All Things Maine
All Things Maine

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Wild Horses of Maine

The following paper—"Wild Horses of Maine"—by Dr. John Johnston of Middletown, Connecticut, was read before the Maine Historical Society on Jan. 24, 1861, and printed in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register of April 1870 [24:106].
The fact that a race of wild horses formerly existed in the forests near the sea coasts in some parts of the state of Maine, seems not to have attracted the attention of writers, and unless soon put on the record will be lost to history. Mr. Sewall, in his "Ancient Dominions of Maine," page 227, does indeed speak of a place on Hunnewell's Point, on the Kennebec, where the inhabitants were accustomed to catch horses that had "gone wild in the neighboring marshes in the ancient time"; but it is said the people of the neighborhood supposed they were horses brought here by the ancestors of the present inhabitants. It may be, however, that they had an earlier origin, as Mr. Sewall's language implies.

The old people still living in the town of Bristol, natives of the place, are familiar with the fact that a race of wild horses roamed in the forests there, even as late as the latter part of the last century. Probably they were found also in adjacent towns; but of this I have no evidence except the extract from Mr. Sewall given above.

Being in Bristol a few months ago, I made inquiry on this subject of some of the old people, and found that my own recollections of conversations there many years ago, when but a youth myself, were fully confirmed. A man now about seventy years of age, whom I have known from my childhood, informed me that his father had often told him of the wild horses, and described the methods resorted to, to catch them. This was a common practice; and there were certain places to which they were accustomed to drive them, in order to secure them readily. One of these places, which my informant mentioned, is a point of land extending a little distance into the sea, on which the wild animals could be easily driven from a distance of several miles. In the spring season it was not safe for persons to ride mares in places where wild horses resorted. Sometimes these horses did great damage to the farmers by breaking into their fields and destroying their crops, and they were then shot down without mercy. They were occasionally seen, so my informant thought, until near the close of the last century.

An old lady of the same neighborhood, who died in April, 1860, at the age of 86, was inquired of concerning the wild horses only a few months before her death, and said that in her childhood she often saw them. She particularly remembered one time, when she saw more than a dozen, feeding together in a place which she mentioned, near her father's residence. This was when she was about fifteen years of age, or in the year 1789. The place where she saw the horses was a spot of ground that had been cultivated, and afforded much better feed than could be found elsewhere in the vicinity.

I have referred above to my own recollections of remarks on this subject, made by the old people many years ago, when I was myself but a youth. I distinctly remember several instances in which the wild horses of the neighborood were alluded to in conversation, by the old men then living there. These animals were spoken of as well known to everybody. There was then in the vicinity a tract of many acres of land covered mostly by a growth of small, craggy oaks, the peculiar character of which they said was occasioned by the wild horses feeding upon their branches many years before, in the winter seasons, when they could not have access to the surface because of the deep snow. My impression also is that the horses were considered as the descendants of horses left there by the early settlers, who were driven off by the French and Indians, near the close of the seventeenth century. The fort at Pemaquid was then destroyed and the settlement entirely broken up. The whole region was deserted, and for more than a quarter of a century not a single settler returned, and the place was scarcely known except to the fishermen who anually resorted there, at the proper season, for the purpose of taking and curing their fish.

The Indians were fond of horse-flesh, especially that of young colts, and occasionally killed them for food; but at this time no tribe resided permanently in that region, and the horses probably had ample time to increase.

Instances of cattle and horses existing in a wild state are not uncommon in other countries, but there might be a doubt whether they could endure, unprotected, the long and severe winters of the state of Maine. We find, however, that both cattle and horses do live in a wild state, even farther to the north. An interesting case of the kind is described in the Register, Vol. xiii. p. 317 (Oct. 1859). It seems that cattle were generously placed on the Isle of Sable, on the coast of Nova Scotia, at an early period, for the express purpose of supplying food for mariners who might be shipwrecked there. They increased for many years, but after about a century were finally exterminated by unprincipled men, who came to hunt them merely for their hides and tallow!

The cattle were succeeded by a race of horses, the numbers of which rapidly increased, and in 1829 it was estimated that the whole number on the island in a wild state exceeded three hundred.
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