Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cowboys of the Wild East?

By Jennifer Uhlarik

When I moved to Florida in the early 1980’s, the town I lived in consisted of a few main roads, a smattering of stores, a fair number of houses, all surrounded by lots and lots of cow pastures. It’s only thirty years later as I research the background for a possible new story that I recognize the depth of historical significance those cow pastures hold.
 
Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, FL
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
 http://floridamemory.com/items/show/8049

Florida’s cattle history starts all the way back in 1521, when Juan Ponce de Leon set foot in Florida for the second time. He’d originally come in 1513 and claimed the land for Spain, but didn’t stay long. He returned in 1521 with 200 settlers, as well as horses, cattle, and pigs. But tensions between the Spaniards and the Native American tribes inhabiting Florida’s peninsula became hostile and fighting broke out. When Ponce de Leon was shot with an arrow, the would-be settlers quickly abandoned their animals and sailed for Cuba, where their leader died.

About 40 years later in the 1560’s, more Spanish arrived in Florida and managed to settle the land. The surviving horses, cattle, and pigs that had been left by Ponce de Leon’s crew years earlier had become wild, roaming free among the thick scrub covering Florida. The newly-arrived settlers brought more livestock, and by 1600, horses and cattle were prevalent among the Spanish missions and ranches that had come to Northern Florida. Spanish vaqueros worked the ranches, developing a strong cattle industry here.

In the 1760’s, Spain briefly lost control of the land to Britain, but regained it 20 years later at the end of the American Revolution. During that time, both the Seminole Indians and a restless group of British colonists moved into Florida. The whites were a wild bunch who tended to buck authority every chance they got. The Spanish governor in the 1780’s described them as “nomadic like Arabs,” and “distinguished from savages only in their color, language, and superiority of their depraved cunning and untrustworthiness.” They immediately took to the wild cattle roaming free in the Florida scrub, falling back on the traditions of their Celtic ancestry—free range cattle herding. They became known as “Crackers.”

Cow whip made by George Mills,
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
http://floridamemory.com/items/show/108400
Photo by Robt. L. Stone
Today, we think of that term as derogatory and demeaning. It originally meant a braggart or boaster. But there was a dual meaning. In Florida, where the wiregrass and palmettos were so thick, it was impossible to use a lariat to rope cattle like those further west did. Instead, the Florida cow hunters (as they preferred to be called) used bullwhips that cracked like a gunshot in the air above the cattle they were herding. The sound could be heard for miles before the small herds were seen.

From the late 1700’s all the way through the end of the 1800’s, the Florida cow hunters ruled the scrub. They hit their heyday after the Civil War, just as the western cowboys did. They would sometimes drive their small, often scrawny cattle north into neighboring states to sell, but more often went south to the Fort Myers, Florida, area, where they’d load them on ships to sell in Cuba. They might not have to drive them as far as their western counterparts, but the work was every bit as hard. They worked with smaller herds, and rather than letting them roam free while on the trail, they would bed the cattle down in large corrals erected along their trail.

Frederic Remington drawing of Cowboys on their Horses
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
http://floridamemory.com/items/show/25895
Artist and author Frederic Remington wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine in 1895 about these men, in which he painted a rather dark and dreary picture. He portrayed them as a sorry lot, unscrupulous and prone to violence and thievery. And some probably were. But so were some of the western cowboys Remington was more familiar with. Plenty of the Florida cow hunters were hardworking, honest men who took pride in their jobs.

Despite the often negative connotation of the “Cracker” name, the descendants of these historic Florida figures take great pride in their heritage and are fighting even today to keep that heritage alive with places like “Cracker Country” at the Florida State Fairgrounds, or the “1876 Cow Camp” at Lake Kissimmee State Park. I so appreciate these efforts as I research an upcoming story, but beyond that, just to learn one more fascinating tidbit of history from the state I’ve called home for most of my life.

So let's hear from you. What is the most interesting thing you’ve discovered about your local history? Leave me a messsage, and you'll be entered into the drawing for this quilled paper cross shadowbox, handmade by me, to be given away tomorrow. Also, you'll be entered in the $25 Amazon giftcard drawing, to be given at the end of the month. The giftcard is being given by several of the "surprise giveaway" authors this month, so check the sidebar and go back to leave messages on giveaway authors' posts to increase your chances for the giftcard.


Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won the 2012 CWOW Phoenix Rattler, 2012 ACFW First Impressions, and 2013 FCWC contests, all in the historical category. She is also the winner of the 2013 Central Florida ACFW chapter's "Prompt Response" contest. In addition to writing, she has been a schoolteacher of English, literature, and history, as well as a marketing director. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.

