Florida has the longest history of ranching of any state in the United States.
Does that surprise you?
Andalusian/Caribbean cattle were the first in today’s United States, thanks to the expeditions of Ponce de Leon in 1521 and Don Diego de Maldonado who came to Florida in 1540. These cattle escaped and survived in the wild. Organized ranching began with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, when cattle from Spain and Cuba formed the basis of herds that fed the garrison and surrounding communities. In addition to herds owned by the Spanish and Indians, wild cattle still flourished in the rangelands and prairies.
Eventually Spanish colonists began exporting cattle to Cuba. During the 1600s, Spanish clergy raised cattle at the missions, where many Native Americans learned to tend them.
By 1700, Florida contained approximately 34 ranches and 20,000 head of cattle. After British-Creek Indian raids in 1702 and 1704 devastated Florida cattle ranchers, Seminole Indians sustained cattle raising in Florida. Many had established large herds of wild cattle and stock acquired from the Spanish. Cattle herding was vital culturally and economically to the early Seminoles, as attested to by the name of their leader, Cowkeeper. They remained Florida’s major livestock producers throughout most of the 1700s.
In Florida, those who own or work cattle traditionally have been called cowmen. In the late 1800s they were often called cow hunters, a reference to hunting for cattle scattered over the wooded rangelands during roundups. At times these cowhunters were also called Crackers. The name “Cracker” originated with the unique way the cowmen herded cattle, using 10- to 12-foot-long whips made of braided leather. Snapping these whips in the air made a loud “crack.” Many Crackers rode rugged, rather small horses known as “Cracker ponies.” Cracker cowboys also counted on herd dogs to move cattle along the trail. These tough dogs could help get a cow out of a marsh or work a hundred steers into a tidy group. A good dog, a horse, and whip were all the tools a true Cracker needed.
Ranging in size from 5,000 to 50,000 head, Florida herds roamed freely on open range, with no sign of fencing. The early cowboys rounded cows up over miles of open plains, in hammocks, and along the rivers and streams. Then they drove them to market. By the 1890s, cow camps were located in most sections of the state. One such camp located near Lake Kissimmee, was known as “Cow Town.” The area’s cattle were referred to as scrub cows, described as “no bigger than donkeys, lacking quality as beef or milk producers.” In early Florida, Europeans, Americans, and Indians stole cattle from each other. Rustling became particularly widespread by the second half of the 18th century, and was one of the reasons that led to the Seminole Wars.
When the U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821, it was described as a “vast, untamed wilderness, plentifully stocked with wild cattle.” These hardy creatures survived on native forage, tolerated severe heat, insect pests, and acquired immunity to many diseases. Like cowboys out west, early Florida cowmen had to fight off panthers, wolves, bears, and cattle rustlers. Cowmen spent weeks or months on cattle drives across difficult marshes and dense scrub woods, often enduring burning heat, torrential thunderstorms, and hurricane winds. From central Florida, they drove cattle as far north as Jacksonville, Savannah and Charleston, but in the 1830’s they drove the cattle south when trade was re-established with Cuba, Tampa,Punta Gorda and Punta Rassa became important export ports. The number of cattle increased rapidly from the 1840’s until the Civil War, and Florida was second only to Texas in per capita value of livestock in the South.
Wars provided an economic boost for Florida cattlemen, who provisioned armies during the Seminole, Civil and Spanish-American Wars. During the Civil War, Florida cowmen became beef suppliers to both armies. Hides, tallow and meat from Florida were so important for the Confederacy that a Cow Cavalry was organized to protect herds from Union raiders.
In the late 1800’s, famed American artist, sculptor and writer Frederic Remington visited Florida and told of his experience in an article titled “Cracker Cowboys of Florida” in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s Weekly. “I was sitting in a “sto’do’” (store door) as the “Crackers” say, waiting for the clerk to load some number eights (lumber), when my friend said, “Look at the cowboys!” This immediately caught my interest. With me, cowboys are what gems and porcelains are to some others. Two very emaciated Texas ponies pattered down the street, bearing wild-looking individuals, whose hanging hair and drooping hats and generally bedraggled appearance would remind you at once of the Spanish moss which hangs so quietly and helplessly to the limbs of the oaks out in the swamps….They had on about four dollars’ worth of clothes between them, and rode McClellan saddles, with saddle bags, and guns tied on before.” Remington’s illustrations give us a good picture of Florida’s Cracker cowboys in that era.
An excellent novel about the early history of cattle ranching in Florida is A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith. Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy!
A multi-published author, Marilyn Turk lives in and writes about the coastal South, particularly about its history. Her fascination for lighthouses spawned her popular weekly lighthouse blog at pathwayheart.com, and inspired the stories in her upcoming Coastal Lights Legacy series and her Lighthouse Devotions book. When not climbing lighthouses, Marilyn and her husband Chuck enjoy fishing, gardening, kayaking and playing with their grandchildren.