Riding Off Into the (Florida) Sunset: America's First Cowboys

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The word cowboy immediately conjures up images of the arid, sunlit plains of the midwest, the dry heat of Texas and Arizona, big-brimmed hats and dusty mid-calf boots. But long before these Western heroes graced the horizon with their silhouettes, another brand of cowboy was mucking it up in the swamps. The original cowboy. The Florida cowboy.

Back in the early 1500s, nearly 350 years before cattle herding became commonplace in the plains, the Spanish attempted to cultivate the wilds of Florida’s bogs to no avail. Soon admitting failure, they traveled back to Spain, but left horses and heads of cattle behind to make room on their ships for the treasures they had acquired in North America. On return trips, however, the Spanish brought more cattle with them. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, in 1565 (with the "help" of native labor) the Spanish set up ranches—well before the Mayflower pilgrims were even born. By 1700 there were more than 30 ranches set up along the Florida Panhandle, which had become so successful at cattle-raising they had even begun exporting the animals to Cuba.

These cattle required local young men to tend them and keep them safe. Called vaqueros, these were not only the first cowboys in America, but are widely believed to be responsible for the first “cowboys and Indians” fights, when Native Americans attacked herds in revenge for trampling their lands.

In 1763, after the English won the Seven Year’s War, the British settlers of Florida took over ranching in the region, turning it into a thriving business model. These cowboys eventually fashioned a 12-foot-long threaded leather whip which cracked fiercely when used, earning them the name Crackers—and further separating them from the Western cowboys to come, who would use lassos. The ranchers used these whips to corral the Cracker cows, a distinct breed with long horns and large feet. Both Cracker horses and Cracker cows are relatively small, 700 and 600 pounds respectively. But this didn’t prevent the cows from becoming an important source of food for soldiers during the Civil War.

Cracker Cows, c. 1929 // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In fact, in 1861, small militia groups made up primarily of Crackers formed the “Cow Cavalry” which protected the ranches and plantations of Florida from Union soldier raids. Some say that Florida’s greatest contribution to the Civil War was the food its ranches provided Confederate troops, which the Cow Cavalry kept secure.

In the years after the war, the Crackers took over central Florida, allowing their herds, consisting of 5,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, to roam free along the marshy terrain. Their horses began to further adapt to the area, growing even smaller, with lighter heads and a more agile gait. The Cracker horses are now Florida’s official horse, and the species, which teetered on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, now numbers in the thousands in the Sunshine State.

Before highways tore through the state's dense shrubbery and wild trails, the Cracker horses let the Florida cowboys ride all day in 100-degree weather, their coats and skin more impervious to insect attacks than that of their main rival, the Quarter horses.

Cracker horse // Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

“They’re very good working horses because they have so much endurance," says Florida rancher and cowboy Bobby Hall. "They’ll be going all day and a lot of the Quarter horses will give out by noon."

Yes, the Crackers are still herding on their ranches to this day, and Florida does a booming cattle business because of it. It is the third largest beef producer east of the Mississippi. Their association is a robust organization with support from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It oversees the registration of purebred Cracker horses, provides information on buying, selling and breeding Cracker horses, and assists in the preservation of this quiet wealth of Floridian history.