Writing An Independent Spirit: The Tale of Betsy Dowdy and Black Bess
I first learned the story of Betsy Dowdy when I was doing research for an article about the Corolla Wild Horses. I read about this young girl who, like Paul Revere, rode to warn, “the British are coming” in Daniel Barefoot’s book, Touring the Backroads of North Carolina’s Upper Coast.
I liked this story because it was about one of North Carolina’s many heroic women, a gutsy young woman who passionate about horses. Horses are a wonderful equalizer for girls—they give them strength, speed, and stamina; they make them taller than grownups. I see it all the time as a riding instructor—little girls who may or may not be particularly athletic gaining confidence on a horse. I want girls to know they can do anything they want to do, and if they feel passionate about something they should follow their hearts.
My connection to the Outer Banks is from having a mother who loved to fish. We lived near the coast in Plymouth, about 80 miles inland from Manteo; and made frequent fishing trips to the beach. My other connection has to do with horses. I have worked in the horse industry for over 30 years. I became interested in our Banker Ponies and wrote some articles about them. I don’t know that I have any connections to the Revolutionary War—I’m, not THAT old.
Today’s girls and boys still love horses, but most don’t have the freedom to roam and ride across country like Betsy did. As a parent I would be as disturbed as Mrs. Dowdy was in my book to think my daughter was off doing those reckless and dangerous things.
In my research at the state archives I found documentation that a Josiah O’Dowdy lived on Currituck Banks in the 1700s. He had a daughter named Betsy. We can only guess if she was the Betsy in the legend. I think most legends are based on true occurrences, although some details get changed around in the telling and retelling.
It is the desire of most teenagers to be independent. Through personal experience they learn freedom comes with a price. Even Betsy knew that before she could go ride on the beach the chores had to be done. On a larger scale she nearly paid with her own life for the freedom to keep her home and the ponies on the Currituck Banks. But, Betsy didn’t really concern herself with the revolution until it hit close to home and endangered what she held dear. I am afraid many of us are like that; we live in our own little worlds without worrying too much about what goes on somewhere else. Then we are shocked when we are threatened personally.
I wrote the book in first person, from Betsy’s view point because her name and the horse’s name were so similar that I needed to find a way to avoid the repetition. I wanted to show the mother-daughter conflict, that I was sure my readers would relate to. Mrs. Dowdy’s journal entries seemed the best way to do it. I love reading books written in that format. It’s like being naughty and reading someone’s diary. I hoped it would show readers how parents worry and scold, but all the while the motive is their love for their children.
The Banker ponies have survived for over FOUR centuries, two since Betsy’s story. The thing we can learn from Black Bess is that the horses are an important part of not just North Carolina’s heritage, but also our country’s heritage. They are worth preserving to remind us of our history. Sixty years ago the horses on the Outer Banks numbered in the thousands, now there are only about three hundred left. In the last half a century they have succumbed to disease, starvation, collisions with vehicles and, inconceivably, some horses have been shot and killed by “vandals.” If it were not by the efforts of a few citizens who love the horses like Betsy did, they would be all gone by now. So, what I hope can be learned from Black Bess is that these horses are worth saving; and what can be learned from Betsy is that one person can make a difference.