Few people think of Florida as cowboy country, but one might say this was where the West began. It was here four centuries ago that Spanish settlers founded the first ranches in the future United States and introduced cattle and horses to lush prairies where buffalo roamed. As recently as 1895, there was still enough of the Wild West in Florida to attract artist Frederic Remington, famed for his portraits of frontier life. “With me cowboys are what gems and porcelains are to some others,” he wrote. The chance to add to his collection by capturing cowboys at work in the swamplands of the Deep South was not to be missed.
Florida’s pioneering Spanish rancheros and vaqueros (cowboys) were long gone when Remington arrived, but sturdy scrub cattle descended from animals they introduced still roamed the back country north of the Everglades, a setting he evoked in prose nearly as vivid as his pictures: “Flat and sandy, with miles of straight pine timber, each tree an exact duplicate of its neighbor tree, and underneath the scrub palmettoes, the twisted brakes and hammocks, and the gnarled water-oaks festooned with the sad gray Spanish moss—truly not a country for a high-spirited race or moral giants.”
Proud to be ‘Crackers’
Remington was referring here to the much-maligned white Southerners called Crackers, who inherited this country from Spanish settlers and from the Seminole and other Florida Indians. The label Cracker, which originally meant “boaster” or “braggart,” may have been applied to them because of the cracking of their whips as they herded cattle or the cracking of corn that produced grits and other down-home fare they favored. In any case, the word came to define them. More than a few people in Florida and neighboring Georgia, where many of Florida’s first Anglo-American settlers emigrated from, now gladly call themselves Crackers and scoff at the notion purveyed by Yankees like Remington that Crackers are somehow morally deficient or lacking in spirit.
Remington was little impressed with the first Cracker cowboys he witnessed, “wild-looking individuals” riding what looked to be “very emaciated Texas ponies.” Those ponies may have been from Texas, but Florida had its own mustangs, or wild horses of Spanish descent called marshtackies that Cracker cowboys rounded up and tamed. Like the cattle—resembling Texas longhorns only scrawnier and with somewhat shorter horns—the ponies were small but hardy and got by on meager forage.
Writing for an audience that shared his view of the Deep South as brutish and backward, Remington heightened the contrast between the fancy Florida coastal resorts that catered to well-heeled northerners and the primitive conditions in Cracker country: “The winter visitor from the North kicks up the jacksnipe along the beach or tarponizes in the estuaries of the Gulf, and when he comes to the hotel for dinner he eats Chicago dressed beef, but out in the wilderness low-browed cow-folks shoot and stab each other for the possession of scrawny creatures not fit for a pointer-dog to mess on.”
Cracker cowboys, as Remington saw them, were creatures of their crude environment. Raised in the jungle, they lived by its laws, fighting savagely for the stray cows they drove to market and rustling cattle from rival outfits and altering their brands. “That might makes right, and that they steal by wholesale, any cattle-hunter will admit,” he wrote, “and why they brand at all I cannot see.” In a country where property rights counted for little or nothing, the ranchers for whom cowboys worked were marked men, Remington claimed: “How well the cowboys serve their masters I can only guess, since the big owners do not dare go into the woods, or even to their own doors at night, and they do not keep a light burning in the houses. One, indeed, attempted to assert his rights, but someone pumped sixteen buckshot into him as he bent over a spring to drink, and he left the country.”
Such lawlessness was not unheard of among western cowboys, but Remington subscribed to the theory that the West with its endless vistas enlarged its inhabitants and made their violent pursuits heroic. In the tangled terrain of Florida, by contrast, everything appeared smaller and less inspiring to him. He was duly impressed by the “fierce cur-dogs” Crackers trained to seize stray cattle by the nose but saw that trick as “another instance of their brutality.”
Like the ponies they rode and the cattle they pursued, these Southern cowboys struck Remington as stunted by their surroundings. “The mists, the miasma, and the mosquitoes settle over their dreary camp talk,” he concluded. “In place of the wild stampede, there is only the bellowing in the pens, and instead of the plains shaking under the dusty air as the bedizened vaqueros plough their fiery broncos through the milling herds, the cattle-hunter wends his lonely way through the ooze and rank grass, while the dreary pine trunks line up and shut the view.”
Remington did not have the last word on this subject. His jaundiced view of Crackers and their setting has since been amended by Floridians proud of their heritage and intent on rescuing their environment from bulldozers and their history from bull slingers of the sort who fed lurid tales to Remington and like-minded chroniclers. His lively article contains large elements of truth, but few who read it more than a century ago could have imagined that the seemingly dismal landscape and livestock he described would one day be considered precious and worth preserving. Cracker country endures, and visitors to Florida do not have to venture far from its freeways to view Cracker cattle and ponies of Spanish ancestry grazing amid surroundings that are cherished today because so much else that Remington found wild and strange has been lost.
