The following story is based on the Wreck Report submitted by Keeper James W. Howard of the US Life-Saving Service about the wreck of the Richard S. Spofford on Thursday, Dec. 27, 1894.

(Quotations from the Wreck Report in the following story are edited for spelling and ease of reading. A full transcript, with original spelling and punctuation, follows the story.)

On December 22, 1894, the three-masted schooner, Richard S. Spofford, set sail from Boston, Massachusetts bound for Darien. Georgia. Four days later, off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Spofford encountered gale force winds and extremely rough seas. The schooner, under the command of R. S. Hawes, was struggling to remain on course as the winds continued to rage. Captain Hawes feared “loosing the mainsail” on an “offshore track” so he reduced sails and hugged the coast. It was a tragic error. In the early morning hours of December 27, the Spofford ran aground on the outer bar about 800 yards off the Ocracoke beach.  Although the Spofford was within sight of the village, she was fourteen miles from the Ocracoke Life-Saving Station at Hatteras Inlet.

Fortunately for Captain Hawes and his crew, Keeper Ferdinand G. Terrell, the newly-appointed keeper of the yet-to-be-manned Portsmouth Island Life-Saving Station, just a few miles across Ocracoke Inlet, had stepped into the station’s cupola at daybreak. He immediately spied the Spofford lying disabled with distress signals flying from the top mast.  In spite of not having a trained and seasoned crew, Keeper Terrell was successful in recruiting six local men to launch the surfboat and proceed toward Ocracoke. They arrived at the village at 11 am, and tried to recruit more volunteers to attempt a rescue. By this time the surf was “very high” and “breaking all over the schooner.”  The unequipped islanders understood the foolhardy nature of such an attempt and refused to participate.

The Spofford was manned by seven sailors in addition to the captain. Fearing that help was not forthcoming, around noon five sailors launched the schooner’s yawl boat and began rowing toward shore. The yawl almost immediately capsized, but “all got to the beach by the assistance of the citizens of the island.”

Keeper James Howard and the Life-Savers at Hatteras Inlet had been alerted that a schooner was in the breakers near the village. Howard immediately mustered his six-man crew, hitched mules to the 1000 pound “beach cart” loaded with the life-saving “apparatus” (including various sizes of hemp line, shovels, Lyle gun, projectiles, sand anchor, traveling block, and wooden crotch), and proceeded to the wreck. When they left the station at 3 pm Keeper Howard reported a “fresh gale from WSW” and a treacherous beach. Howard rode ahead on horseback and encountered Keeper Terrell who had walked about three miles from the wreck in order to meet him.

Meanwhile, the Hatteras Inlet Life-Savers were having a “laborious” time traversing the fourteen miles from the station to the wreck. In gale force winds with the sea washing up on the beach, one of the two mules eventually refused to continue. The crew persevered, pulling and pushing the heavy steel-wheeled beach cart with the aid of one exhausted mule. They did not arrive at the wreck until eight pm. Keeper Howard reported that “the night was so dark and the surf very high, breaking all over the schooner” that “in my judgement it was best to wait for daylight” to attempt the rescue. Howard proceeded to make “a large fire on the beach abreast of the vessel to encourage those on board.”  In a side note in his report, Howard asks to be excused for his “bad writing” because his “eyes are almost blind on account of the smoke from the fire on the beach.”

The sailors on the schooner had lashed themselves to the bowsprit, wrapped in the triangular jib sail, as protection against the frigid waves and howling wind.

At six o’clock the next morning Keeper Howard ordered the rescue operation to begin. The first line fired to the schooner from the bronze Lyle gun dropped across the jib boom, but it blew off before one of the sailors could grab it. The second shot was successful. A sailor used the line to haul aboard the tail block (with whip line) and secure it to one of the masts. Next, the hawser was sent out to the ship by the whip line. The sailor was able to secure the hawser above the tail block. The surfmen on shore were then able to rig and deploy the traveling block and breeches buoy (life ring with canvas pants attached).

Breeches Buoy Fully Rigged

By late morning all sailors on board the vessel had been brought to shore with the exception of the steward who had fallen from the quarter deck the day before and had died during the night. His body was left lashed to the bowsprit.

