How Misty Made Chincoteague Horses Famous

by Dana Kester-McCabe

This is the story behind the beloved children's book Misty of Chincoteague.

In 1835 Thompson Holmes of Pharsalia, Virginia wrote a long rambling letter to the editor of a publication called the Farmers' Register. It was about raising horses in his part of the country. He made a less than positive comparison between our Chincoteague pony and the celebrated Shetland pony. He was of course referring to the various herds of wild horses that lived on the barrier islands. But he gave particular flattery to the annual tradition of pony penning fairs that were held on Chincoteague. He wrote nostalgically of such events thirty years earlier and how those of 1835 could not possibly compare to what he called their "ancient glory."

These festivals were held annually in June at various barrier islands on the Atlantic coast of Maryland and Virginia. As Mr. Holmes describes them they were great spectacles which attracted just about everyone living in a fifty mile radius. The crowds came to see the horses rounded up by the saltwater cowboys on the island and brought to town on barges to be sold. There was food, music, and dancing. According to Mr. Holmes it was a big attraction for women who came intent on romance. Holmes says that there is no way to adequately describe the excitement of the scene.

The festival as we know it now began in 1925. The annual event probably would have continued to be just a charming country fair attended mostly by nearby residents except that it attracted horse lovers like writer Marguerite Henry who came from as far away as Milwaukee to visit Chincoteague.

Marguerite had suffered from rheumatic fever as a child which left her bedridden for six years. Reading and writing about animals became her passion. When Marguerite was eleven she sold her first story to a magazine for $12. This set her on the path of becoming a renowned children's author known mostly for books about horses and for her collaboration with illustrator Wesley Dennis. After her own experience on the island, Marguerite was inspired to write the iconic children's novel "Misty of Chincoteague."

For those of you who need reminding - or for those who never had the opportunity as a youngster to read this charming book - Misty of Chincoteague is the story of a young brother and sister who want to buy and keep their own Chincoteague pony. The story is based in part on the Beebe family who lived on the island and raised horses there.

While vacationing Marguerite Henry met and fell in love with their foal named Misty, a pinto with a white patch on her side that looked like a map of the United States. She wanted to buy the horse and write a book about it. The Beebe's took some convincing and only agreed to the sale if Marguerite would promise to include their grand children in the story. Which, she did.

Misty and her parents Pied Piper and Phantom and were not actually part of the famous wild herd though they were descendents of it. The author begins her book with a disclaimer to cover such things writing that similar incidents to the story "all happened at one time or another on the little island of Chincoteague." The book's great success led her to write three more following the story of Misty and other Chincoteague ponies.

The book was made into a move which was filmed on location in Chincoteague with local children acting the parts. It was released to the theater going public in 1961. Life magazine did a photo spread and the film got a lot of attention. The sweet quiet little film is a slice of Americana. It is beloved by many as a piece of nostalgia, but critics at the time were less than kind calling it bland. None the less the island premier was a big deal for locals. Misty was brought back for a visit and allowed her hoof prints to be immortalized in concrete outside the Roxy Movie Theater. She and members of the Beebe family led a parade down the main street. Misty then became a bona fide tourism sensation with all sorts of trinkets now sold in her honor and her full sized statue gracing the town's Robert Reed Waterfront Park.

Misty lived with Marguerite Henry and her husband in Illinois traveling around the country to delight children and promote the books. In 1957 she came home to be bred with other Chincoteague stock to have her own foals. She died in 1972 where she started out, on the Beebe Ranch. For many years you could see the stuffed remains of Misty and her foal Stormy there. They were last displayed at the Chincoteague Museum which still hosts an elder hostel course on the story of Misty and other Chincoteague ponies. Marguerite Henry died at the age of 95 in 1997. Just a month earlier, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Misty's publication Simon & Schuster reissued a boxed set of the book series, and Marguerite's illustrated diary of her time with Misty.

In 2015 people from around the world mourned the passing of a chestnut stallion with a blond mane and tail, named Surfer Dude, died. He had been a favorite of visitors to Chincoteague and was probably the most well know Chincoteague pony since Misty.

The Chincoteague Pony became an official registered breed in 1994. Naming rights are auctioned off each year for those foals that remain on the island every with proceeds going to their care. This happens online for the Maryland herd and at the annual pony penning festival for those in Virginia.

Visit this story to learn more about Assateague's Wild Horses.


Museum of Chincoteague

Misty of Chincoteague Foundation

Chincoteague Ponies By Name

Life Magazine - May 26, 1961
A Tiny Horse Opera For Youngsters

Misty of Chincoteague - Wikipedia

Marguerite Henry Books: Once More Out of the Gate

Marguerite Henry

The Colors of Chincoteague Horses

Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands
By Brooks M. Barnes, Barry R. Truitt, William W. Warner
University Press of Virginia (1997)