Cracker Cattle and Cracker Horses – The First in America
On his second expedition to the New World in 1521, Juan Ponce De Leon brought a small herd of cattle and Andalusian horses to Florida, landing near where Fort Myers is today. These animals were the first cattle and horses to ever set foot (or hoof) on the continental United States.
The Spanish explorers were forced back to their ships by the Caloosa Indian warriors, and Ponce De Leon was mortally wounded. There is no record of what became of the explorers’ livestock, and it’s likely they became the first cattle and horses ever to run wild in Florida.
In 1540, Don Diego Maldonado brought a large herd of Spanish cattle and horses to the Pensacola Bay area to supply the De Soto expedition, but he unable to make contact with the conquistadors. Many of the cattle were reportedly lost to run wild in the timber of North Florida or left with the Native Americans.
In 1565, Pedro Menendez De Aviles founded the city of St. Augustine and soon had cattle shipped from Spain to begin producing beef for the garrison.
Ranching was born when Jesuit and Franciscan friars set up a system of missions across North and North Central Florida. Their mission was to convert Native Americans to Christianity, but the friars also used Native American labor to tend livestock and crops. These were the first established ranches in North America, well before the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were even born.
By 1618, Florida’s Spanish governors were seriously expanding cattle production on local ranchos. The Spanish herds, as well as those kept by the Native Americans and the many cattle running wild, flourished on the immense prairies and rangeland of Florida. Spanish cattlemen in Florida began to ship cattle to Cuba, the largest trade center in the region. This was the first industry to develop in the New World, and trade with Cuba would continue for the next 300 years.
By 1700, there were over 30 privately owned ranchos in Florida with reportedly more than 20,000 cattle. Mission herds were exempt from reporting, and cattle owned by Native American chiefs and those running wild would not have been counted.
In the early 1700s, Britain, France and Spain were all vying for control of the peninsula state. James Moore, the British Governor of South Carolina, led a raid into Florida and took back several thousand cattle and horses to sell to Carolina and Georgia settlers. Raids of this type continued for many years.
In the early 1800s, many individuals, including Andrew Jackson, bought cattle from the Native Americans of Florida and drove them back to Tennessee, Kentucky and other states to crossbreed with European-type herds. As time passed, British, Spanish and French in Florida mingled and fought, separated and fought, traded and fought until the Spanish and French mostly left. The influence of Spanish occupation remains in Florida in the bloodlines of our livestock and the names of many landmarks.
During the Civil War, Florida was the leading supplier of beef for troops on both sides. Additionally, the sturdy Spanish horses were highly prized for transportation because they could travel in Florida’s rough conditions where other horses failed.
After the war, Florida was one of the first states to re-establish a viable economy. This economy was built by pioneer families who were exporting cattle to Cuba. The cowmen, who had been left with worthless Confederate dollars, insisted on being paid in gold coin. During reconstruction, millions of Spanish gold doubloons poured into Florida’s postwar economy as a result of this trade. Thousands of “Cracker” cattle were shipped from the docks of Tampa, Manatee and Punta Rassa. The Cuban trade became a lucrative enterprise for such early pioneer families including the Roberts, the Carltons, the Lykes, the Summerlins, the McKays, the Hendrys, the Aldermans, the Wells and many others.
Records show that in one 10-year period (1868-1878) 1.6 million head of cattle were loaded on ships bound for Cuba, Nassau and Key West. Most of these went to Havana. At this time Florida was America’s leading exporter. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this financial boom, which was the foundation of Florida’s vast agricultural economy. These operations depended on the cattle and the horses, which were necessary for the cattle’s care.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, purebred beef and dairy breeds of northern European origin began being imported into Florida. These cattle were crossed with the Spanish cattle in Florida, which began to significantly changed the genetic makeup of those herds.
Prior to the 1940s, cattle often wandered freely through the Florida scrub, which is why Florida cowboys are called Cowhunters. These cowhunters would go out searching for their cattle, rounding them up across Florida’s vast expanses of land whenever they needed to drive them somewhere. The cowhunters are also responsible for the original of the name “Cracker cattle” because of the cracking noise their whips made over their herds.