32 comments:

  1. Well, I am new at all of this history stuff, so I don't know anything about my local history. I am learning so much through these posts and I am so grateful to all of you authors for sharing your knowledge and love of history. God bless.
    debsbunch5[at]jesusanswers[dot]com

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    1. I'm sure I can speak for all the authors here at CFHS when I say we are thrilled you're enjoying our blog and learning from it. Thanks for stopping by, chaplaindebbie!

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  2. This was very interesting,Jennifer! All new to me! And I keep thinking of the insects and reptiles in such wild country. The men had to be tough= the women tougher!

    This past winter I learned a lot more about the abolitionist movement in my area of upstate NY. A huge effort went into new sheep farming and woolen mills in the early 1800s, as it was felt a switch to wool over cotton, for clothing, was one way to fight slavery.

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    1. You are right, Debra. The men were tough, the women tougher. And the insects and reptiles were an issue too. I found your historical info about sheep farming in upstate NY to be really interesting. Going to have to tuck that one away for future reference. I love history! Thanks for stopping by. (Leave me your email address, in case you win the drawing.)

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  3. I love the work of Frederick Remington. We have the largest collection of his work this side of the Mississippi here in Corning, NY. Nice sketch! And your quilling is also lovely! Fascinating post. So that's where the term cracker came from? huh. Never knew that. :)

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Kathleen. Remington's work has always grabbed my interest. It was exciting to learn he'd written about the Florida Crackers, even if he wasn't completely impressed with them.

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  4. I am a transplant to Florida myself so I am still learning some of their history. I do know that St. Augustine is the oldest city in America despite what our history books teach us. I live in St. Cloud - actually Holopaw which is an unincorporated town so we have a St. Cloud address. Back in the day Holopaw was actually bigger than St. Cloud and Kissimmee because they had sugar cane there and the railroad came through there but when the sugar cane was gone the railroad left and the town is now a blink of an eye with just a flashing yellow light and a gas station.

    I am from Nebraska and I can give you a piece of history from there. I lived across the river from Sioux City, Iowa which has the unfortunate history of being the spot where the only person on the Lewis and Clark Expedition to die happened to die there. He was Sgt. Floyd.

    Thank you for the giveaway - griperang at embarqmail dot com

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    1. Oh, interesting about Holopaw, Angela! And even more interesting about Nebraska's Sioux City. My hubby is a Nebraska native, having lived in Omaha until he departed for college. I hadn't heard that Sgt. Floyd met his unfortunate demise in hubby's home state.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Our little town is intersected by a river, and apparently the town used to be located all on the east side of the river. Heavily into lumbering and agriculture, the town required multiple rebuildings due to fires that would quickly spread through the wooden structures. Eventually, with the advent of the railroad on the west side of the river, the businesses moved that direction, and more businesses began to be built of brick, which were less likely to burn from the use of coal furnaces. Interestingly, the railroad had to be bribed by a businessman to bring the railroad through the town, as they intended to bypass it. For many years, the town relied on the railroad to sustain its lumbering and agriculture industry. Today, the railroad is very seldom used, mostly used at Christmas time when the "Polar Express" tourist train is running.

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    1. Hi Bethany, thank you for stopping by and sharing some of your local history. Interesting that the railroad had to be bribed to bring the tracks through town. I've got a story about the Transcontinental Railroad I'll eventually get to writing, so I've done some basic research on railroads. Unfortunately, sometimes the "powers that be" were corrupt in the railroad building business.

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    2. I'm sure there is a lot of very interesting history in the railroad! Probably a lot of great story material! What's neat is that the railroad is still so active and vital today.

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    3. You're right, Bethany. There's all kinds of great story stuff to "mine" from history.

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  7. Enjoyed this so much. I have a research book titled Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. The author (McWhiney) lays out the differences in Northern and Southern cultures in the 17th and 18th centuries. It touches on the agricultural pursuits of the Crackers. I'll have to pull it out again and read more about the Florida Crackers!

    Oh, and that shadow box is BEAUTIFUL!!! You have an amazing talent.

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    1. Thank you for the compliment on the shadowbox, Pam. It's one of many crafty pursuits I've tried in my lifetime, and I find it great fun and very relaxing (most of the time).

      I'm going to have to look into the book you mentioned. I'm still very much in the research phase for this particular story idea that has taken me into the Florida Cracker culture. Sounds like that would be a great resource. (My husband will love it when I tell him I have to buy another book. LOL)

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  8. There is so much history in my immediate area. In 1990 my husband and I bought a piece of property and built a house only a few steps from a church that is now over 230 years old and still very active. It has wonderful history. I enjoyed your post and learned something new.
    may_dayzee (at) yahoo (dot) com

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    1. Hi Kay, I'm so glad you learned something from my words! The church you mentioned sounds amazing! Love old churches, and especially when they have such a long history.

