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
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
Photo by Robt. L. Stone
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.
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.