Vanishing Culture

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ast-image-7Where did all the donkey carts go?
By Dr. Neal Hitch, Director, Turks & Caicos National Museum
Photos Courtesy Turks & Caicos National Museum Collection

Much of the history of the Turks & Caicos Islands is unrecorded. It is mix of oral history and hearsay. The mission of the National Museum has been to put facts behind stories and record what is really known. TCI Director of Culture, David Bowen, said recently that people don’t believe stories until they are written down.
In a way, this is history. The process of recording and writing stories and information preserves some of what is being lost. The articles in the Astrolabe become the published account of much of this effort, but this work happens in many other forms as well. In the last few weeks, the long awaited children’s book Where is Simon, Sandy? was released. This published account of an old Grand Turk folk tale is another way that the museum records history. The publication of this book has made me stop and wonder — I still see donkeys everywhere on Grand Turk, but where have all the donkey carts gone?

Why donkeys? Of all the animals that roam around the cities and towns that most people live in, why are there donkeys running all over Grand Turk? This is a question often asked by visitors.
When I first came to the Turks & Caicos, I heard that the donkeys were brought to Grand Turk by the Bermudians in the 15th century. Possibly, they have been residents of Grand Turk longer than people. I have also heard that the earliest structures on Grand Turk — North Wells and South Wells — were built on the island so that animals left here during the off season would have fresh water.
It was a common practice in the 1500s and 1600s for sailors to leave animals on islands throughout the Caribbean. This provided a source of fresh meat during long voyages and became a source for draft animals when various islands were settled. It is assumed that the donkeys on Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos were used by Bermudians when they came to rake salt seasonally. The animals would have been used to haul salt from the salinas to small boats that would take the salt to waiting ships. Then, they would have been left to forage on their own until needed during the next salt raking season.
This early history is not really known. H.E. Sadler, in his work on the history of the Turks & Caicos Islands, records the first ordinance concerning roaming cattle in 1860. The first ordinance concerning roaming donkeys, however, was in the 1780s.

New source of facts
During the summer of 2008, the museum received a new archival collection from Mary Wood, which included a memorandum of personal accounts. This booklet was transcribed by Mary-Win O’Brien, who volunteered to complete the work while on Grand Turk during a week-long dive vacation. This small account book, possibly written by William R. Tatem, included a “Memo of Mules, Horses, and Asses Received,” and a “Memo of Cart Axles bought from 1867 when I first began to Work and Buy Pond.” These are important sources of information. They are part of the written history of donkeys and carts in the Turks Islands. And they provide a lot of new information. Some of this information is hard to interpret, some is difficult to read, but seeing the real history is very interesting.

1864 Memo of Mules, Horses & Asses Received

I bought my first mule & cart of one G. L. Taylor about 10 year old for 160.00
It died after 1866. Gail was cauled Ellin

1868 I bought the 2nd mule Dunham & Outham. She was cauled Ellin (2nd) for 120.00
it was about 6 year and She grew to be the finest mule on the cay. A Jamaican and
on the writing of this 17 January 1893 She is still alive and good.

1865 I bought a 3rd mule of Hinson. Jamaican cauled Mary Jeni an got Sick
and died 2 years after. Cost 120.00

1869 I bought 4th mule of R. W. Darrell cauled Billie for 190.00
He on the 17 January /93 is still good & Steales of J. Watkin & other peoples
corn and good grass of which I have to pay for

1894 Poor Billie Died in Jones Yard & was tossed in the Sea at a cost of 37 cents 590.00

1869 Memo of Mules [continued from above on next page] 590.00
I bought a Mt. Bede (South Am) mule of H. G. Arthur cauled the “W Roughly”
that mule after the Schooner 110.00
he did not do well died in about 1.7 years

1871 I bot another Mt. Bede cauled Hattie No. 6 of Hinson fair mule but got
hurt & died 1881 110.00

1884 I bot a P.P. Mule of Baldwin & cauled her the Kathy No. 7 about 5 years for 95.00
She is this 17 January /93 in good health

1886 I bot a P. Plota mule of J. D. Manuel No. 8 about 7 years for 137.00
She is today one of the best on the cay. Cauled “Julia” who is doing well 8 February 1893

1881 I bot a old St. Domingo mule “Blackie” and old cart of J. H. Frith. Pilot 175.00
She did good work & died in 1890

1891 I bought a 5 year St. Domingo mule of Spenser. the No 10 one who is Small
but do good work the 2nd Blackie for 80.00