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  9. There is a natural spring that is here and it looks like it was built a long time ago..just love knowing they might have pulled up the wagons to water there.
    truckredford(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. Hi Eliza, thanks for stopping by today. That natural spring does sound pretty cool. When I have hiked on various trips out West, I have often wondered what historical people have visited the places I see, or how important a spring or lake or river like you mention might have been to settling the land. Fascinating thoughts.

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  10. Interesting post, Jennifer - had never considered the possibility of cowboys in the eastern states. I live in a small town just south of Louisville, Ky. (which has a rich history on it's own) - but, consider a house that used to be a part of the underground railroad (for freeing slaves)a very interesting part of my town.

    bonnieroof60yahoo.com

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    1. Oh, that IS an interesting piece of history about the Underground Railroad. I'd love to see that some day. Thank you for stopping by!

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  11. I just moved to the area I am in, so I don't know any of the history yet. However, I grew up in the Niagara on the Lake, ON area, where we were shown a creek that was used by the Underground Railroad - in fact there was a gazebo along the creek that I was told housed some of the fleeing slaves. I rather doubt the gazebo was original, but as a child, it was incredibly fascinating and a little scary to hear the stories.

    Betti
    bettimace(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. I find the Underground Railroad history so interesting, Betti. I'm sure the stories were full of the stuff that makes great reading (or listening).

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  12. Fascinating stuff, Jen! Thanks for sharing it with us. And, I have to pick just ONE most interesting thing? :-) Living in the Charleston SC area, that's hard ... but it was interesting to me, after hearing people for years poke fun at the name of our town, Goose Creek, to find out that it dates back to colonial times. The waterfowl population here was amazing! And we currently live on land that at one time was owned by the famous Middleton family. :-)

    sdmcnear AT gmail DOT com

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Shannon. LOL. You certainly could have regailed us with more Charleston history if you wanted to! I wouldn't have stopped you. Pretty cool about your town's name. Place names can be so colorful and unusual. One aspect of road trips that always interested me was seeing the names of little, out-of-the-way towns on the roadside signs, then imagining what they might be like. Am I to assume that your town doesn't have the large population of waterfowl anymore?

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    2. No, unfortunately. There are birds everywhere, and over on the Cooper River where I'm fond of going, you're always guaranteed amazing sights (bald eagles, ospreys, cormorants, egrets, herons, ducks etc.), but I'm told there aren't the HUGE flocks seasonally that there once were. Thanks for asking, and thanks for giving me leave to rattle on about local history. ;-D

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    3. My home is near a "lake" (retention pond), and we have some wonderful birdlife around because of that too. There is a pair of bald eagles that nest in a nearby tree part of the year, sand hill cranes, ducks, pelicans, white ibis, and lots of other great birds. But like you've seen, some of the numbers have dwindled. Mainly with the ducks, though, and I think that's because some people see them as a free meal. Makes me sad...

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  13. "Cow Hunters" - I love it! I'm going to use that phrase somehow in my future. :) Don't recall any "great" local history here, but we do have a huge collection of arrowheads found on our family farm. Thanks for the post!
    Susan
    farmygirl at hotmail dot com

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    1. Hi Susan, thanks for stopping by and leaving me a message. I love old arrowheads! In his college days, my brother would go out with his college professor to some archeological digs of Indian burial mounds, so he's got a nice collection of them himself. Pretty cool!

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  14. Congratulations, ChaplainDebbie, you are the winner for the shadowbox drawing! Everyone is still entered in the upcoming drawing for the Amazon giftcard to come later this month. Best wishes in the second drawing, and thank you all for stopping by to read about the Florida Cow Hunters.

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  15. Thank you so much, Jen! I can't wait to see my shadowbox! God bless!

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  16. 1800s history of cattle and horses has always fascinated me. A cowgirl and country girl at heart with a love of horses I must admit I dream of the romantic part of the "old west". Though I realize not all of it was romantic. I learned that one of my relatives has some land along a river that holds a possible hidden treasure. Back in the 1800s supposedly an Indian cheif had been paid with a box of gold coins for assistance against enemies. The cheif buried it with two of his braves without anyone else knowing where it was. All three were killed in battle and the box was never recovered according to stories and records. The battle was reportedly held where the Indians were camped and the chief had buried his treasure not far from the camp. So my relative surmised that that treasure was somewhere within the camp property. I think it would be awesome to find! But the story itself is pretty amazing too.

    Kim LitlePokie@aol.com

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