The practice of allowing cattle to roam freely ended in 1949 when Florida Governor Fuller Warren signed a statewide fence law requiring livestock owners to keep their animals off public roadways. Implementation of the Florida Fence Law brought changes to the open range and opportunity for improved animal husbandry practices, which made it possible for new breeds to survive in Florida’s conditions.
Crossing the resilient Florida Cracker cows with other breeds, especially Brahman, became very popular; the newer breeds were larger, which meant they produced more beef, while the Cracker cows were hardier, generally resistant to pests and diseases. Pure Cracker cattle were quietly being bred out of existence, almost without any notice. By the late 1960s, there were only a handful of pure Cracker cattle left, scattered across the state on the ranches of families that had been smart enough and stubborn enough to hang onto the old stock.
In the 1960s, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Doyle Conner Sr. urged members of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association to preserve Cracker cattle as a heritage breed. Leaders in the industry decided to take action, and in 1970, Zona Bass and Zetta Hunt, daughters of pioneer cattleman James Durrance, donated five heifers and a bull to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) on behalf of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.
The cattle donated by Durrance’s daughters were descendants of his original cattle and were regarded by many in the industry as the purest of the breed. With this small herd, known as the “Durrance Line,” the department was entrusted with the preservation of the breed.
The department used the donated cattle to begin building a herd at the Agricultural Complex in Tallahassee, and as numbers increased a second herd was established at the Withlacoochee State Forest near Brooksville. Separate herds of Cracker cattle were also established by the Florida Department of Natural Resources – now known as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, at the Lake Kissimmee State Park and the Paynes Prairie State Preserve. The Lake Kissimmee State Park herd was established from Durrance bloodlines and cattle obtained from the Hal Chaires family of Old Town. The Paynes Prairie herd was established with animals from the herd of Woody Tilton in addition to and cattle transferred from Lake Kissimmee. During this period of time, a few small privately owned herds were also being maintained. Occasionally, the department used Durrance Line cattle from other Cracker herds to broaden the genetic base of its herd and avoid inbreeding.
In 1984, the family of John Law Ayers donated a small herd of Cracker horses to the Department of Agriculture. Ayers had maintained a herd of pure old Cracker stock, resisting temptation to cross them with other breeds. From this stock, horse herds were established at the Agricultural Complex in Tallahassee and on the Withlacoochee State Forest near Brooksville. The Ayers family and other families, including the Bronsons, Boals, Partins and Sassers, continued to maintain small herds of Cracker horses.
Beginning in 1985, attention began focusing on the FDACS herds. A selection and screening program was developed and all cattle that did not meet strict breed criteria were culled from the herd. The department continues to maintain the Durrance line of Cracker cattle and the Ayers line of Cracker horses. Breeding stock from these original herds is made available to interested parties through the annual FDACS/Florida Cracker Cattle Association sales, and animals are transferred between the herds to keep the genetic base broad while maintaining the pure bloodlines.
Through efforts of the department, the Florida Cracker Cattle Association (FCCA) and the Florida Cracker Horse Association (FCHA) were formed in 1988. Both associations adopted breed standards and appointed evaluation committees to select cattle and horses to be registered as foundation stock for the preservation of the breeds.
Since 1989, the Florida Cracker Cattle Association and the Department of Agriculture have hosted the annual Florida Cracker Cattle Association Gathering and Auction at the Withlacoochee State Forest. These events include a sale of Cracker cattle and horses so interested parties can purchase animals and join the preservation effort.
The Florida Cracker cattle and Florida Cracker horses are officially recognized as “heritage breeds” by the State and are prized as living links to Florida’s history and heritage. But it’s not just about history: there is a renewed interest and a strong demand for Florida Cracker cattle genetics. Cattle owners have also come to value the breed’s hardiness, adaptability and fertility, and the characteristics of insect resistance, disease resistance, longevity and overall utility make the breed important to today’s industry. The Florida Cracker horses enjoy also widespread popularity because they can be trained for all riding disciplines.
Click here for more information from the Florida Department of Agriculture on the characteristics of Cracker cattle.