Guard deployment to Abaco, arriving late on September 2, 2019, reported rescuing 200 stranding victims with boats and helicopters.
Rehor was for a time among the many people listed as missing, but was later reported to be among the Dorian refugees at the Treasure Cay Community Center.
Speaking from Geneva, Switzerland, International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent media manager Matthew Cochrane on September 3, 2019 relayed official estimates that more than 13,000 houses, or about 45% of the homes on Grand Bahama and Abaco, had become uninhabitable, leaving 70,000 people homeless; 62,000 people were without clean drinking water; and more than 60,000 were without food.
“Dogs have a week’s food”
“Dogs have a week’s food, plenty of water, and one of the men can deal with the cats,” Rehor had hoped.
Rehor had about 11 dogs and five cats in her care, earlier Facebook postings indicated, but no longer had any Abaco horses left to look out for. The last, the 20-odd-year-old mare Nunki, died on July 23, 2015, two years after the next-to-last two mares, seven years after the final reported sightings of the aged stallions Hadar and Capella.
In view that the Abaco horses’ main habitat took the hardest hit of all from Hurricane Dorian, any surviving descendants might not have survived this latest of many catastrophes afflicting their existence, including many previous––but smaller––devastating hurricanes.
Clung to hope
Rehor had clung to hopes of somehow restoring the Abaco wild horse population with salvaged genetic material from some of the last Abaco horses and a North Carolina stallion, Wayward Wind. The genetic material was preserved by the Texas-based cryogenic cloning firm ViaGen.
Rehor as recently as October 28, 2018 reported to Facebook “exciting news,” after Wild Horses Of Abaco Preservation Society board members David Knowles, Wynsome Ferguson, and George Charité “walked the area that will be the first part of the Preserve that is being restored for arrival of equine therapy horses and visitors,” and “announced that overgrown access and fire roads soon would be cleared. Electric fence will be restrung and equipment is on order to clear the fence line trail and the corral and round pen areas.”
Later Rehor announced having received the donation of a used adult-sized tricycle.
But the likelihood of saving the Abaco horses, even with advanced high-tech help and even if a herd could somehow be kept out of harm’s way, seems slim and none, especially post-Dorian. Arkwild, a U.S.-based charity that Rehor founded in 2010 to raise funds to support cloning the Abaco horses back into existence, raised just $4,033 in 2017, according to IRS Form 990, and was $67,077 in debt.
Debate over whether the Abaco horses ever could, or should, have been saved as a genetically unique population, with any amount of investment, had already generated a windstorm long before Dorian struck.
Much of the sound and fury was generated by the romantic fiction that the Abaco horses might have been direct descendants of the first Spanish horses brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1494, on his second of three voyages to the Caribbean region.
Wrote Prince Edward Island equine expert Sharon Cregier in June 2008, trying to rally support for Rehor, “The Abaco horses of the Bahamas have been confirmed by the University of Kentucky’s Dr. Gus Cothran, by the late Dr. Ann Bowling of the UCLA Equine Genetics Division, and by the Institut fuer Molekularbiologische Diagnostik GmbH,” a German company, “as descended from the horses of the conquistadors.
“Their close relatives on the mainland U.S. are likely the Florida Cracker Horse,” Cregier theorized. “Their closest relatives are the Puerto Rican Paso Fino.”
Or perhaps their closest relatives were, and are, among the horses who before Hurricane Dorian pulled approximately 20 licensed horse-drawn carriages through downtown Nassau, on New Providence island, just to the west. Post-Dorian, how the Nassau carriage horses fared––and the horses at an Abaco beach riding stable––remains unknown to ANIMALS 24-7.
Documentation suggests different history
One way or another, practically every horse in the Americas, either wild or domesticated, is descended from the horses of the conquistadores. Many of those horses escaped early in the Spanish conquest, found congenial habitat across about half of North America, and grew into a wild population of as many as 10,000 by 1553. Some of the wild horses were re-domesticated by Native Americans as long as 200 years before some of the tribes who obtained horses had direct contact with settlers of European descent.
But, while investigating animal issues of all sorts in the Bahamas in connection with Hurricane Dorian, ANIMALS 24-7 has discovered documentation via NewspaperArchive.com and the online archives of the New York Times that the Abaco horses had an entirely different probable origin from any of the prevailing theories, including that they had anything directly to do with old Spanish horses.
The actual history of the Abaco horses appears to be every bit as compelling and dramatic as any of the inventions. However, since the archival information was not easily accessible until recent years, it remained unknown to the people who for more than half a century tried to preserve the remnants of the herd.
