The chief tool of the Florida cowboy in the 18th century was a strong whip, and when he cracked it to herd the cattle along it sounded like a gunshot. These whips were 12 to 18 feet of braided buckskin fastened to a handle of 12-15 inches long. As a result of this sound, which sometimes resounded for several miles, these cowboys were called “crackers.”
Early on, Spain attempted to colonize the interior of Florida and by 1700, Florida contained approximately 34 ranches with 20,000 head of cattle. However, when the British, along with Creek Indians, began to raid the ranches in 1702 and 1704, the devastated Florida cattle ranchers abandoned their land and retreated to the fortress towns of St. Augustine and Pensacola, leaving behind massive herds of Andalusian cattle.
After the cattle were left behind, they multiplied and spread across the land. These cattle, which were prized for their hardiness and resistance to parasites, were the ancestors of today’s modern Texas Longhorns.
In about 1750, Seminole Chief Ahaya led his people from northern Florida to Paynes Prairie, to escape encroachment by English colonists. There, he and his band settled on an abandoned Spanish cattle ranch and began to gather the wild cattle into a vast heard, earning Ahaya the nickname “Cowkeeper.” Cattle became the new chief base of their economy they remained Florida’s major livestock producers throughout most of the 1700s. The village he and his people established, called Cuscowilla, was located at present-day Micanopy.
When the English took over Florida in 1763, early settlers and the Creek Indians also owned and managed substantial herds. Soon, cowmen from Georgia and the Carolinas spread into north Florida.
The cattlemen rounding up the loose cattle used long, braided leather bullwhips to bring cattle out from the underdeveloped forest brush. They flailed whips with so much force that the tips created the loud cracking sound. Thus, a name for these Florida cowboys was born.
When the U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821, the territory was described as a “vast, untamed wilderness, plentifully stocked with wild cattle.” These cattle were descended from a mix of Spanish and British breeds and were hardy animals that survived on native forage, tolerated severe heat, insect pests, and acquired immunity to many diseases.
Decades before the cowboys of Texas were driving cattle through Oklahoma and Kansas on the Chisholm Trail, the Florida Crackers were spending weeks or months on cattle drives across difficult marshes and dense scrub woods, from central Florida to Jacksonville, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Along the way, they often endured burning heat, torrential thunderstorms, and hurricane winds and were forced to fight off panthers, wolves, bears, and cattle rustlers.
Groups fighting over the wild cattle began to steal cattle from each other and by the second half of the 18th century, cattle rustling was widespread. Rustling was one of the elements that led to the Seminole Wars.
In 1842, Florida passed the Armed Occupation Act which provided grants of 160 acres as an incentive to populate Florida. This act drew cattlemen in great numbers from Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas who homesteaded 200,000 acres.
The number of cattle increased rapidly from the 1840s until the Civil War and Florida became second only to Texas in per capita value of livestock in the South.
The cattle drove Florida’s economy for much of the 19th century. By 1850, the 120-mile Cracker Trail had been blazed following an east/west route across Florida from Fort Pierce to Bradenton. The moist land surrounding the Kissimmee River prevented travel to the north, while the sizable Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades swamps prevented travel to the south. Though the trail was used by Florida’s early settlers to traverse the state, it was primarily used to drive cattle from Florida’s heartland to the coastal ports for shipment mainly to Key West and Cuba. To maximize profits, the cattle had to be delivered to shipping ports during peak market season in late July and August, when the weather was at its worst.
Cracker cowboys, sometimes called “cowhunters”, utilized herd dogs to move cattle along the trail. They rode short horses called “cracker ponies” and their “cracker cows” were smaller than the western breeds. Florida Crackers became distinguishable by the architecture of their frontier homes, musical traditions, and lifestyles.
During the Civil War, cracker-supplied cattle were the Confederate Army’s chief source of meat, leather, and hides, particularly after Union ships blockaded southern ports. The “Cow Cavalry” was organized to protect herds from Union raiders. Forced to drive the animals by land into Georgia, the “Cow Cavalry” faced harsh conditions and the occasional skirmish with Union forces, prompting some to turn sides and sell their cattle to the Union-controlled port of Fort Myers.
After the Civil War trade boomed with Cuba, Key West, and Nassau, and Florida became the nation’s leading cattle exporter. The commerce provided income to cattlemen, merchants, and shippers, and contributed to the state’s recovery from Reconstruction-era depression.
By the 1890s, cow camps were located in most sections of the state and cattle drives continued into the 20th century until fencing laws were introduced in 1949, ending the era of the open range. One of the last drives along the Cracker Trail took place in 1937.
Raising cattle is still one of the biggest businesses in the state, with Florida’s ranchers raising the third largest number of cattle of any state east of the Mississippi River.
Today, among some Floridians, the term “cracker” is used as a proud self-description to indicate that their families have lived in the state for many generations. It is considered a source of pride to be descended from frontier people that had the grit and tenacity of those laboring cowboys.
Article ©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, October 2018 and courtesy of Legends of America.