The first cattle arrived in Florida in 1521 with a small band of Spanish settlers led by Juan Ponce de León. Calusa Indians attacked those pioneers, mortally wounding Ponce de León and killing or scattering his livestock. More animals arrived when Spaniards settled St. Augustine in 1565, and by the early 1600s there were sizable herds of cattle and ponies at dozens of Spanish ranches and missions in northern Florida, a region with expansive grazing areas such as Paynes Prairie, now a state preserve.
Like Native Americans elsewhere, local Indians took quickly to riding and breeding horses but had a more ambivalent relationship with cattle. Some developed a taste for beef and traded or raided for cows. Others despised the animals for trampling their corn and other crops. Spaniards let their livestock roam free, as did many Anglo-Americans who later settled in the region. A Spanish official reported that cows, pigs, and horses from one pioneering ranch were causing “great damage to the fields of the wretched natives.” Such havoc contributed to an uprising in 1647 by Florida Indians, who attacked Spanish padres at their missions and vaqueros at their ranches. That may have been the first time in American history, notes historian Joe Akerman Jr. in his book Florida Cowman, when “cowboys and Indians clashed.”
Attacks on Spanish settlements and livestock reached a crescendo in decades to come as rival English colonists from the Carolinas joined in the fray. By the late 1700s, Florida was only loosely controlled by Spain and offered refuge to the Seminole, who broke away from the Creek tribe to the north, and to restless Anglo-Americans. Those white intruders were “nomadic like Arabs,” wrote the Spanish governor in the 1780s, and were “distinguished from savages only in their color, language, and superiority of their depraved cunning and untrustworthiness.” Their fellow Americans called them Crackers.
The Crackers who infiltrated Florida while it was still nominally Spanish had more than a little in common with the Seminole and early Spanish settlers. They loved riding and hunting, resented authorities who tried to restrict their movements, and counted their wealth largely in livestock. Many were of Celtic ancestry and had emigrated from Ireland, Wales, or Scotland, where free-range cattle herding was an ancient tradition.
Raising cattle was relatively easy in the Deep South because winters were mild and the animals did not have to be sheltered in barns and fed hay or grain. They could roam free until their owners rounded them up and drove them to market. Back-country Southerners also raised corn and other crops, and their fields were sometimes trampled by unpenned livestock, but courts seldom held herders liable for the damage. When Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas became too crowded for their free-roaming ways, Crackers headed west toward Texas or south into Florida and helped transform both those Spanish provinces into American possessions.
Cattle herding contributed to tensions in Florida between white settlers and the Seminole, since each group tended livestock and accused the other of raiding and rustling. Seminole chiefs like Billy Bowlegs grew rich in cattle, amassing herds of more than a thousand head, but they and most of their followers were ousted in the brutal Seminole Wars that raged into the 1840s (see “The Great Untaken Seminole,” September/October 2004). The Civil War brought further conflict as Confederate loyalists supplying beef on the hoof to Southern armies clashed with Unionists and deserters who raided their herds and delivered the animals to federal troops holding Fort Myers.
After the war
In Florida as in Texas, the post-Civil War period was a heyday for free-range grazing. Unbranded cattle in Florida were called heretics rather than mavericks, and cowboys preferred the title cow hunters, because rounding up scrub cattle was much like tracking wild animals in the woods. Ropes or lariats were of little use in such terrain, and men restrained cattle with their dogs and their bullwhips, which cracked like pistol shots.
Cattle drives were shorter than those out west but no less strenuous. The main market for Florida beef was Cuba, so the drives generally moved southward from near the Georgia border to the vicinity of Fort Myers, often culminating at Punta Rassa, where the cattle were loaded onto ships. One of the leading figures in this trade was rancher Jacob Summerlin, known as the King of Crackers. A man of means, Summerlin entered the cattle business in the 1840s by trading 20 slaves for 6,000 cattle. Yet he dressed and acted much like the cow hunters who worked for him for wages that seldom exceeded a dollar a day. “I’m nuthing under the sun but a native born sunbaked old Florida Cracker,” Summerlin told a reporter.
Despite Remington’s claim that Florida ranchers were despised and targeted, some shared the hardships of life on the trail with their men and earned their loyalty and respect. Crackers were boasters by definition and loved to regale people with inflated stories of their scrapes and exploits. Remington heard such tales when he visited the raucous Florida cow town of Arcadia, where men relaxed after riding herd, drinking freely and trading anecdotes that grew wilder with every telling. They were not straying far from the truth, however, when they claimed that the “mosquitoes on the trail were so thick they could smother out a fire,” or that “our bed fellows were water moccasins.” Crackers grew up amid these and other natural hazards, and they used dogs of various breeds to cope with some of the larger threats they encountered. “Every stockman had a cow dog, a bear dog, and a wolf dog,” recalled one Floridian.
