Cattle and Cowboys in Florida

Hun­dreds of years ago, long before tourists or even cities, there was another Florida. When the Spaniard Ponce de León dis­cov­ered it in 1513, Florida was mostly wide, green spaces. In 1521 when he returned, he brought horses and seven Andalu­sian cat­tle, the ances­tors of the Texas Long­horns. He knew he’d found pas­ture­land. Span­ish explor­ers turned Florida into America’s old­est cattle-raising state.

The early cattle-raising days were rough for Span­ish set­tlers. The St. Augus­tine mis­sion­ar­ies who raised beef also fought Indian raids and mos­qui­toes. Despite the cat­tle fever ticks, storms, swamps and snakes, before 1700 there were already dozens of ranches along the Florida Pan­han­dle and the St. Johns River.

By the 1800s, the Semi­nole nation pos­sessed exten­sive herds of cat­tle. Most Florida set­tlers raised beef for food. As Indian and white set­tlers moved south, so did the cat­tle. They moved through Alachua county into the Kissim­mee val­ley and on to Lake Okee­chobee. The search for new pas­tures was the rea­son for the migra­tion south.

Rail­roads reached into Florida. Because trains could ship cat­tle, the beef indus­try grew. New towns sprang up around the ranches, and more peo­ple arrived from other states. There was work for black­smiths, shop­keep­ers, and cow­boys in these set­tle­ments. Dur­ing the Civil War, Florida became a chief sup­plier of cat­tle to the Con­fed­er­acy, both for meat and leather.

The herds ranged in size from 5,000 to 50,000 head. Rustling was preva­lent through­out the state. This was because Florida was an open range. There was not a fenced pas­ture any­where in the state and cat­tle roamed freely. The early cow­boys would round cows up over miles and miles of open plains, in the ham­mocks, and by the rivers and streams. Then they would drive them to market.

Florida’s old-time cow­boys had a unique way of herd­ing cat­tle. They used 10– to 12-foot-long whips made of braided leather. Snap­ping these whips in the air made a loud “crack.” That sound brought stray cat­tle back into line fast and earned cow­boys the nick­name of “crack­ers.” Many rode rugged, rather small horses known as “cracker ponies.

Cracker cow­boys also counted on herd dogs to move cat­tle along the trail. Their tough dogs could help get a cow out of a marsh or work a hun­dred steers into a tidy group. For those rough rid­ers of Florida’s first ranges, a good dog, a horse, and whip were all the tools a true cracker needed.

By the 1890s, cow camps were located in most sec­tions of the state. One such camp was located near Lake Kissim­mee. It was known as “Cow Town.” The area’s cat­tle were referred to as scrub cows, ridicu­lous in appear­ance. They were once described as “no big­ger than don­keys, lack­ing qual­ity as beef or milk pro­duc­ers.” They were valu­able because the ani­mals could sur­vive in wilder­ness areas. By the 1920s, how­ever, the qual­ity of Florida cat­tle had improved greatly.

Rais­ing cat­tle is still one of the biggest busi­nesses in the state. Florida’s ranch­ers raise the third largest num­ber of cat­tle of any state east of the Mis­sis­sippi. Their herds rep­re­sent many cen­turies of dreams. They link the sweat and suc­cess of ancient Spaniards and hardy pio­neers with today’s mod­ern cat­tle ranchers.

from Explor­ing Florida

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