Point of view

A horse of an American color

June 6, 2010 

'Mixed feelings" probably best describes our reaction to the news that both houses of the General Assembly have found time in their busy schedules to designate the wild horses of our community as the official state horse. You can't help but be happy for our shaggy neighbors who toil from dawn to dusk to make a living from the dunes and marsh grasses of Shackleford Banks and Carrot Island. It's not that they lack recognition; they are probably the most thoroughly photographed animals in the state. Tourists flock here just to see them. And those of us whose good fortune it is to live next door never tire of watching the harems and bachelor bands across Taylor's Creek from town.

But why on earth are these hardy North Carolinians being commemorated as "Spanish Mustangs"? They are about as Spanish as the potatoes with your Big Mac are French.

In both cases, there is a germ of truth in the appellation. But in both cases, the name belies the fundamental Americanness of the object.

Research has confirmed that the horses of Shackleford, and their cousins up the beach at Ocracoke and Corolla, share a genetic trait with Spanish mustangs of four centuries ago. Three North American horse populations have this trait: Besides our Banker ponies, it is found in the Paso Finos of Puerto Rico and mustangs in the Pryor Mountain Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

But the important point is that these horses are not Spanish. After living on North Carolina's barrier islands three or four centuries, during which they shared the sand much of the time with American human homesteaders and fishermen and no doubt interbred with mainland horses, today's Banker ponies are uniquely American animals. Their like will not be found in Spain or anywhere else.

The wild horses of our barrier islands richly deserve to be the official state horse, but not because of their attenuated Spanish genes. They deserve it because they are Tar Heel originals! They are part of a coastal culture that, while its speech and habits may occasionally betray 16th century British roots, is also unique to America and our state.

Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge and even celebrate people and things that are purely American? You don't have to fall into the pit of xenophobia to be comfortable with the idea that some aspects of American life - good and bad - are sui generis, uniquely ours. Our language, our art, our music and even our Constitution and laws are often amalgams incorporating elements from various cultures. But the end product is purely American, unlike anything else in the world. People in other countries are very much aware of this, even as they love to emulate some of the best (but more often the worst) aspects of American culture.

We often have European visitors to Beaufort who love the horses, not because they are Spanish but because they are genuine North Carolinian.

The argument over immigration that has been building for two or three decades too often is reduced to polar extremes. It used to be a debate between the "melting pot" people and the "tossed salad" faction, but the poles have sharpened to the point that it sometimes sounds like xenophobia versus self-loathing. I don't intend to take the lid off that can of worms now but simply to point out that the American melting pot is not only a historical reality, but also the forge that produces what is singular - and often best - about America.

I've spent considerable time and energy trying to discover who brought my French surname to America more than two centuries ago. I do this not out of any deep longing to reconnect with cultural roots but just out of curiosity. I'm no more French than the ponies two blocks away are Spanish. Still, I love the folklore surrounding their historical origins, and I'd like a good story of my own.

A good, concise source of information about these horses is found, incidentally, in "Beaufort-By-The-Sea: Journey Back In Time" by Rick and Marcie Carroll. Candor requires me to say that the section on the horses was written by Allison Blount DuBuisson, a close relative. Allison also has some Spaniards in her family tree, but she's all Tar Heel, born and raised.

David DuBuisson is a retired newspaper editor who lives in Beaufort.

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