Cracker cattle today
Crackers of old were not renowned for racial tolerance. There was “a noticeable absence of negroes among them,” Remington wrote of the Florida cow hunters he observed, “as they still retain some ante bellum theories.” But there were in fact some black cowboys in Florida at that time, at least one of whom, Lawrence Silas, went on to become a successful rancher.
Perhaps no state other than Texas owed more to free-range ranching in the long run. The Spanish doubloons ranchers earned by the bucketful for cattle they shipped to Cuba helped revive Florida’s ravaged economy after the Civil War. Well into the 20th century, cow hunters continued to herd steers through the streets of Kissimmee, Lake Wales, and other towns in the fenceless cattle range south of Orlando that became the heart of Cracker country as northern Florida grew more populous.
Not until 1949 did state legislators put an end to cow hunting on the open range by passing the Florida Fence Law.
Today, barely an hour’s drive from Disney World, large herds of Cracker cattle and ponies roam the Crescent J Ranch, off Route 441 in Osceola County. They are owned and managed by William Broussard, a rancher, ophthalmologist, and conservationist whose ranch adjoins a nature preserve he established called Forever Florida. Visitors to Forever Florida can tour the ranch and adjacent wilderness areas with a guide for a fee, but the cattle are fenced out of the preserve, for as Broussard readily admits, “nothing in this country has done more harm to the environment than cattle.” Rivaling cattle in their destructive impact on native plants and animals in Florida are feral hogs, descended from domesticated pigs introduced by Spanish colonists and later settlers. Feral hogs are trapped at Forever Florida and removed.
Broussard, a 10th-generation rancher whose French ancestors were riding herd in Louisiana before Napoleon sold it to Thomas Jefferson, describes his Cracker cattle as “extremely easy keepers. They do very well on poor nutrition because they’ve been several hundred years feral.” Unlike bulkier breeds that must be fed grain to reach their prime, Cracker cattle require only grass.
Of course, a Cracker cow weighing in at well under a thousand pounds, although much plumper than the scrawny free-ranging scrub cattle of old, will not yield nearly as much beef as bigger breeds that are harder to care for and costlier to feed. Broussard is cross-breeding some of his Cracker cattle with heftier Charolais, prized for their efficiency at converting feed to meat. Such hybridizing has been going on intentionally or accidentally for centuries as various breeds introduced by newcomers intermingled with scrub cattle of Spanish origin.
For history buffs, no tour of Cracker country would be complete without a visit to the 1876 Cow Camp, open on weekends and holidays at Lake Kissimmee State Park. The site re-creates a typical encampment occupied by cow hunters as they drove cattle to market during the height of the Cuba trade around 1876. On display are some Cracker cattle and ponies, a pen used to hold the cows, a chuck wagon, and a chickee: a shelter made of palmetto leaves that cow hunters adopted from the Seminole.
Contributing writer Stephen G. Hyslop wrote about cowboys of the Old West in the January/February 2005 issue of the magazine.
Photographs By Jon Kral
Who are you calling a ‘Cracker’?
Recently, whites with deep roots in the Deep South have dusted off the derogatory term Cracker and taken to wearing it with pride. Historically, the label was often scornful in the extreme, particularly when it was applied by Yankees and other strangers, who were shocked to see poor white Southerners living in conditions that appeared little better than that of black slaves or Indians. Crackers were “the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth,” wrote the English actress Frances “Fanny” Kemble, who lived with her husband on a plantation in Georgia in the 1830s. New Englander George Barbour, after touring Florida in the late 1800s, branded the Crackers he encountered “white savages” who were standing in the way of “civilization, settlement, and enterprise.”
One literary observer later took a more sympathetic view of Florida’s Crackers and did much to alter public perceptions of them. Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who moved from Rochester, N.Y., to the rural community of Cross Creek in northern Florida in 1928, won fame by capturing the rough eloquence and dignity of her Cracker neighbors in her memoir Cross Creek and her celebrated novel The Yearling, among other works of fiction. “What is the usual Cracker Christmas dinner?” she asked one neighbor after serving him a lavish holiday feast that he polished off unceremoniously. “Whatever we can git, Ma’am,” he replied. “Whatever we can git.”
Politically, Crackers reached new heights of respectability when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. He and other Georgians serving in his administration shattered the shopworn stereotype of Crackers as backward and bigoted and helped make the label fashionable and almost flattering. But the word can still register as an insult and “should be used with care,” advises Floridian Dana Ste. Clair in his book Cracker. “Abraham Lincoln once made a statement to the effect that no matter how much you respect the common man, never call him common to his face, and I imagine the same thing applies to Crackers in some areas.”— S.H.