Title: Florida Cracker Cattle
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 its best-known for citrus and other fruits and vegetables, Florida agriculture actually started with Spanish cattle.
Beginning with Ponce de Leon’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, whom 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 Lykes, the Summerlins, and the Hendrys began 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 1800's, 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 cross-bred with the hardy disease- and parasite-resistant Florida Cracker cattle.
But by the 1930s, a 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; cross-breeding 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 Conner, 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. Zetta Hunt, daughters of pioneer cattleman James Durrance, 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 through out the state, the “Durrance 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 Durrance 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 Durrance line of Cracker Cattle, occasionally bringing in “Durrance 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 Gatherin' was held at the Withlacoochee State Forest.
Since 1990 the annual Gatherin’s 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 Gatherin’ 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.