Crackers were Florida’s first true cowboys

Spinning tales about the Florida Crackers, who were pioneer, backwoods settlers who arrived in our future state around 1763. This came after the Spanish interior colonialization efforts had ceased. They often were of Celtic (Scots-Irish) and British descent.

For their livelihood, they pursued farming, but especially open-range ranching. They overtook the abandoned Spanish Andalusian cattle, sturdy ancestors of today’s Texas longhorns.

The Cracker label potentially originated from these first cowboys, also called cowmen or cow hunters, mounted on short horses (Cracker ponies) of Spanish descent, cracking bullwhips to herd cattle. Alongside were the loyal Cracker curs, their cattle dogs. Yet, the Cracker name also might have referred to cracking (grinding) corn or being called Quakers by the Spanish.

While driving cattle for weeks and months, cowboys traveled The Cracker Trail of 120 miles in Central Florida from Fort Pierce to Bradenton. It was an accessible trail compared to the moist land around the Kissimmee River, the substantial Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades swamps. Still, it was an imperiled cattle drive: hostile Indians, rustlers, downpours, heat, panthers, bears and wolves. Ships transported the cattle to Cuba or elsewhere.

Florida gained statehood in 1845 and seceded in 1861. It provided nourishment, especially beef and salt (for preservation) to the Confederacy during the Civil War.  The Union captured cattle and destroyed salt.

Self sufficient were these Crackers. They grew crops, especially corn and sugarcane, raised several animals, hunted, and fished. Goods were rarely "store-boughten."

With the help of neighbors, land was cleared, logs were rolled and house raisings occurred. Homes were humble wood-framed homes with wide verandas for shade. The furniture was handcrafted, as were the corn-shuck mops used to clean floors of pine board.

Support also was provided for other arduous chores such as fodder pulling (removing leaves from corn stalks), cane grinding or rail splitting. Informal parties (frolics) followed.

Since social life centered around the church, dancing was of moral concern at these events. Possibly as a compromise, inoffensive dancing comparable to square dancing was common. The fiddle and harmonica delivered upbeat tunes or folk songs like "Turkey in the Straw."

Other gatherings occurred for pure entertainment. They included candy pulls, horse racing, quilting bees or storytelling where ladies amused the audience with silly anecdotes or startled the listeners with ghost (haint) tales.

Food was plentiful at get-togethers, especially corn products such as grits, hominy, corn pone and a strong brew of blackened corn substituted for coffee. Fried alligator tails and catfish from the St. Johns were irresistible. The ever-present comfort food was boiled swamp cabbage from the heart of sable palmetto palm, our Florida state tree.

Obviously, Crackers socialized, but they mostly labored. To their credit, the cattle industry is still significant in Florida. Seemingly, they were astute in cattle management. Regrettably, cattle are now linked to polluting gases, water contamination and deforestation. However, some experts insist that lack of proper management is the actual problem.

Undeniably, the Crackers, also including the Seminoles and others, nurtured a primitive land into the prosperous paradise of Florida.