By Jon Wilson
Mention the word "cowboy" and visions of the American West come to mind. But long before Florida cowboys were pushing cattle along the Chisholm Trail, rough-hewn Crackers were carving out cattle country on Florida ranges.
It was a tough life when range wars could explode in an instant and rustling cattle could lead to swift justice at the end of a blade or rope.
In the late 1800s Florida produced perhaps its most legendary cowman: Jacob Summerlin, a former Seminole War soldier and Civil War blockade runner.
Summerlin’s career as a cattleman earned him respect -- and a fortune. Even as one of the state’s richest men he told a New York journalist: “I am nothing under the sun but a native-born sun-baked old Florida cracker.”
What was it like in Summerlin’s day? Renowned artist and writer Frederic Remington came to Florida to experience the Cracker lifestyle. In his eyes it paled in comparison to the glamorized version of western cowboys.
“The mists the miasma and the mosquitoes settle over their dreary camp talk ” Remington wrote. “In place of the wild stampede there is only the bellowing in the pens and instead of the plains shaking under the dusty air as the vaqueros plough their fiery broncos through the milling herds, the cattle-hunter wends his lonely way through the ooze and rank grass while the dreary pine trunks line up and shut the view.”
Time and distance have a way of softening edges and the land and lifestyle that Remington dismissed is today the subject of conservation efforts – often championed by cattle ranchers and their families.
“I just hope that future generation can see a Florida like I have seen it ” rancher Bud Adams told conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr. “If I could come back here 50 to 75 years from now and see a working ranch with cowboys and horses and cattle and that sort of thing in that sort of clean environment that would be my greatest hope.”
If today’s cattle industry is any indication, Adams’ hopes may come true.
Largely overshadowed by theme parks interstates and urban congestion are Florida ranchlands. Across the state more than seven million acres support a lifestyle and a living for Summerlin’s spiritual descendants.
From pre-dawn to after sundown, cattlemen are still riding the Florida range, pushing more than one million head of cattle. That figure places Florida among the nation’s top 15 beef-producing states and third among states east of the Mississippi River.
And that’s only part of the current-day cowmen’s culture. Rodeos still bring crowds to Arcadia, Homestead, Bonifay and dozens of other rural areas. In Kissimmee, the Silver Spurs Rodeo is the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi. It’s also its oldest getting its start in 1944.
You know what’s even older? Florida’s cattle family tree.
The first cattle were brought here by Spanish settlers in 1521 but neither the cattle nor conquistadors’ claims on the land sat well with Calusa Indians.
They attacked the settlers, mortally wounded their famous leader, Juan Ponce de Leon, and scattered the cattle. Of course there were more Spaniards – and more cattle – where those came from.
On his visit to establish St. Augustine in 1565, Pedro de Menendez de Aviles brought cattle that led to the creation of ranchos and missions, and simultaneously much of the cattle grazing on Paynes Prairie near Gainesville.
Once again, this was too much for native Indians, whose crops were often trampled by free-roaming bulls and cattle. In what may be the first clash between “cowboys and Indians” in 1647, a band of Indians attacked Spanish ranchers and padres in their missions.
As time passed, cattle were seen as a benefit. In the mid-1700s legendary Alachua Seminole chief Ahaya (aka: Cowkeeper) moved onto Payne’s Prairie, established it as both a stronghold for his people and grazing land for a huge herd.
Following the Civil War, Florida became a wide-open free range and the term “cow hunter” entered the vernacular. Armed with long whips and riding wiry ponies sometimes called ‘marshtackies’, the ‘cow hunters’ galloped into grim swamps through tropical storms and across alligator wallows in pursuit of branded and unbranded animals, fighting mosquitoes they swore “were thick enough to smother campfires.”
Although their drives were shorter than those of their western counterparts, they were no less strenuous. Among their routes were crossings of the Suwannee, Apalachicola, Kissimmee and St. Johns rivers and a popular destination was Punta Rassa near Fort Myers, where cattle were shipped to the thriving Cuban market.
These cattle drives continued into the 20th century until fencing laws introduced in 1949 ended the era of the open range.
Still the ranching culture survives and there are ways you can become a part of it.
Ways to Experience Florida’s Cowboy Culture
1. Cowboy Camp
To get an idea of what life was like for Florida cowboys, visit the 1876 cow camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park. The camp is authentic, including the persona of the cowman with a whip. A dozen head of cattle, a tough little cow pony and coffee brewing over an oak-log campfire help complete the scenario.
Park rangers usually act out the part of the cowman. They sleep in a chickee -- a shelter with no walls and a palmetto-thatched roof.
Lake Kissimmee State Park
14248 Camp Mack Road
Daily 8 a.m. to sundown
Among Florida’s many rodeos, Arcadia’s All-Florida Championship Rodeo is one of the best. Events include bull riding, bareback bronco riding, saddle bronco riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping and barrel racing.
In town you can see reenactments of shootouts reminiscent of old Florida days when Arcadia was known as Tater Hill Bluff. Arcadia also is host to seven youth rodeos from September through April.
124 Heard Street (just off U.S. 17)
The Saturday night rodeo at Westgate River Ranch Resort will also buck you up. It features bull riding, trick riding and barrell racing. Kids get to try their skills in a "calf scramble. For the meeker sorts, try the mechancial bull, or scoot your boots at the dance Party.
Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo
3200 River Ranch Boulevard
River Ranch, FL 33867
Back in the wild 1870s, Immokalee was a remote settlement that was home to a motley collection of cowmen trappers hunters traders and missionaries. That historic era was the inspiration for The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch, where iving history programs and preserved original buildings tell the story of the cow hunters, ranchers and pioneer-spirited families.
The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch
1215 Roberts Avenue
4. Home on the Range
To witness the landscape that challenged early Spanish ranchers and Seminole chief Cowkeeper, visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park south of Gainesville.
Artist and naturalist William Bartram referred to it as the ‘Great Alachua Savannah’ when he wrote about his visit here in 1774 and today it still has the power to evoke feelings of the past.
The preserve includes 20 distinct biological communities that provide habitats for wildlife and livestock, including alligators, bison, horses and more than 270 species of birds. Camping and hiking, cycling and equestrian trails are available on 22 000 acres.
100 Savannah Blvd
5. Round ‘Em Up
For more bits and pieces on Florida’s cowman culture, check out ‘Get to Know Florida’s Cracker Culture’ with links to information on Yeehaw Junction Joe Dunn (‘The Florida Trailblazer’) Carlton Ward Photography the Orange County Historical Museum and especially the Florida Cracker Trail Association.
Cowboys or Cowmen?
Cowboys, a term popularized in Western lore, didn’t settle quite well in Florida where the preferred term was ‘cowmen’ or ‘cow hunters.’ Fifth-generation cattle man Doyle Rigdon draws a prideful distinction.
“I’ve seen the west and sure it’s rough
But let them cowboys come here
and see if they’re tough enough
To work all day in sugar-sand cowpens
The heat and humidity hot enough to purge sins
Or fight skeeters in hordes thick enough to kill cattle
Or race breakneck through a hammock
and try to stay in the saddle.”
Come to Florida cowboy country and you'll continue to see that pride ring through.
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