Even though it’s Assateague Island that has the ponies, it’s Chincoteague Island that’s famous. Ever since Marguerite Henry’s beloved children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, made its debut, the island of Chincoteague has had a renown that’s completely disproportional to its size.
The name Chincoteague (sheen-koh-teeg) comes from that same group of Algonquin Native Americans who named Assateague Island. The original name was Gingoteague, which in their language meant something like “beautiful land across the water,” again referring to the water running between the two islands. When Europeans got their hands on it, the name changed to Chincoteague, and was codified as such in 1943 when it was officially listed by the United States Board on Geographical Names.
Names aside, the ponies on Assateague probably don’t spend too much time admiring the beautiful land across the water. In fact, they probably don’t like it all that much.
In the early 20th century, it became apparent that someone had to manage the herd on Assateague. The size of the herd was getting to be too much for the harsh environment on the island to support, and if any of the ponies were going to survive, the herd had to be culled. And someone had to be responsible for that culling.
Enter the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. To this day, the Volunteer Fire Department owns the herd on Assateague, and remain responsible for culling the herd and maintaining a reasonable number of ponies on the island. The most humane way to do that is to move young ponies, who can still learn how to live with humans (you can’t teach an old pony new tricks, after all), to a new home. The way that’s done is the Pony Penning.
Beginning in 1925, the Volunteer Fire Department started rounding up the ponies every summer. They gather the ponies from all over Assateague and hold them in a single massive pen, where a vet comes to check them all out and make sure they’re healthy. The ponies are then herded to Chincoteague.
But wait! Says you. There’s water between the islands!
There is indeed. The famous Pony Swim happens twice a year: once on the ponies’ way to Chincoteague, and once a few days later on their way back to Assateague. The whole affair is very raucous, by all accounts. Spectators come from all over to watch, and the path is lined by people in boats and kayaks, as well as on foot on the island. The ponies swim across a narrow strip of water, and in about 3 minutes the whole herd has moved from one island to the other. That’s 3 whole minutes of snorting, stamping, splashing, and general chaos as the ponies try to figure out what the heck is going on and get out of the water again.
Once they’re on dry land again, the ponies are rounded up in another pen, and the auction begins. Young foals are auctioned off to good homes, and the proceeds go to the Fire Department and their efforts in maintaining the herd (which isn’t as hands-ff as it sounds, by the by – they’re responsible for calling the vet when a pony falls ill, digging watering holes for the ponies, providing food for the ponies in lean times, and mending fences on the island so pesky tourists don’t get too close). A few of the foals are kept in order to maintain the herd, and the others go to live with other horsies.
Once all that is done, the ponies, sans the little ones auctioned off, return to Assateague in the same way they left it: swimming.
While the Pony Penning and Misty of Chincoteague, which it inspired, are Chincoteague’s claim to fame, it has a vibrant culture completely apart from the horses. The downtown area has tons of little boutiques with art, clothes, and antiques. The main street is home to a large park, which serves as the venue for such public events as Shakespeare in the Park (we got to see a production of As You Like It while we were there, which was incredible, especially considering it was a free show in a park!). And then there’s the seafood. So much seafood – crab shacks and fishmongers everywhere!
For a small island, Chincoteague has a lot to offer – as well you would expect from the beautiful land across the water.