“Nobody knows how or when the horses first came to the Abaco Islands,” alleged Atlas Obscura author Stacey McKenna in 2017. “One story claims they swam ashore, survivors of the frequent 16th-century shipwrecks that fed the archipelago’s salvage-based economy. A second tale suggests that Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution brought their horses with them to the island in 1783. Still another, the one that Rehor favors, traces the horses to the island’s 19th-century logging operations, when companies imported equines from Cuba to haul lumber and later turned them loose.”
This was a reasonable theory. Very likely use of horses to drag logs helped to perpetuate the existence of the Abaco herd for sixty years.
According to the Islands of the Bahamas tourism web site, “There were six lumber camps on Abaco, starting at Wilson City in 1905, followed by Norman’s Castle, Cornwall I, Cornwall II, Millville and Cross Harbour. Lumber activities gave employment to Abaconians until 1965.”
“In the 1960s,” McKenna summarized, “a logging company cut a road through Abaco’s pine forests, running the length of the island, to harvest large quantities of pulpwood.”
Pulpwood, shooting & golf
The pulpwood would have consisted of immature second growth coming up after the earlier rounds of logging. Cutting it would have been the last phase of the Abaco logging era.
The road “simultaneously gave local hunters increased access to remote parts of the island and destroyed the horses’ habitat,” McKenna continued. “The hunters likely shot the horses, in addition to the wild pigs that were their main target, and their dogs frequently killed foals.”
Further, McKenna claimed, “Some time in the 1960s, an unattended child tried climbing atop one of the horses, but was kicked and killed. Angry townspeople began killing the horses on sight, running the animals down on roads and shooting them in the pine forest. In the middle of the 20th century, estimates placed the herd at 200 individuals. By the close of the 1960s, only three remained.”
This claim was transiently disputed in February 1971 by syndicated columnist Jim Bishop, who mentioned “herds of wild horses on Treasure Cay,” and admitted to hitting one with a golf ball while vacationing there.
Bahama Star Farm
But the Abaco horses were rapidly vanishing.
Wrote travel writer Gordon Quarnstorm only three and a half years later from Treasure Cay, in September 1974, “I can’t vouch for the horses, although I am told there are still some inland, descendants of work animals turned loose when a sawmill quit operation some years ago.”
Continued McKenna, “Former Senator and Member of Parliament Edison Key told Rehor he learned of the slaughter in the early 1970s. While clearing land for a ranch called Bahama Star Farm, he came across horse carcasses. With the help of his friend and brother-in-law, he moved the remaining three horses onto the property to rebuild their ranks.
“Once the herd reached 12 horses, they were again released into the pine forest, where they seemed to flourish despite severe genetic bottlenecking.”
The Abaco horse herd had increased to about 30 by 1992, when Rehor sailed to the island with a friend in a 36-foot yacht she built herself.
“Glancing through the 1992 edition of the Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas, Rehor had spied an intriguing sentence regarding the existence of wild horses on mainland Abaco,” wrote Jim and Cathy Kerr for EquiSearch in February 2003.
Rehor founded the Abaco Wild Horse Fund in 1995, later called the Abaco Barbary Horse Project, and still later the Wild Horses Of Abaco Preservation Society, to try to preserve the Abaco horses. Most of the project income came from Rehor’s meager earnings as proprietor of a used bookstore called Buck-A-Book.
Despite Rehor’s efforts, “By 1997, only 16 [Abaco horses] remained,” wrote McKenna. “Local lore suggests the animals were being hunted for both sport and food.
Abaco Wild Horse Preserve
“In 1999, Hurricane Floyd dealt what might have been the final blow, destroying the forest understory that had supported the Abaco horses,” McKenna said. “The horses found their way back to Bahama Star Farm, which had been converted into a citrus orchard. Irrigation and cropdusting gave the horses a new diet of pesticides and high sugar grasses, which, combined with a reduced need to move about looking for food, led to a host of health and reproductive problems.”
Or perhaps the last surviving horses were just getting old, beyond their optimum reproductive age.
“Around 2004,” McKenna recounted, “it became clear the herd wouldn’t return to the forest on its own, so Rehor and the local government moved them to a fenced-in parcel among the pines,” called the Abaco Wild Horse Preserve.
“The government granted 3,800 acres for the horses,” McKenna finished, “but at any given time, they only roamed a portion—initially 200 acres, then increased to 1,000 acres—of that area. The population never recovered.”
Fires & drought
The Abaco Wild Horse Preserve itself was meanwhile hit by wildfires in both 2008 and 2010.
Wrote Rehor in 2010, “What started out as a pleasant drive down the main Preserve road turned into a nightmare as I rounded a corner and saw nothing but scorched bush on both sides. A fire set by illegal squatters on the adjacent farm, in over 25 miles per hour of west wind, burned at least a quarter of the farm and a quarter of the Preserve, possibly more. An area about half a mile long, holding at least a mile of fence, was scorched. An area the men had been carefully preparing for a mini pasture was burned.
