Monday, January 2, 2017

The First American Cowboys

Dear Friends,

A reader wrote to ask the question, "Who were the first American cowboys?"

The short answer is that the first American cowboys are the Florida cowboys known as "Cracker Cowboys."

It's said that some "Cracker Cowboys" of Florida can trace their lineage to the first Spanish explorers and the vaqueros brought with them. And while the Spanish arrived in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico in the mid 1600s, they didn't arrive in California until the mid-1700s. Hawaii did not have cowboys until 1832, when they imported Portuguese and Mexican vaquero from California. As for cowboys in the Pacific Northwest, they are said to have gotten their start around 1846.

As for the American cowboys known today as "buckaroos", those in the Great Basin of Northeastern California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and Southern Oregon? Like the Hawaiian "paniolo", they originally learned their trade from the Mexican vaquero in California. Also, the American "buckaroo" really didn't come along until the California Gold Rush and after the Utah territory was established in 1850.

When someone talks about the "First American Cowboys", or their "Spanish Vaquero" heritage, America's oldest cowboys are not from California or Texas. That honor goes to the Florida cowboys. Yes, the first American Cowboy was the Florida cowboy, those known as "Cracker Cowboys" or "Florida Cowhunters."

Granted, mostly because of Hollywood, the word cowboy immediately makes folks think of the dry dusty plains of the mid-West cowtowns in places like Kansas, or wide expanses of land in Texas, a certain town in Arizona, and of course six-guns and shootouts. Sadly, that is what most think. 

And frankly, when most think of cowboys, they don't think of the Spanish vaquero herding cattle in Florida marsh land, hammocks, swamps, and the tropics. But friends, the first Spanish vaquero to America were in Florida. And yes, they are the direct ancestors of America's original cowboy -- the Florida Cowboy.

Spaniard explorer Ponce de León discovered Florida in 1513, and he saw that the land was mostly wide open green spaces. So in 1521 when he returned, he brought horses and seven Andalusian cattle. Those cattle are the direct ancestors of the Texas Longhorns.

Spanish explorers, along with the herd tenders that they brought with them, those known as "vaqueros" who were the first vaquero in North America, turned Florida into America's oldest cattle-raising state.

On return trips, the Spanish brought more cattle with them. And with them, more vaquero. In fact, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture, in 1565, the Spanish set up ranches well before the Mayflower pilgrims were even born.

Early cattle ranching in Florida is said to been very rough for Spanish settlers. For example, the St. Augustine missionaries who raised beef also fought Indian raids and mosquitoes.

But despite the cattle fever ticks, storms, swamps and snakes, before 1700 there were already dozens of ranches along the Florida Panhandle and the St. Johns River. And yes, by 1700, there were more than 30 ranches set up along the Florida Panhandle which had become so successful that they had even begun exporting cattle to Span's colony Cuba.

In 1763, Spain traded Florida to Great Britain for control of Havana, Cuba, which had been captured by the British during the Seven Years' War with France. It was part of a large expansion of British territory following the country's victory in the Seven Years' War. Almost the entire Spanish population left after having turned over the territory to the Brits, but they left horses and herds of cattle behind. The English settlers of Florida took over ranching in the region for 20 years until 1783 when the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War and returned all of Florida to Spanish control.

While most British residents left, Americans began moving in. These American settlers mixed with the remaining Spanish and British settlers. Florida became an organized territory of the United States in 1822. And yes, by the 1800s even the Seminole nation possessed extensive herds of cattle.

Most Florida settlers raised beef for food. Because of the search for new pastures, both Indian and White settlers moved south taking their cattle with them. They moved through Alachua county into the Kissimmee Valley and on to Lake Okeechobee.

It is said that when railroads reached into Florida, trains could ship cattle and the Florida beef industry grew. New towns sprang up around the ranches, and more people arrived from other states. There was work for blacksmiths, shopkeepers, and of course more Cowboys. 

