They're as wild and rugged as the island they inhabit. Abandoned by Spanish settlers more than 500 years ago, according to local lore, about 160 feral horses today roam freely on Cumberland Island, part of Georgia's Golden Isles, just north of Amelia Island, Florida, and south of Jekyll Island, Georgia.
Cumberland Island encompasses 36,000 acres, comprising Atlantic beaches, coastal wetlands, salt marshes on the Cumberland Sound and inland forests filled with live oaks and palmettos.
All of the horses found here are wild and fend for themselves. "These horses function just like a population of white-tail deer," says Doug Hoffman, wildlife biologist for the Cumberland Island National Seashore, which holds the reins to the island. "They are affected by droughts, wet years, storms, freak accidents ... just any mortality factor you would expect a population of wild animals to be impacted by. But our counts show they are very, very stable in numbers."
Hoffman estimates around 10-13 percent of the population are juveniles, which account for about 18 1-year-olds. Hoffman says the horses have plenty to eat on the island, and their diet is more similar to deer than domestic horses. The Cumberland Island horses live off sea oats, Spanish moss, acorns and native grasses. Of the 160 or so horses, there is a mix of breeds and a range of colors, from white to tan and from bay, or brown, to almost black.
"They are mostly related to common breeds of domestic horses like Tennessee Walkers and Paso Finos," says Hoffman.
Some say Ponce de Leon's fleet is the origin of these feral horses, but others dispute they were brought over to the island a few centuries later. Paso Finos date back to the horses imported from Spain, and Tennessee Walkers date back to Southern plantation owners. "Deer are indigenous to barrier islands, but the horses are not," explains Hoffman. "They were transported by man if they got to an island somewhere."
Cumberland Island has had a long history of notable visitors and residents. Georgia's founder, James Oglethorpe, came to the island in 1736 where he built several forts and a hunting lodge he called Dungeness. (Oglethorpe later claimed Amelia Island for England in 1763 and named it after Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II.)
Revolutionary War Gen. Nathanael Greene purchased land on Cumberland Island in 1783, and after he died, his widow, Catherine, built her own Dungeness, which later burned. Then in the late 1800s came the Carnegies, who once owned 90 percent of the island. Lucy and Thomas Carnegie, brother of the steel magnate, built a grand Dungeness Mansion in 1886. In 1900, the couple built another home, Greyfield, for their daughter, Margaret, which is an inn today.
The Greyfield Inn, which offers 16 rooms along with a dining room, was the reception site of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessett's secret wedding in 1996. Other than the inn and the First African Baptist Church, most of the formerly magnifient buildings remain in shambles. The grassy area next to the Dungeness ruins is a popular spot for grazing horses.
Cumberland Island only can be accessed by boat, and driving is not allowed. Visitors come to Cumberland Island either by private boat or by ferry from St. Mary's, Georgia. The number of visitors to the island is limited to a few hundred per day, so reservations are required for the Cumberland Queen ferry. (912.882.4335)
Plan to wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a backpack for snacks, water and supplies—and you'll have to take all your trash back with you. Camping is also available on the island through the National Park Service.
Visitors staying in Jacksonville and Amelia Island may opt for a boat tour of the island, which operates daily out of Fernandina Beach, Florida. The Amelia River Cruise does not stop on the island, but passengers will get an overview of its rich history and see wildlife, including the famous horses. Prices are $28 for adults and $22 for children.