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The Exciting History of Cowboys in the Sunshine State

Although the cowboy is traditionally associated as an icon of the American West the practice of cattle herding has a long, complicated, and proud history in Florida with traditions dating back five hundred years.

The first cattle herders in the state were born the moment Europeans first began to settle the land in the 1500s bringing their large domesticated livestock with them. Old World herding techniques were adapted to suit the demands of the new harsh landscape of Florida which included frequent but unpredictable weather and predators including cougars and wolves that didn’t pose a threat to Old World herders.

Seven Years War

Although originally a Spanish practice, cattle herding expanded to include several other groups of people as well. After the loss of the Seven Years War, the Spanish had to surrender their Florida holdings to the British Crown. Newly arrived English, Scottish, and Irish settlers in the area took to herding with ease. The Seminole Tribe quickly learned the trade themselves and were able to round up the huge herds of cattle that were abandoned by the Spanish.

Although practices of cattle ranching were exchanged between these different groups there were many conflicts that arose because of cattle’s large economic importance in the area. Tragically many of these conflicts resulted in death and shaped the history of Florida into what it is today.

One of the key differences between Western cowboys and Florida cowboys is the techniques they used to wrangle in cows that wandered away from the herd. Out on the western frontier cattle, ranchers employed the lasso to wrangle in cows and bring them back into the herd while Florida cowmen used dogs and large braided whips which thundered across the landscape when they were cracked.

Seminole Crackers

The whip cracking became so synonymous with the cowboys that Florida cattlemen were simply known as Crackers. Crackers were prized for their speed and ability to round up stray cattle which was not that easy in an era before fences made the task much simpler and brought an end to the wilder days of the frontier. Seminole Crackers were especially noted for their ability to control huge herds of cattle across their lands, however, their long tradition was cut short after the Seminole Wars of the 1860s confiscated much of the tribe’s land and heads of beef.

The brief end of the Seminole tradition of cattle ranching was the result of two factors. The first was that cattle provided one of the bases of the Confederate ration during the Southern war effort and more meat was needed than could be provided so they were often stolen from tribespeople. The other factor was the United States’ expansion into tribal lands at the conclusion of the Civil War. Although Seminole ranchers were kept away from a long and proud tradition for a couple of generations their ranches began to make a comeback in the 1930s.

The term cracker is worn as a badge of honor for Floridians as it has a different connotation than its use in other aspects of American vernacular. In Florida, being called a cracker denotes that your family has been tied to Florida for numerous generations. Florida cowboys shaped not only the economy and history of the state but also the very language of the country. Although isolated ranching families employ a lot of strange colloquialisms and slang others may not be able to easily decipher a few that have entered widespread use include holler, fetch, and grits. Crackers were the first to describe residents of the Florida Keys as Conchs, a name that has been fully embraced by them today.

Although the icon of the cowboy isn’t as much of an icon of Florida as it is the West, the exciting history of how ranching shaped the history of the state is worth exploring if you get the chance. One of the best places to explore this exciting history and all of the amazing traditions that go along with it is by attending the annual Cracker Day Celebration. There is plenty of food and fun to be had with plenty of games and great barbeque to keep you entertained for hours.

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