Tracing the Florida Crackers

Have you ever read a book you could never forget? A Land Remembered is one of my favorites. I am not alone, as the book has been ranked #1 Best Florida Book eight times by Florida Monthly Magazine.

Author, Patrick Smith tells about the life of Tobias Maclvey, a cow hunter who battled storms, rustlers, and mosquitos to build a kingdom out of a swamp. I enjoyed traveling back through time with Tobias as he rode his horse through the Florida scrub to round up free range cattle. Smith’s words inspired me to visit the cow camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park, where history comes alive.

Read on as we venture back in time to the Florida of 1876.

One hundred fifty years ago, Florida had few roads, no railroads, and none of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. Pioneer families survived by hunting wild animals. The early settlers discovered the land contained thousands of free range cattle and horses originally brought to America by the Spanish. A market for beef developed in Cuba and soon Florida cow hunters traveled by horseback through the wilderness, catching cows and herding them to Punta Rassa, near Fort Myers.

I meandered down the trail to the cow camp surrounded by huge live oaks draped with Spanish moss.

The camp consisted of a holding pen for the cows and a primitive shelter for the men.

Not exactly where I would want to spend the night.

My husband and I joined the group around the fire. Rick, the one and only cow hunter on the premises served us black coffee he had brewed over the open flame.

I took one sip and handed my serving to Herb. How can a place with so many cows, have no cream?

Rick explained that unlike the cowboys of the west, Florida cow hunters used trained dogs to drive their cattle. The many marshes, hammocks, and flatwoods of the Florida landscape prevented the use of the lariat.

The cow hunters carried a whip, known as a drag. The loud crack of the drag moved the cattle along. Because of this the cow hunters became known as “crackers.”

Rick emphasized that the crackers did not whip the animals, the drag was only a noise maker.

Once the cattle were delivered to market, the crackers were paid in Spanish doubloons. Gold became the common currency of the south Florida frontier.

The cow camp is open every weekend from October 1st to May 1st. For more information go to Lake Kissimmee State Park.