“The mares have not had access to pasture since Mimosa died in October due to the presence of Lantana sage which has invaded the farm after the Department of Agriculture bulldozed all the citrus trees that used to grow there,” Rehor said.
“We had hoped that there would be enough growth in the forest area to support the mares, but drought has set in and there is only sparse new growth. We found an area relatively free of sage (which can be ingested by accident as it grows up through regular pasture – the horses know better than to deliberately eat it) and would have carefully removed all the sage plants before letting the mares in. Now the men have to start all over,” Rehor lamented. “They have been asked to take some time out from preparing yet another pasture to simply cut bundles of tall grass to bring to the mares so they will have some supplement until their pasture is ready.”
Soon thereafter, in March 2010, Rehor wrote to Abaco Barbary Horse Project board members that she was “having severe reservations about everything. A big question has presented itself to me. What am I saving the horses for? What are we struggling to do?
“I would see them forever free in their forest, with people visiting a magnificent sanctuary for many activities, leaving with a sense of renewal. That¹s the dream. Under this, or any other, Bahamian government?
“There are those who would ‘break’ the horses, to exploit them in whatever ways would make the most money. I can’t support this. Since there is no way I can get any real support and the government is in a perpetually adversarial stance, there is no guarantee of the horses’ safe future even if we could get foals. What are we trying to save them for, a future of the usual exploitation? I am trying to figure out how to close down, yet still protect the remaining horses, and where to move my 11 dogs and three cats.”
Did not close down
But Rehor did not close down. Instead she and friends formed Arkwild to try to raise more support from U.S. donors, a ploy that kept the Abaco wild horse restoration dream alive for most of another decade.
Whether the Abaco wild horse saga might have had a different outcome, had the horses’ true story been known, one can only guess. But it might have inspired donors more than the same tired tale of possible direct descent from the horses of the Spanish conquistadores that had already failed to save wild herds throughout the U.S. west, elsewhere in the Caribbean, and has failed most recently in Louisiana.
The United Empire Loyalists who temporarily settled Grand Abaco and Little Abaco islands in 1783 did not find any horses already there. Nor does there seem to be tangible evidence that the United Empire Loyalists either brought or left horses.
A. Deans Peggs, the proto-Bahamian historian, made no mention of horses in A Short History of the Bahamas (1959). Paul Albury, however, made one passing reference to the wild horses of the Abacos in The Story of the Bahamas (1975), if only to acknowledge their presence at that time.
“Barren & uninhabited”
“The colonial refugees dreamed of recreating a cotton-based economy in the Abaco Islands,” recounts the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada. “But crops failed due to thin island soil. Most settlers moved away, leaving about 200 white loyalists and 200 black slaves. Wrecking––what we would call the salvaging of shipwrecks––became the source of income.”
Reported A. Vanon, of the bark Sea Bird, in a letter of May 13, 1862 published by the Potsdam Courier & Freeman, of Potsdam, New York, “Great Abaco is barren and uninhabited except by a few of the Bahama wreckers.”
There were, as yet, no pine forests to be logged on either Little Abaco, the northernmost of the Abacos, or Great Abaco, the southern and far larger island.
On that very day, however, May 13, 1862, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, a 23-year-old slave named Robert Smalls who was employed as a ship rigger led a revolt aboard the Confederate armed ammunition transport vessel Planter, a 149-foot-long wood-burning sidewheel steamer.
“Smalls and the other blacks on board seized control of the ship,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “succeeded in passing through Confederate checkpoints,” while Smalls jauntily waved the captain’s cap at the Confederate troops on guard, “and turned the ship, its cargo of weapons, and several important documents over to a Union naval squadron blockading the city.”
The Planter was promptly added to the fleet assigned to the Banks Expedition, an attempt to invade Confederate-held Texas by sea, led by Nathaniel Prentice Banks (1816-1894).
275 horses aboard
Banks, who was in childhood a bobbin boy in a woolen mill, became an early labor leader, an abolitionist, an advocate for women’s suffrage, and a Republican politician who went on to serve in Congress, as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and as governor of Massachusetts.
Running unsuccessfully for U.S. President in 1860, Banks lost the nomination to Abraham Lincoln, but Lincoln in May 1861 made him a major general in the Union Army, despite his complete lack of military experience.
Banks put the Planter under the command of a Captain Daily. Daily took aboard 275 horses accompanied by 40 mechanics and 60 soldiers of the 23rd, 25th, and 28th Connecticut volunteer regiments.
