Betsy Dowdy's Ride

5 min

The black banker pony would canter down the beach with Betsy hanging onto her mane while the mare's long black tail floated in the breeze behind them like a pirate flag. Truth be told, some folks on the Outer Banks of North Carolina were pirates.

Land pirates would sometimes hang a lantern from the neck of a hobbled nag so that the light bobbed like a ship's lantern in the waves as the horse limped along the ridge of a sand dune. Then on stormy nights a ship might approach too close to shore thinking that the bobbing light was another ship. The practice had been common enough that one prominent dune was named Nags Head.

Betsy's father was a wrecker too, but he was content to wait for the natural disasters that had earned the coast of North Carolina the nickname of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Indeed, Joseph Dowdy was a deeply religious man to whom saving lives was more important than salvaging cargo when storms drove ships up on the shore. Yet as people say, he had done well by doing good, and he was comfortably wealthy from salvaging wrecks. His wealth was invested in a sizable holding of cattle and Banker Ponies.

Even the Banker Ponies came from shipwrecks. Centuries before, their ancestors had swum ashore from the wrecks of Spanish ships. The hardiness of Spanish Stallions ensured their survival on the Outer Banks, and then nature culled the weak until Banker Ponies emerged as tough little horses.

Betsy treasured her Banker Pony as one of the few pleasures in her life on the lonely island. She rode with only a hackamore and a blanket fastened by a rope around the body of the little mare. Sometimes the pair would wade and swim across the Currituck Sound to Church's Island to visit friends. The sound was shallow and Banker Ponies were used to swimming across the few deep holes.

December of 1775 brought grim news to Betsy's world. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, had been driven from the capital at Williamsburg, but he had gone only as far as Norfolk. His British troops had nearly stripped the surrounding countryside bare of food, so he had threatened to invade North Carolina to seize supplies.

One night in early December, Sammy Jarvis, a neighbor, stopped by the Dowdy home to jaw 'bout news that he had picked up while visiting the mainland. He had heard tell that the British were git'en ready to come south to steal everything that won't nailed down.

Betsy eavesdropped as Jarvis and her father talked about the threat to their loved ones, property and livestock. Continental soldiers planned to make a stand at Great Bridge, but most folks thought that there were too few patriot soldiers to hold back the British for long. The prompt arrival of the Perquimans Militia seemed the only hope, but they were over fifty miles away as the crow flies.

Quietly Betsy pulled on a warm cloak and slipped out of the house. By the fence, she called to her pony in a low voice. The mare softly nickered and walked over to see if she had brought any treats. As Betsy climbed over the fence, the pony rubbed her head against her.

"Not now," Betsy told the mare as she slipped the hackamore over the horse's nose, "we've got to fetch General Skinner and the Perquimans Militia."

The banker pony touched Betsy’s back as the girl spread the wool blanket over the horse's back. Then the pony nipped the blanket and tried to pull it off, but instead of playing with her, Betsy scolded her, "No, we don't have time to play now. The Red Coats are comin' to steal everything they can tote off."

Betsy impatiently rapped the filly's nose and pulled the blanket back in place so she could tie it down with a piece of rope. When Black Bess was ready to be ridden, Betsy impulsively threw her arms around the little pony's neck and promised, "They ain't gonna get you girl 'cause we'll bring back the Militia to stop the invasion."

She slid poles out to open the gate, led Black Bess through the gap in the fence, and then slid the poles back to close the gate. Quietly she led the pony back over to the side of the fence so that she could use the rails as a mounting block. Then they silently walked to the sound shore. Once they reached the soft sand, they cantered along the beach until they were directly across from Church's Island. There the pony willingly waded out, although the water felt icy around Betsy's legs.

When they reached the mainland shore, Betsy slid off the horse's back to wring water from her clothes. Black Bess spread her legs, lowered her head, and vigorously shook all over, showering Betsy with the cold water. Then the little mare began to shiver, and so did the girl.

Betsy knew that the only way to get warm was to keep moving. She mounted again and headed south following a dim, dirt track. Luckily, the sky was clear so that the moon lighted her way. The little pony quickly warmed up from the effort until she felt like a furnace under Betsy. Her thick wool cloak trapped the warmth around her body until the teenager stopped shivering too. Red wolves, black bears and panthers infested the forests, but she hoped that the sound of the pony’s hooves would scare them away.

Hours later, the track joined another path, and then another, until she was cantering down the dirt road toward Lamb’s Ferry over the Pasquotank River, nearly thirty miles from home. There were no lights at the ferryman's house, so Betsy pounded on the door.

Then she heard a voice over her head demanding, "What in thunder is going on! Don't you know it's past midnight? Go sleep in the barn 'till morning."

Betsy stepped back from under the porch so that she could see the man's head sticking out of the second story window. "I've just got to get 'cross tonight to fetch the Perquimans Militia 'cause the Red Coats are fix'n to march south!"

"What's that? The Regulars are coming?"

"Yes! Governor Dunmore is coming with his soldiers," she yelled back. "You’ve got to carry us 'cross the river so I can fetch General Skinner."

The ferryman mumbled to himself, and then turned to talk to someone inside the house. While impatiently waiting for him, Betsy dipped a bucket of water from the barrel by the corner of the house and held the bucket for Black Bess to drink. In a few minutes, the ferryman stepped out of his house with his boots still unlaced and pulling his suspenders over his shoulders.

"Come on Missy," he said while leading the way down to the ferry. The little horse was nervous on the ramp of the unsteady boat, but a slap across her rear got her to walk aboard. The ferryman pushed off from the shore with a long oar and then rowed the squarish, flat-bottomed ferryboat across the river.

Several hours later, the horse and rider reached the Perquimans River. The road ran along the river for a short distance to the floating bridge at Hertford. After hesitating at first, the mare pounded across the pontoon bridge at a fast trot as if to finish the scary experience in a hurry. Following the directions given to her earlier by the ferryman, Betsy then turned Black Bess's nose south towards General Skinner's home.

Near sunrise, Betsy rode her tired mare through the gate of the Skinner Plantation where her news turned the household into a beehive of activity. They were amazed that she had ridden over fifty miles in a single night. Servants led Black Bess away to a well-deserved rubdown and rest, while the Skinner's daughters took Betsy upstairs to dry her clothes and eat breakfast. Meanwhile she could hear messengers pounding off on horseback to alert the militia soldiers.

The Perquimans Militia arrived two days after the Battle of Great Bridge, during which the Continentals had managed to hold the British back by fighting from trenches at the foot of the bridge. But the reinforcements were warmly welcomed because then the British wouldn’t dare try again to cross the bridge, and the Patriots even had enough soldiers to run the Red Coats out of Norfolk onto waiting ships.


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