Deployment of the Breeches Buoy
Deployment of the Breeches Buoy

Keeper Terrell had remained with the crew from Hatteras Inlet throughout the rescue operation before returning to Portsmouth Island. There is no record of where the cold and exhausted sailors were taken, but when rescues were performed far from the Life-Saving Station it was typical for island volunteers to shelter sailors for several days. Keeper Howard and his Life-Savers left the scene of the wreck at 12:30 pm and arrived back at their station at 5 pm. Howard remarked in his report that the journey was “very hard” due to walking fourteen miles pulling the beach cart through a “blizzard” of a snowstorm.

Back at the station, the life-savers’ feet were so badly swollen that the men “could not get on their boots” and beach patrols were suspended that night. In his report, Keeper Howard complained that his team “could not stand the long hardships,” and requested “good horses” which would have facilitated a quicker response.

At 7:20 the next morning Keeper Howard and several of his life-savers left the station with mules pulling a surf boat, and headed back to the wreck to retrieve the body of the sailor who had died. When they arrived at the schooner, they discovered that the “citizens of the island had got him ashore and took him up to the settlement and gave him a decent burial.”

Keeper Howard stopped at his home in the village, and his wife, Zilphia, prepared dinner for him. He fed the mules and left for the station at 1 pm, arriving back at Hatteras Inlet at 5 pm. In his January 5, 1895 report, Keeper Howard remarked that he never saw Capt. Hawes after bringing him ashore, and, contrary to custom, “did not get any letter of thanks.”

An official inquiry, prompted by the death of the steward, reported that “the diligence and devotion of both the keepers and the men under their command throughout the entire occurrence are well attested. It was the first instance of a wreck in the vicinity since the appointment of Keeper Terrell, and his promptness and fertility of resources go far to prove the fitness of his selection. Keeper Howard has rendered long and satisfactory service, which is not sullied by his record in this disaster.”

Copy of handwritten remarks included with the Wreck Report (transcription below photos):

Transcript of remarks included with the Wreck Report (original spelling and grammar retained):

Dec 27 1894 Reported to me By Capt terrel Keeper Portsmouth station That there was three masted schr on Beach near ocracoke island Keeper mustered crew tuck mules apperatus left station 3 PM fresh Gail From WSW with Bad Beach and dist about 14 miles whitch made it laborous arived abrest schr 8 PM the night was so dark and the surf verry high braking all over schr so it was impsable for men to Rig up Geer as they were snug in jib for protection and only three men on board the others left schr about 12 N Before that I was notifide in the yawl Boat was capsize But all Got to Beach By the assistance of the sitteson of the island so in my Judgment that it was Best to wate for day light whitch I did making a large Fire on Beach abrest of vessel to incurage those that was on Board the vessel we all with Keeper of Portsmouth station staid on Beach all night abrest vessel you will have to excuse all bad writing that my eyes are almost bline on account of the smoke from the Fire on Beach about six AM Place apparatus shot gun six ounce cartridge line drop acrose Jib Boom Before the man could Get it it Blew of Got Redy shot 4 ounce cartridge line drop arost vessel long side the man got it Redly Hould of whip Rig up geer sent of Breehes Buoy Brought a shore the two men one Had died that night all was done that could Been done the Keeper of Portsmouth station was with us through all of the preceding left wreck 12 30 PM arived Station 5 PM through Blizard snowstorm whitch mad our Jurny verry hard sum of the men give out Rest chafe Bad feet swolan the next day the men could not Get on ther Boots could not send out in Patrols that night it is to hard for us to take care of mules Because there ought to Bee something done for us we cant stand the long Hard ships our team is not fit for the service if had good Horses in my Judgment that we could got them saved Before night

On Monday of the 30 the men got Better Keeper crew with mules surf Boat left station 7 20 AM for wreck schr to Get the dead Boddy that perish on Board on the night Dec 27 arived at schr found that the cittison of the island had Got him ashore and tuck him up to the settlement and gave him desent Burrel By order of capt of Wreck schr there could not nothing more Bee don leapt of wreck schr gave the schr up to Body of men  to wreck her stop at settlement to Get dinner and feed mules left for station one PM arrived at station 5 PM did not sea capt of Sch after braugh him ashore in breaches buoy Sold material befor [??] did not get any letter of thanks

Date of report

Jan 5 1895

James Howard Keeper



Spring greetings from Ocracoke Island!

As warmer weather approaches, we are beginning to see many familiar faces returning to the island for rest and rejuvenation.  Welcome back!

