Florida Cracker Cattle: A Spanish Legacy

October 9, 2019

From its oldest city to the origin of
its own name, the state of Florida can trace its roots back to the era of
Spanish exploration. But while that heritage is quite evident, few people
realize that the greatest legacy of the Spanish explorers is the state’s vast
agriculture industry. While it might be best known for citrus and other fruits
and vegetables, Florida agriculture actually started with Spanish cattle. Beginning with Ponce de León’s
expedition in 1521 and continuing well into the 1600s, herds of Andalusian
cattle were introduced into what is now the United States as a source of beef
for Spanish explorers, missionaries and colonists. The first ranches in North
America began to appear during this period. Founded by Jesuit and Franciscan
friars, they were used to manage the cattle owned by missions established
across northern Florida. By 1700, there were more than 30 privately owned
ranches–or ranchos–in Florida. As their herds increased, these ranchos began to
ship cattle to the large trading center of Cuba. Florida’s agriculture industry
had begun. Over time, however, Spanish settlements were abandoned in the face
of British expansion, and their livestock was left to roam wild in the harsh
Florida wilderness. Hardy and well adapted to the state’s climate and
environment, the cattle flourished on the extensive prairies and rangeland of
Florida. By the early 1800s, Florida’s pioneer farm families established
ranches across the newly acquired U.S. territory. Florida cowboys, who many
believe were nicknamed “crackers” for the sound made by their whips cracking in
the air, would hunt stray cows moving through the Palmetto covered landscape.
This breed of cattle became so identified with Florida’s rough
conditions, that it too was given the name “cracker”. Following the Civil War, Florida was one of the first states to establish
a viable economy in the South based on the trade of cracker cattle.
During the Reconstruction Era, many pioneer families were left with
worthless Confederate dollars. But families like the Carltons, the Likes,
the Summerlins, and the Henrys begin exporting cattle to Cuba on the
condition that they be paid in gold coin. The trade of cracker cattle was very
lucrative, and millions of Spanish gold doubloons poured into Florida’s post-war
economy. In one 10 year period, beginning in 1868, 1.6 million head of cattle were
shipped from the docks of Tampa, Manatee and Punta Rassa, making Florida America’s leading exporter. A number of Florida’s oldest and largest businesses began as
cattle ranching operations during this era and this cattle trade became the
foundation of Florida’s vast agricultural economy. But the reign of
the cracker cattle would soon come to an end. In the late 1800s, ranchers began to
import larger purebred beef and dairy breeds into Florida. To help these new
lines acclimate to the harsh Florida conditions, they were crossbred with the
hardy disease and parasite resistant Florida cracker cattle. But by the 1930s
another new breed was introduced to Florida’s cattle industry. Brahman cattle,
also resistant to parasites and disease, and able to withstand Florida’s heat,
were cross bred with cracker cattle and produced a better beef animal. Crossbreeding with Brahman cattle became very popular and significantly changed
the genetic makeup of herds. Almost without notice, the pure cracker breed–
descendants of 16th century Spanish cattle–was being bred out of existence. By the late 1960s, only a handful of pure
cracker cattle were left, scattered across the state on the ranches of
Florida’s oldest farming families. In June of 1965, Florida Agriculture
Commissioner Doyle Connor, in his keynote address to the Florida Cattlemen’s
Convention, encouraged Florida’s cattle industry leaders to do something to
preserve the historically significant cattle which had been the foundation of
the state’s cattle industry. Many agreed that the historic cracker breed was
about to be lost forever and members of the Florida Cattlemen’s
Association decided to take action. In 1970, Mrs. Zona Bass and Mrs. Zeta Hunt, daughters of pioneer cattleman James Durant, donated five heifers and a bull,
descendants of their father’s original herd, to the Florida Department of
Agriculture and Consumer Services. While a few small privately owned herds were
being maintained throughout the state, the Durant’s line was regarded by many
in the industry as having the purest cracker cattle bloodline. Entrusted with
the preservation of the breed, the department used these donated cattle to
begin building a herd. The cattle were kept at the department’s agricultural
complex in Tallahassee, and during the 1970s, as their numbers increased, a new
herd was established at the Withlacoochee State Forest. Animals were transferred between these herds to keep the genetic base broad while maintaining
the pure Durant’s bloodlines. Other cracker cattle herds were established
during the same time period by the Division of Parks and Recreation at Lake
Kissimmee State Park and the Paynes Prairie State Preserve. To ensure the
purity of the herds, a selection and screening program was implemented in
1985. Cattle that did not meet strict breed criteria were culled from the
herds. Breeding stock from these nucleus herds is made available to interested
parties through annual sales. The department continues to maintain the
Durant’s line of cracker cattle, occasionally bringing in Durant’s line
cattle from other cracker herds to broaden the genetic base. To ensure the preservation of the breed,
the Florida Cracker Cattle Association was formed in 1988. Through adopted breed standards and an evaluation committee, the Association selected cattle to be
registered as foundation stock. In 1989, the historic first annual Florida
Cracker Cattle Association gathering was held at the Withlacoochee State Forest.
Since 1990, the annual gatherings have included a public sale of cracker cattle
from private and state herds, giving folks the opportunity to be a part of
this preservation effort. The annual gathering and sales are hosted by the
Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in conjunction with the Florida
Cracker Cattle Association. Today Florida cracker cattle are prized as living
tangible links to Florida’s agricultural heritage and they’re making a place for
themselves in Florida’s future.

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