“Donkey” cart or “mule” cart?
What is interesting here is that this source primarily discusses “mules” and not donkeys. Tradition in the Turks Islands is that most goods and services were transported in “donkey carts.” But in this source, the “mule ‘Blackie’ and old cart” are paired up. In fact, the earliest account the author records is the purchase of his “first mule & cart” in 1867. Possibly, it would be more appropriate to call the traditional “donkey cart” a “mule cart.”
A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. It is a hybrid animal bred for its characteristics which make it a good draft animal. Mules are sterile, meaning they can not reproduce. Typically, they have short thick heads and long ears, small legs, and small hooves. This makes them look like donkeys. Their height, the shape of their neck, and their coat appear similar to a horse.
The mule has the working benefits of both the donkey and the horse. They are steady and surefooted like a donkey, but they have the strength of a horse. The mule has the added benefit of having a tough skin that protects it from sun and rain better than horses. They also have a natural resistance to insects and disease. They show more intelligence and endurance than either parent species, owing to a trait sometimes called “hybrid vigor.”
It is possible that the donkeys and horses on the Turks Islands were used to breed mules. The account above records that the author “gave J. W. Baker a Horse for the use of his Stud, Juliocer.” But it should be noted that most of the mules are recorded as being from Santo Domingo or from Jamaica.
Donkeys were definitely on Grand Turk. Andrew Symmer came to Grand Turk as King’s Agent in 1766. When he wrote the first legal document, “Regulating His Majesty’s Salt Ponds at Turks Islands,” he included the following:
“Owners of wild asses to be allowed to 15th June next for removing them off the islands, in case they are not removed before that time, to be sold for public use.”
Whether mules or donkeys, draft animals were used to pull carts. These carts were used to facilitate most of the heavy labor that allowed industrial production. By the 19th century, carts transported water, salt, and goods. H.E. Sadler suggests that by 1850 as many as 800 donkeys were working in the Turks Islands in the salt and sisal industries. These carts could still be seen on the roads during most of the 20th century.
Attached to a cart, draft animals became the mainstay of transporting everything around the Islands during the 19th century. This continued into the 20th century and, as late as the 1960s, donkey carts still carried groceries, lumber and the freight that made business and life possible on a small island.
Building donkey carts required both the skill of a carpenter and the acquirement of materials, though most of the donkey cart could be made from scantlings (pieces of lumber not dressed to specific sizes). However, wheels were not an easy thing to build on a small island. Carpenters had a skill of working with wood and could build carts, houses, or even boats. The wheel, however, required special talents and was its own trade, the wheelwright.
Historically, axles, and possibly wheels, were sourced from the colonies in the Americas. The new memorandum book provides the first record of where Turks Islanders sourced these required parts for their carts.

Memo of Cart Axles
bought from 1867 when I first began to work & buy pond

1867 To 1 new Axle imported this year from N.Y. a good one and
this year 1893 turned over to the Donkey Wheels cost 20.00

1880 1 new Axle full patent bot at Misicks auction in 187 and now
running nice for Julia cart Cart No. 6 15.00

1884 1 new Axles full patent imported from N.Y. By Marvel
cost to make cert (unknown word) over by Thurber Whylan as it
where two Short on Billys No. 2 22.00

1884 2 new axles full patent import from N.Y. Of Thurber Whylan one
on Hallies cart and No. 5 20.00
the other one on Blackies cart on No. 9 20.00

Donkey carts in the 21th century
During the 1980s and into the 1990s, donkey carts could still be seen roaming around Grand Turk. Carts were on other islands as well, but many of these carts were makeshift with added parts as new carts were not being made anywhere. By the late 1990s, however, there was just one donkey cart left in operation on Grand Turk. This cart was owned by Samuel Misick. Sam had been using spare parts taken from other carts to keep his in operation. Eventually, however, there were no more cart wheels left on Grand Turk and Sam’s cart became unusable.
Brian Riggs, when the manager of the National Museum, put together a project to rebuild four donkey carts in 2000 (“The Turks Island Donkey Cart,” Astrolabe, Summer 2000). The problem of constructing a donkey cart on Grand Turk was the same in 2000 as it had been in the 1860s. Where do you get axles and wheels?
Brian found the parts available from a wagon manufacturer in Pennsylvania. After providing detailed drawings of the original wheels used on Grand Turk, he had four sets of custom wheels made and shipped from the United States. These wheels were shipped to Grand Turk to complete the carts.
Some of these carts are still around. In 2007, the museum received one of the carts as a gift from Martin and Donna Seim. This was the cart originally given to Samuel Misick by Brian Riggs. A second cart is still on Grand Turk and is occasionally used by Phillip Smith. Brian’s efforts at rebuilding traditional donkey carts preserved this part of Turks Islands history. His carts are now the only ones left.
Donkey carts were once an iconic symbol of the past in the salt islands of the Turks & Caicos, but like the windmills that dotted the salinas, they have disappeared. Historic sources can still tell us a lot about how they were used and a little about how they were constructed. But the romance of seeing a working donkey cart is now gone. The donkeys themselves have come under increasing pressure for removal from the Turks Islands and the carts are only on view in the museum or remembered in old folk tales.


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Christopher Brown
Jan 30, 2011 0:59

My family lived on Grand Turk back in the 60s. We lived in the two story yellow house in front of the dock.
Learned to swim jumping off the sea wall into shallow water, went to school in the morning off in the middle day and back in the afternoon. Was wondering if the old house was still standing. wondering if anybody was still around etc.

Alfred Smith
May 5, 2011 9:46

which one of the docks? is it the house opposite the lodge building?

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