What are Cracker Cattle and How Did They Get Here?
by Christa Carlson-Kirby, Livestock Extension Agent
Many people have heard of Florida Cracker Cattle but they are unaware of their place in Florida's history. Florida cracker cattle are the direct descendants of Spanish cattle brought to the New World with Ponce De Leon in 1521. De Leon received fatal wounds in an Indian attack and his explorers returned to the ship leaving the cattle behind. Some of the cattle may have crossed with other milk cows from the early colonists. Photos of the cattle from as early as 1908 show cattle were more solid in color. It is believed that the spotting patterns seen today were from the influence of the milk cows that bred with the cracker bulls.
Jesuit and Franciscan Friars came to the New World on a mission to convert the Indians to Christianity They also used the Indians as labor to tend the livestock and crops. It is believed this is how the first ranches in North America were born. By 1618, cattle ranches were expanding. This led to larger herds and cattle being shipped to Cuba, developing the first industry in the New World. By 1700, tax collector reports indicated there were 30 privately owned ranches in Florida with over 20,000 cattle.
During the Civil War, Florida became the leading supplier of beef to both the confederate and union troops. Due to Florida's cattle industry, they were one of the first states to establish an economy after the war. Exporting cattle to Cuba once again resumed with the pioneer families requiring that they be paid in gold. These cattle were exported through the ports of Tampa, Manatee, and what was then known as Punta Rassa. Cattle ranching operations were the beginning of many of Florida's oldest and largest businesses, some still in operation today.
With the importation of European cattle to Florida in the 1800's we began to see cross-breeding with the cracker cattle. Once the Brahman cattle were introduced to Florida even more cross-breeding was taking place to produce a more tolerant breed of cattle for the environment. By the late 1960's, the cracker cattle were being cross-bred out of existence, so members of the Florida Cattlemen's Association approached the Commissioner of Agriculture. In response, the Durrance family of Fort Bassinger donated 5 heifers and a bull to the state to develop a state herd of Florida Cracker Cattle to preserve the breed. These cattle were kept in Tallahassee at the Agricultural Complex. Over the years other cattle were donated for the same purpose. As the numbers increased, state herds were established at the Withlacoochee State Forest, Lake Kissimmee State Park and at the Paines Prairie State Preserve. In 1985 a selection panel was established to ensure these state herds met strict breed criteria. Those animals that displayed evidence of cross-breeding were culled from the herd.
Some of the guidelines established were based on size, bone characteristics, coloration and spotting pattern, muscling, head type and horn structure. Since cracker cattle were descendants of Spanish cattle they carried similar characteristics. The size of the cattle should be small to moderate, with animals weighing between 600 and 1000 pounds. Some animals are known as Guinea Cracker Cattle, weighing only about 500 pounds. The cracker cattle colorations are most commonly variations of black, red, brown, brindle, or yellow. Some spotting is accepted, unless it is similar to that of a Holstein cow. They tend to be light muscled and not desirable for commercial beef production. However, their meat is very palatable. The horn structure of cracker cattle is unique, setting them apart from the Texas Longhorn. Cracker cattle horns point up from the base and tip back. A Texas Longhorn's horns grow out before growing up. It is thought that from the cattle maneuvering through the brush of Florida their horns developed this shape.
Cracker cattle hold a special place in Florida's history. Not only was Florida the first territory of the New World to have cattle, but they were also the first to have cowboys. Florida was also the first to develop industry in the New World, providing many of the early settlers with lucrative income. Some of the earliest of pioneer families owning cattle were the Carltons, Lykes, Hendrys, Aldermans, and the Wells.
In order to thin the herds of Cracker Cattle, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services holds an annual FCCA Cracker Gatherin' at the Withlacoochee State Forest near Brooksville. This event was first held in 1989 and is still in existence today. The event includes a sale of cracker cattle and horses so interested parties can own a piece of Florida's history.