Florida Crackers: Here’s the Beef

Just about everybody that lives in Florida has heard the nickname “Florida Cracker.” You already know that the term is used fairly loosely these days to describe just about anyone that was actually born here, perhaps even more so if the person’s lineage shows an upbringing in the state. It is a source of pride for those that can claim the title, and could be a bit eyebrow raising as well. A Florida Cracker. Hmm. Is that, like, “Florida Man Plus?” Let’s investigate, and see how that ties in to Pinellas and even St. Pete!

A few educated guesses thinking about the term might suggest it was someone who carved out a rough life in early Florida. Cracking it open, so to speak. Kind of right, but try again. Maybe farmers who cracked corn to make mash for ‘shine and pone. Well, there was quite a bit of that going on in the early days of state, but no. And I promise you, it also has nothing to do with how many times you’ve had fried chicken at Cracker Barrel.

Could it have just been a Florida Pioneer? Hmm. Read on!

Git Along Little Dogies

Allow me to deviate for a moment. I suggest at this point you ask Alexa to play “Hoe-down by Aaron Copland“, or heck, here’s a link: Hoe-down on YouTube. But why? It may come as a surprise to you that there were cattle and people managing the herds in Florida long before Wyoming was even considered. Say What? In 1539, Hernando De Soto mounted an expedition to explore Florida on behalf of Spain, bringing with him with cattle and horses for a protracted journey. A few years later in 1540, de Soto was sent a resupply herd of Spanish cattle and horses to the Pensacola Bay area. The resupply failed; the team was unable to make contact with the conquistadors. That said, many of the cattle were lost, escaping in the timber of North Florida. Then in 1565, St. Augustine was founded. Once again Spanish cattle were imported with the goal of establishing a ranching industry to support the new Spanish colony. By 1700, a full three quarters of a century before the Revolutionary War, there were an estimated 20,000 head of cattle in Florida. Wow! But what does that have to do with anything?

Origin of the Florida Cracker

Thinking about all that cattle, someone must have been hired to look after the herds. Drive them here and there. You know – a cowboy. I know when you think of cowboys you think about wide open plains, Will Rogers, lassos, and ridin’ and ropin’. But no, they were here in Florida first, and for perhaps over a century! So in the early days cattle roamed free – true free range cows! But the range here was jungle and overgrown or heavily wooded in a many places. The lasso wasn’t going to work to herd cattle, so instead the cowboys used a long whip that made a distinctive “Crack!” when utilized.

Cracker Cow Hunt, by Casper McCloud, 1993. Probably a wee bit romanticized.

Please Get to the Point

Ok. When the U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821, the territory was described as a “vast, untamed wilderness, plentifully stocked with wild cattle,” and the cattle industry drove Florida’s economy for much of the 19th century. By 1850, the 120-mile Cracker Trail had been blazed following an east/west route across Florida from Fort Pierce to Bradenton. When people living in the early US state of Florida heard the whips of the cattlemen, they’d exclaim “Here come the Crackers!And that’s how the term came to refer to the intrepid souls that roamed the Florida countryside, herding cattle, and driving the herds to ports on both the East and West coasts for shipment. Wow! Florida Crackers were the early cowboys of Florida and arguably the first in the US.

One of the great Florida Cow Hunters, Bone Mizell. Painted by Frederic Remington.

The Crackers of Pinellas and St. Pete

So now that we know about the origin of the Cracker, how does that tie in to the sub-peninsula many of us call home? Well, you probably breezed over the point I made above about the cattle being free-range. You see, this was a carry-over from British law. The law said that cattle ranchers did not need to build fences to keep cattle in, rather landowners who did not want to have cattle on their land had to build fences to keep them out. And Pinellas was a big cattle-ranching area of the state. So it goes without saying that as the population grew the roaming cattle started to become a bit of a nuisance. Williams Park, in downtown St. Pete erected its first fence around the entire property in the 1910s due to the proliferation of hogs and cows that kept wandering through. True story!

This article, about the WTIA from 1917 notes the problem with cattle and hogs roaming through the park, hence the fence!
St. Petersburg Times, from Aug. 1923

Changing Times

So in 1923 the law was changed and flipped around. It was met with strong resistance from the cattle industry, but the economy was shifting more toward tourism and it was time for the cows to stay put. Ranchers where now instructed to fence their own properties. There was of course a grace period, but eventually St. Pete hired five cowboys to round up roaming cattle that would need to either be claimed or they would be sold by the city.

It didn’t take too long, and I suppose there was probably a random cow sighting here or there for a while, but eventually all cattle were locked away by what would have been the last Florida “Crackers” these cowboys who were hired in 1923. Wow! Hard to believe that when St. Pete was in the midst of the Golden Age, building grand hotels, tourist infrastructure and ushering in trainloads of tourists that there were cowboys being hired to round up a bunch of rogue heifers. Who would have thought?

So there you have it. Everything you really needed to know about Florida Crackers that I could boil down to a single article!

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