Last month I wrote about the Florida’s ‘Cracker’ horse. I thought it appropriate to follow-up with Cracker Cowboys. Yes, there ARE cowboys in Florida. Real live rootin’ tootin’ roping and riding cowboys. These men and women have existed for over 250 years. In fact, Florida vies with Texas as the number one cattle producing state in the USA.
Hundreds of years ago, long before tourists or even cities, there was another Florida. When Ponce de Leon discovered it in 1513, Florida was mostly wide, green spaces. Approximately 1521, when de Leon returned, he brought horses and a few Andalusian cattle, the ancestors of the Texas Longhorns. It was the Spanish explorers who turned Florida into America’s oldest cattle-raising state.
By the 1600s, pioneer families later trickled down to Florida from areas such as Georgia and the Carolinas, taming the land and hunting out the wild Spanish cattle from among the palmetto hammocks and swamplands. Trading the cattle to Cuba for gold, those enterprising families were the early purveyors of America’s cattle industry.
The Florida ‘cowhunter’ or ‘cracker cowboy’ remains distinct from the Spanish vaquero and the Western cowboy. Florida cowboys do no use lassos to herd or capture cattle. Their primary tools are bullwhips and dogs. The use of the whip is how the nickname ‘Cracker’ was derived. I’ve often heard it said that in the early days the women would know to get the food set out on the tables as soon as they heard the cracking of the whips. “Here come the ‘crackers’,” they’d say.
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 Native American and white settlers moved south, so did the cattle. They moved through Alachua County into the Kissimmee valley and on to Lake Okeechobee.
When railroads reached into Florida, trains were used to ship cattle, and Florida’s beef industry grew. New towns sprang up around the ranches, and more people arrived. 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.
Florida’s old-time cowboys had a unique way of herding cattle. They used 10-12-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.’ These men rode rugged, rather small horses known as ‘cracker’ ponies.
Even today, Cracker cowboys still count on herd dogs to move cattle along the trail. These tough dogs help get a cow out of the marsh (where ATVs can’t go) or work a hundred steers into a tidy group. For those rough riders of Florida’s first ranchers, a good dog, a horse, and a whip were all the tools a true ‘cracker’ cowhunter needed.
Today the term ‘Cracker’ or Florida Cracker is used informally by some Floridians to indicate their family has lived in Florida for many generations; and/or that they were born and raised in the state of Florida. It is considered a source of pride to be descended from ‘frontier people who did not just live but flourished in a time before air conditioning, mosquito repellent, and screens on windows. I, myself, am a fourth-generation Florida ‘Cracker.”