Reported The New York Times of February 9, 1863, “The ship Planter was wrecked on the 14th of January, on Stranger Key, near Abaco Light,” built on Elbow Cay in 1836, replaced by the renowned Elbow Reef lighthouse at Hope Town in 1864.
“The ship, a large one of 2,100 tons, drawing nineteen feet, struck at daylight in the morning four miles from land, the Captain having missed his proper reckoning, and believed himself to be 70 miles off shore,” The New York Times continued. “The weather being fair, the men were all landed in the launches and remained upon the Key for twelve days, awaiting the arrival of wrecking vessels, or of some vessel from Nassau. The horses were all lost.”
Added and amended the Boston Post of February 13, 1863, “A letter from the wreck of the ship Planter says she went ashore at daylight on Little Abaco,” not Stranger Key, “and sank in seven feet of water. All the passengers were saved, but 245 horses were lost.”
Horses more likely swam or ran away
Note that a ship with a 19-foot draft, running aground in seven feet of water, may be severely damaged, but will not be sunk. Note that the first thing a ship’s captain usually does after running aground is to try to offload the heaviest part of the cargo, in hope’s of floating loose with the next high tide. If the cargo consists of horses, they are easily released to offload themselves.
Note that at least 30 horses were unaccounted for. Note that Stranger Key, now called Jwycesska Island, is only four miles from Little Abaco, not an impossible swimming distance for horses, even if that is where the Planter ran aground.
Note that Treasure Cay, where the Abaco horses last persisted, is only 20 miles from Little Abaco, which is much closer to the site of the old Abaco Light than was Stranger Key.
Note that “lost,” finally, might only have meant “not retrieved.”
Putting the New York Times and Boston Post accounts together, anywhere from 30 to 275 Union Army workhorses and war horses (but more likely 245 to 275) appear to have landed less than 20 miles as the crow flies from the future locations of the Abaco logging camps. This was before the pine forests that were later logged got started, at a time when Little Abaco island was almost uninhabited.
The shipwrecked horses were already accustomed to human handling, and might easily have been captured and returned to use, if anyone in the Abacos had any need for a horse.
Until the pine forest grew enough to be worth logging, however, more than 40 years later, horses appear to have been in little or no demand.
Robert Smalls, war hero
Smalls meanwhile was made pilot of the newly commissioned screw-driven ironclad gunboat USS Keokuk, launched on March 11, 1863 under Commander Alexander C. Rhind.
On April 7, 1863, in the First Battle of Charleston Harbor, her first engagement, the USS Keokuk “was compelled to run ahead of the crippled USS Nahant to avoid her in the narrow channel after Nahant’s pilot was killed and helmsman wounded by a Confederate shot striking the pilothouse,” according to a Wikipedia summary.
“This brought the USS Keokuk less than 600 yards from Fort Sumter, where she remained for half an hour receiving the undivided attention of the Confederate guns. Keokuk was struck by about ninety projectiles, many of which hit at or below her waterline. Commander Rhind reported his ship as being hit by a combination of solid shot, bolts, and possibly hot shot. As predicted by her chief engineer, her thin composite armor was completely inadequate to protect her from this onslaught and she was “completely riddled” in the words of Commander Rhind. However, she was able to withdraw under her own power and anchor out of range, thanks in part to the skills of her black pilot, Robert Smalls. Her crew kept her afloat through the night,” but the USS Keokuk sunk the next morning off Morris Island.
Robert Smalls, politician
Continues Encyclopedia Britannica, “Smalls’ bravery was rewarded with command of the Planter, which had been repaired and refloated, “later that year. He was the first African American captain of a vessel in U.S. service,” remaining at the helm of the Planter until 1866, after the U.S. Civil War ended and the Planter was decommissioned. Sold to civilian use, the Planter on July 1, 1876 sank in a storm off Cape Romain while assisting another ship that had run aground.
Smalls went on to serve nearly 20 years in the South Carolina House of Representatives, state Senate, and as a South Carolina member of the U.S. House of Representatives, “where his outstanding political action, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “was support of a bill that would have required equal accommodations for both races on interstate conveyances.”
Smalls later served 20 years as Beaufort port collector.
“In 1895 he delivered a moving speech before the South Carolina constitutional convention in a gallant but futile attempt to prevent the virtual disfranchisement of blacks,” Encyclopedia Britannica notes.
Robert Smalls & Richard Carroll
Smalls in his later years participated in many of the same campaigns as fellow South Carolina ex-slave Richard Carroll (1859-1929), who became a Baptist minister, civil rights leader, and journalist, before spending the latter part of his life as Southern regional representative for the American Humane Education Society.
Almost certainly Smalls and Carroll were friends and allies, but ANIMALS 24-7 has so far found no written documentation of their acquaintance.