In 1987, a group of energetic individuals, with a love and respect for history, came together to form the Florida Cracker Trail Association, to recreate a part of Florida’s past that has become a traditional event. The Annual Cross-State Ride serves to highlight and preserve the importance of Florida’s role in the introduction of horses and cattle into the New World as well as the birth and continuance of the cattle and horse industries by Florida’s future settlers and their descendants. Community developers are moving into the heartland of Florida, buying huge multi-thousand acre ranches and converting this wild land to tracts of housing. As a result, the area’s history is being threatened.
In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de León landed on the shores of Florida in an attempt to colonize. Thwarted and attacked by Native Americans, the colonists abandoned their quest, leaving behind the first livestock in North America… horses, hogs and Andalusian cattle, the ancestors of the Texas Longhorns.
Florida was mostly wide, green spaces (natural pastureland) and livestock bred and ran wild for centuries. In northern Florida, those who raised cattle fought Indian raids, mosquitoes, fever ticks, storms, swamps and snakes.
By the 1800s, the Seminole nation possessed extensive herds (5,000 to 50,000 head) of cattle. As Indian and white settlers moved south, so did the cattle, searching for new pastures.
As railroads reached into Florida, it became a chief supplier of cattle to the Confederacy for hides, tallow, leather and meat during the Civil War.
Florida was an open range. There was not a fenced pasture anywhere in the state and cattle roamed freely. Rustling became particularly widespread by the second half of the 18th century, and was one of the elements that led to the Seminole Wars.
Following the Civil War, a rugged brand of individual settled along Florida’s east coast and central corridor. These early settlers became known by their Northern neighbors, as Florida Crackers, Cracker Cowmen or Cow Hunters.
The early Crackers would hunt and round up cows over the wooded rangelands and miles and miles of open plains, in the hammocks, and by the rivers and streams, and had a unique way of herding cattle. The Crackers relied on bullwhips to flush cows out of the palmetto scrub and spur on oxen that pulled their carts and wagons. They used 10- to 12-foot-long whips made of braided leather. The snaps of these whips would break the sound barrier making a loud CRACK.
Physicists Alain Goriely and Tyler McMillen at the University of Arizona explain: “The crack of a whip comes from a loop traveling along the whip, gaining speed until it reaches the speed of sound and creates a sonic boom. Even though some parts of the whip travel at greater speeds, it is the loop itself that generates the sonic boom.”
The sound earned the Cowmen the nickname of Crackers.
The crack could be heard for miles, so they also used them to communicate with each other, like a form of Morse code, and were able to identify each other by their whip cracks.
Many Crackers rode rugged, rather small horses known as cracker ponies and relied on herd dogs to help get a cow out of a marsh, work a hundred steers into a tidy group and move cattle along the trail. A good dog, a horse, and whip were all the tools a true Cracker needed.
The Crackers survived in difficult conditions. They fought off panthers, wolves, bears, and cattle rustlers and spent weeks or months on cattle drives across difficult marshes and dense scrub woods, often enduring burning heat, torrential thunderstorms, and hurricane winds.
Today, the term Florida Cracker refers to an independent, self-reliant cowboy and the lifestyle that goes with that character.
Each year, the Crackers gathered west of Fort Pierce to drive their giant herd of scrub cattle west across the state toward Bradenton and then to Tampa, Punta Gorda, and Punta Rassa, to ship them to Cuba.
Needing provisions for the trip, but having no money, Crackers often stocked up at P.P. Cobb’s General Store in Fort Pierce. Mr. Cobb let them fill their saddlebags with his merchandise and pay him after they had sold their herds to the Cubans, who were willing to pay in Spanish gold coins.
The Cracker Trail was the only dry route across Florida.
To the north, the Kissimmee River and its floodplains blocked the way.
To the south, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades made passage impossible.
Each year, the Florida Cracker Trail Cross-State Ride honors the Cracker Cowmen and their history.
On November 20, 2000, the Florida Cracker Trail was selected as a Community Millennium Trail. Millennium Trails is a partnership between the White House Millennium Council, the Department of Transportation, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the National Endowment for the Arts and other public agencies and private organizations. The goal of Millennium trails is the creation of a nation-wide network of trails that protect natural environment, interpret history and culture, and enhance alternative transportation, recreation and tourism.