It is reported that Florida cattle herds ranged in size from 5,000 to 50,000 head. Rustling was prevalent throughout the state. This was because Florida was an open range. There was not a fenced pasture anywhere in the state and cattle roamed freely. 

The early cowboys would gather cows over miles and miles of open plains. From in the strands of trees, the marshland, and some of the toughest terrain in the world, they would drive them to market. During the 1860s and the Civil War, Florida became a chief supplier of cattle to the Confederacy -- both for meat and leather. 

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.  Those Florida cows became an important source of food for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

By the 1890s, cow camps were located in most sections of the state. One such camp was located near Lake Kissimmee. And yes, the area’s cattle were referred to as scrub cows once described as "no bigger than donkeys, lacking quality as beef or milk producers."

Fact is "cracker cows" are valuable because the animals can survive in wilderness areas unlike anywhere else. These cows are said to be a distinct breed of cattle with long horns and large feet. Of course by the 1920s, the quality of Florida cattle has improved greatly. But make no mistake here, the "cracker cow" is still with us.

It is also said that "cracker horses" like "cracker cows" are on the small side. A "cracker horse" may come in at about 700 to 800 pounds, while a "cracker cow" might weigh in between 600 and 700 pounds. Many still ride rugged, rather small horses known as "cracker ponies."

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

The "Cracker horse" is now Florida’s official horse. And while the species is said to have teetered on the brink of extinction by the 1980s, they now number in the thousands in the Sunshine State.

Why Are They Called "Cracker Cowboys"?

"Cracker Cowboys" have a unique way of herding cattle. Cracker cowboys use whips to corral cattle. It's true, they use 10 to 12 foot-long whips made of braided leather. Snapping these whips in the air made a loud "crack." That sound brought stray cattle back into line fast and earned the Florida cowboys the nickname of "Cracker Cowboys." 

Yes, Cracker cowboy's use of whips separates them from their Spanish Vaquero counterparts of the 1700s who would use lassos instead of whips.

Cracker cowboys are said to count on herd dogs to move cattle more than other cowboys in other regions even today. The reason is that their dogs help get cows out of a marsh as well as work steers into groups.

Cracker cowboys are to be respected and given their dues as America's First Cowboys. Their success extents from the ancient Spaniard vaquero and hardy American pioneer ranchers to today's modern cattle ranchers. 

For those tough enough to ride Florida's first ranges, a good dog, a horse, and a whip were all the tools a true Cracker cowboy needs. And yes, Cracker cowboys are still herding cows in some of the toughest terrain known to man. And though that's the case, Florida has a booming cattle business. In fact, Florida is the third largest beef producer East of the Mississippi.

And as for Cracker Cowboys, they represent centuries of Cowboying.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Very good! Thanks for the history.

  2. My Daddy used to work cows from Cedar Key to Gainesville. Just as stated Dogs, horses and a whip which I learned growing up. He is 92 and still tells interesting stories as we drive past certain areas.

  3. Dan Ritter January 7,2018 I noticed it wasn't mentioned that Frederic Remington the famous western artist visiting Fla. was the one that gave the name "Cracker" to the Fla. Cowboys because of hearing the whips cracking in the woods driving cattle. My dad Kenneth was a cowhunter during the screw worm days and dipping vat days for ticks around the Hillsborough,Manatee, Pasco,Polk,and Hernando county areas of Fla.. I'm almost 65 now and have lived most of my life the "Cowman" way working cattle, horses and my Catahoula Leopard Curr cross dogs, started making Buckskin whips back in 71 and switching to nylon in 74 during the beef boycott. Still use a 18' and made a 22' for reaching"bad" fast charging Brahman Bulls, but have found things different in Wyoming where I've lived for the past 22yrs.

  4. Thanks for the information, Tom. What a fascinating picture of history you painted! As a southern author, I appreciate your no-nonsense, straightforward style.
    M. Z. Thwaite
    author of Tidewater Rip and Tidewater Hit

    1. Sir, I take that as a great compliment. I truly appreciate that you like my work. Thank you very much.


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