Many of you knew my father, Lawton Howard, a member of the early-morning coffee contingent on the Community Store porch, and a frequent, afternoon, behind-the-counter visitor at Village Craftsmen.  He died on March 23, at age 90, in his own home, next door to where he grew up, surrounded by family and friends.  Many people, both on-island and off-island, will miss him and his fabled good humor.

In past newsletters I have chronicled some of his history and amusing stories.  You can read these accounts by following the links below:

The Story of Lawton Howard

Amusing Stories About Lawton Howard

Lawton Howard:
Lawton Howard

After my father suffered a mild back injury several years ago he stopped driving.  My daughter, Amy, or I would take Dad for a daily ride.  Almost every day he wanted to go “down below” to the pony pen and watch the horses.  He was always interested in the health and well being of the herd.  He knew that one of the mares was pregnant and commented on this nearly every day.  On April 5, two weeks after my father died,  a new filly was born.

Ocracoke’s newest member of the pony herd:

Interest in the once-wild Banker Ponies is a long tradition in the Howard family.  My father often told me about the time in 1926 when he was 15 years old.  It was July and the annual Independence Day pony penning was in jeopardy of not happening because several of the young men were squabbling about something and no one was prepared to round up the horses.  My dad and his best friend, Ansley O’Neal, though still teenagers, decided that they were old enough to tackle this responsibility.  They mounted their ponies on July 3 and rode all the way to Hatteras Inlet (this was long before there were any paved roads on the island) where they camped out under the stars.  Early the next morning the two boys began chasing the first small herd southward, toward the village.  As they encountered each succeeding herd they forced them to join the others.  Occasionally some of the animals would swim out into Pamlico Sound and make the boys’ job much more difficult.  Finally, after a grueling day of hard riding in the blazing summertime sun Lawton and Ansley rode proudly into the village behind several hundred stampeding Outer Banks ponies.  It was a proud day for them both, and a fond memory for my father until the day he died.

After the National Park Service purchased the majority of Ocracoke Island in the 1950’s the herd was reduced to a more manageable size and eventually confined to a penned area in the middle of the island.  I remember helping my Uncle Marvin build the first pony pen in the late 1950’s.  Captain Marvin was a native O’cocker who spent many years away from home sailing throughout the world, and then retired in the early 1950’s back home to Ocracoke.  He is well known on the island as a champion of young people and scoutmaster of the renowned Mounted Boy Scout troop.  He wrote the following article, “Ocracoke Horsemen,”  which is reprinted from “The Story of Ocracoke Island.”

Captain Marvin Howard, c. 1960 astride his pony, “Lady:”
Marvin and Lady

“Ocracoke Horsemen,” by Captain Marvin Howard:

We hear a lot about the fishermen of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but few stories deal with the equestrians of the Outer Banks.  Surely some of them deserve to be proclaimed as among the world’s best for their daring feats on horse-penning occasions.  This is particularly true of the old days when as many as two-hundred ponies were penned on Ocracoke Island alone.

There have been wild horses roaming the Outer Banks since the landing of the Sir Walter Raleigh adventurers.  None of these wild horses were ever large except the Pea Island pony which came from the original quarter-bred horse.  (The quarter-bred horse, which has been developed as the finest cow-pony ever known, originally came from the Carolinas where they were bred for the quarter-mile race.)  However, the ponies of the Outer Banks did vary in weight from five hundred to eight hundred pounds.  They lived on the range the year round as wild as deer or wild horses can ever be.  For sustenance they had only the salt grass, the boughs of live oak and red cedar, and when the winters were severe, they dug in the sand hills with their hoofs to get the succulent roots of the sea oats.  These ponies no doubt had strains of Arab steed for in numbers of them there was untold beauty in color and build.  They were fleet of feet, hardy, well lined, and full of muscle.  They made fine saddle horses when properly trained.  In recent times, two Ocracoke horsemen stand out.  One was Homer Howard, the other was Monroe Bragg.

Homer Howard, (Lawton’s & Marvin’s father) c. 1942, aged 74:

Homer Howard

Homer Howard with his Coast Guard Horse, 1912
Homer Howard and Horse

There are many people on Ocracoke who can recall their daring feats.  People who have seen jockeys in America and England and have been to numerous horse-shows, carnivals, circuses, fat-stock shows, and rodeos in California, Texas and Mexico say that only on Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of North Carolina does the catching of wild horses with bare hands take place.

