Cow Hunters and Cattle Barons

Florida has the longest history of ranching of any state in the United States. This exhibit celebrates that long history and the continuing importance of cattle and ranching to the Florida economy and culture. This exhibit is presented in support of the Florida Folklife Program exhibit, Florida Cattle Ranching: Five Centuries of Tradition, currently on display at the Western Folklife Center, Elko, Nevada from January 18 – July 24, 2010. Images from the State Archives are used, along with information from the exhibit and new photographs from folklorist Bob Stone, to illustrate how cattle, the people who raise them, and the cultural importance of ranching have changed since cattle first arrived with the earliest Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago. This exhibit showcases the work, play, tradition, and artistry that ranching represents in Florida.

Florida’s cattle industry, one of the oldest and largest in the nation, is vital to the state’s well-being. Ranching is an essential economic activity that preserves many aspects of the natural landscape, protects water resources, and maintains areas used by wildlife or for recreation. Yet few know about Florida’s unique ranching traditions, which have been adapted to the subtropical climate and influenced by the state’s distinctive history.

In Florida, those who own or work cattle traditionally have been called cowmen. In the late 1800s they were often called cow hunters, a reference to hunting for cattle scattered over the wooded rangelands during roundups. At times the terms cowman and Cracker have been used interchangeably because of similarities in their folk culture. Today the western term “cowboy” is often used for those who work cattle.


Colonial Florida

Florida ranching has evolved from many different cultural traditions, though the most important sources were the marshy coastal areas of Andalusia, Spain, and the hill regions of Britain and Ireland. In Andalusia, ranchers living in towns hired cow hands (vaqueros), who marked or branded the cattle, managed them from horses, and moved them to different locations during the year. They later brought long-horned Andalusian cattle to the Americas. In highland Britain and Ireland, herders marked or branded cattle for identification, penned them at night for protection, and moved them to different pastures during the year. In the fall, the animals were sold to drovers, who used dogs and whips to drive them to markets or slaughterhouses. The Spanish and British took these traditions to the West Indies, where they were adapted to the tropical climate and combined to create ranching systems used throughout the Americas.

Florida’s Andalusian/Caribbean cattle were the first in today’s United States. Some scholars believe that cattle brought by the expeditions of Ponce de Leon in 1521 and Don Diego de Maldonado in 1540 escaped and survived in the wild. Organized ranching began with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, when cattle from Spain and Cuba formed the basis of herds that fed the garrison and surrounding communities. In addition to herds owned by the Spanish and Indians, wild cattle flourished in the rangelands and prairies. Eventually Spanish colonists began exporting cattle to Cuba. During the 1600s, Spanish clergy raised cattle at the missions, where many Native Americans learned to tend them.


Cows and Empires

By 1700, Florida contained approximately 34 ranches and 20,000 head of cattle. After British-Creek Indian raids in 1702 and 1704 devastated Florida cattle ranchers, Indians sustained cattle raising in Florida. Many had established large herds of wild cattle and stock acquired from the Spanish. Cattle herding was vital culturally and economically to the early Seminoles, as attested to by the name of their leader, Cowkeeper (ca. 1710-1783). They remained Florida’s major livestock producers throughout most of the 1700s.


During British rule (1763-1783), English planters and Creek Indians in west Florida owned substantial herds. Cowmen from Georgia and the Carolinas spread into north Florida during that period.

In early Florida, Europeans, Americans, and Indians stole cattle from each other. Rustling became particularly widespread by the second half of the 18th century, and was one of the elements that led to the Seminole Wars.


The 19th Century: Struggle and Sacrifice

When the U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821, it was described as a “vast, untamed wilderness, plentifully stocked with wild cattle.” Florida “scrub” or Cracker cattle were descended from the mix of Spanish and British breeds. These hardy creatures survived on native forage, tolerated severe heat, insect pests, and acquired immunity to many diseases.

Early Florida cowmen survived in difficult conditions. They fought off panthers, wolves, bears, and cattle rustlers. Cowmen spent weeks or months on cattle drives across difficult marshes and dense scrub woods, often enduring burning heat, torrential thunderstorms, and hurricane winds. From central Florida they sometimes drove cattle as far as Jacksonville, Savannah, and Charleston. This gradually changed in the 1830s when the cattlemen re-established trade with Cuba, and Tampa, Punta Gorda, and Punta Rassa became important export ports.

The number of cattle increased rapidly from the 1840s until the Civil War. Florida was second only to Texas in per capita value of livestock in the South. After the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, cattlemen from the overstocked states of Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas homesteaded 200,000 acres in Florida. Some seized range territory that the Seminoles had been forced to relinquish as a consequence of the Seminole Wars. The newcomers often brought foundation herds that interbred with wild scrub cattle. Few cattlemen owned grazing land since there was extensive open range. By mid-century, ranchers were running large herds on the extensive open range in central and south Florida.

Wars provided an economic boost for Florida cattlemen, who provisioned armies during the Seminole, Civil, and Spanish American Wars. Although the Civil War disrupted the Cuban trade, Florida cowmen became beef suppliers to both armies. Hides, tallow, and meat from Florida were so important for the Confederacy that a Cow Cavalry was organized to protect herds from Union raiders.

After the Civil War there were still wild cattle in Florida, as well as attractive markets to the north and south. During the next three decades, trade boomed with Cuba, Key West, and Nassau, and Florida became the nation’s leading cattle exporter. From 1868 to 1878, ranchers received millions of dollars in gold doubloons for over 1.6 million cattle exported to Cuba. The Cuban commerce provided income to cattlemen, merchants, and shippers, and contributed to the state’s recovery from Reconstruction-era depression.


Thanks to The Florida Memory Project for this article.