The Wild, Wild West, Florida

A Florida cracker from the 18th century. 📸: Florida Memory
A Florida cracker from the 18th century.
📸: Florida Memory

Rustic survival and free-spirited roaming

Back in the early days of Orlando, there were orange groves, cowboys and historical cow pies.

What’s in a name

The term “cracker” as it applies to Florida’s cattlemen has disputed origins. Dating as far back as Shakespeare’s times, it was used to refer to someone offering entertaining conversation, or immigrants and lower-class people. In America’s early years, it referred to the settlers who roamed the frontiers. These “lawless rascals” would eventually roam south to Florida and become the area’s cowboys (or cowhunters or cowmen.) The term now holds pride for those who associate with folk culture, but it is also associated with the cracking of the whip used by herdsmen.

The original cowboys

While cowboys are most often associated with the wild, wild West, Florida has the longest history of cattle ranching in the U.S. Cattle herding in Florida dates back to the 17th century, but it became a way of life leading up to the Civil War. Because of the harsh conditions the cowboys survived (think living in bug-infested, humid Florida without AC), the gritty and wild way of the cracker cowmen was a lifestyle that many were proud of.

In other words

Florida crackers were originally Scots-Irish people who came to the Americas to evade the political circumstances of the “old world”. They originally settled in the Carolinas before making their way to the south and eventually Florida. When they first started populating Florida, these roaming settlers were considered unruly and ill-mannered and a bit irritating to people like Florida’s governor, who wrote in some documents, “We don’t know what to do with these crackers — we tell them to settle this area and they don’t; we tell them not to settle this area and they do.”

Controversial cow pies

 During the Seminole and Civil Wars, some of Florida’s cattlemen profited from selling beef, hide and other products to soldiers, particularly those in the Confederate army. Some of the trade’s most famous leaders, such as Jacob Summerlin — aka the King of the Crackers and one of Orlando’s founders — were slave owners who supplied provisions to Confederate troops. Emerging from these rougher parts of the history, however, is the cultural sense of rustic survival and free-spirited roaming that Florida’s original cracker cowboys possessed.

Where are they now?

Raising cattle is still one of Florida’s biggest industries, coming in third for the largest number of cattle of any state east of the Mississippi. For Central Florida, the majority of the Florida crackers can be found in Osceola County.