Captain Jim Howard was keeper of Hatteras Inlet Life Saving Station for a good many years.

Captain James W. Howard, (Homer’s father) c. 1888, aged 49:
James Howard

He owned quite a few cattle and wild ponies on Ocracoke.  Jim bought a two-year old Arabian horse from somewhere on the mainland.  His son, Homer Howard, broke and trained this horse for running the wild cattle and penning the wild ponies.  His name was “White Dandy,” though he was mottled with gray.

James Howard astride his horse, White Dandy, c. 1888
James Howard and White Dandy

On “White Dandy” Homer on many occasions started at the north end of the island in the cool of the morning, driving the herd of wild ponies south. He rode merrily along across Tar-Hole Plains.  There he would come upon a second herd of ponies headed by “Old Wildy,” a long, rangy stallion.  This herd, too, he would start driving southward.  The third herd he encountered at Scraggly Cedars, then the Great Swash.  After passing Great Swash he came to Knoll Cedars where the sheep pen used to be, and from there on southward the driving got touchy and more strenuous for the herds from the north were reluctant to go farther south and would try to cut through the thickets or sand hills back northward.

There were about two-hundred wild ponies in those days. They had to be driven over sand hills, through bogs, across creeks, through marshes, and through woodland thickets of myrtle, cedar, oak and yaupon. At about ten o’clock in the morning of pony-penning day, the horses could be seen spread out on the plains around “First Hammock Hills,” just north of Ocracoke Village. Each little band was headed by a tough and stringy stallion. They ran hither and thither, their manes and tails flying, heads held high, ears pointed forward, and necks arched to meet a foe. And whenever the stallions met, they did battle-biting, kicking, pawing — until the rider closed in. Then, they veered off from each other, returning to their herds. It was no easy task to drive these wild ponies sixteen miles southward to the corral in Ocracoke Village.

Ocracoke boys perched in a big live oak tree with one limb at least thirty feet long to get the first view of the ponies as they were driven down the sandy road to Cockle Creek, the harbor. There were no docks in those days; the ponies were herded along the shore and in the shallow water to the corral by people on shore and in boats. After all the horses were penned and the bars closed, the people went home, ate dinner, and then returned for the branding and selling of the stock.

There were buyers from the mainland who wanted the ponies for saddle horses or for farm use.  As soon as people began to climb the corral fence, a general movement among the stallions started.  Hoofs began to fly, and teeth snap, with much squealing and snorting.  Then, suddenly someone on the fence would yell “Homer’s caught the motley roan over there.”

To catch a wild stallion with nothing but bare hands took wit, agility, strength and stamina. Homer Howard would walk quietly through the mares, slapping them on the rump, working his way between them slowly, gradually — getting closer and closer to a great stallion — crouching panther-like, ready, alert — and in a flash he was astride the stallion, holding its mane with his left hand, throwing his elbow over the horse’s withers, hooking his knee behind the elbow of the horse’s front leg, reaching out with his right hand to catch the horse’s lower face just above the nostrils, clamping down tight, and sticking there with the tenacity of a bulldog. The stallion would rear, pitch, squeal, snort, paw the air for thirty of forty minutes, but finally, out of wind, tired, and afraid, he stopped his violent struggling. Slowly the horseman eased his grip; immediately, the stallion lunged and reared. Only after several attempts did the horse admit his defeat. “Old Widdie”, “Guthrie Sam”, and “Rainbow” and others were truly great stallions and had the spunk and grit to put up terrible battles. Their tusks, or cutting teeth, were long from age and could be used to cut and slash, and their forefeet and rear hoofs held a wicked kick.

They used mostly McClellan saddles in those days, never western. Here again, Homer Howard was a master horseman, as he crawled astride and called for the blindfold to be snatched off.  Then with a mighty heave the wild horse began to buck or run or sun-fish — backing, twisting, turning, rearing — coming to a full stop with head down, stiffened legs or standing on his hind feet, groaning in every nerve, his body sweat-soaked from his efforts, nostrils extended, expanding and contracting like a bellows.  But finally he was out-mastered by the victorious horseman.

On your next stop to visit the Ocracoke pony pen try to imagine these stories of outstanding horsemanship, Fourth of July Pony Pennings, and the long history of the Outer Banks ponies.  And be sure to look for the new filly.

Until next time, our best to you all from

Philip and the entire staff at Village Craftsmen