I recently came across my dad's old lariat, one of the few keepsakes I have of him. As soon as this stiff old rope got in my hands a flood of memories came back and got me reminiscing...
Come on you Cowboys! I can still hear my dad holler this out... whether it was to me and my 2 brothers or to me and my boyhood friends or even our Sunday school class! This was just my dad's rallying cry to get us moving! I remember at some point thinking "are we really cowboys?.. Why does he keep calling us cowboys?" My confusion arose from the Hollywood version of "cowboy" which had been planted in my head from watching tv shows such as Bonanza, The Lone Ranger, John Wayne etc. These Hollywood cowboys were nothing like us... I didn't own a six shooter nor a big felt white hat!
So due to the Hollywood version in my head of what a cowboy is supposed to be... growing up I never thought I was a cowboy. This was a lesson in life to not base your personal assessments of WHO you are by the Hollywood version... Or today by the Instagram Influencer version! The reality of course was we were very much bona fide cowboys!
Looking back with a bit of research I find that not only were we indeed cowboys, just as my dad referred to us, but we were one small link in a long chain of cattlemen going back almost half a millennia in Florida.
Florida is built on cattle. Indeed cattle was a big reason english speaking Europeans decided to ever venture down into these most inhospitable of environs! The only other reason to sneak down there was to escape your slave owner and/or the law! Florida has always been sort of a place you could go hide out! But Florida's true gold rush was not for gold but for CATTLE.
Ask any American the first thought that pops into their head when they hear FLORIDA? How many out of a 100 would say "cattle"? I would guess zero. Most would reply- Beaches, Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World, Spring Break, Daytona Beach, South Beach, Cruises, Vacation, Heaven, Hell, Florida Man, Alligators, bikinis, mosquitoes, swamps or maybe Oranges/citrus... but not cattle!
The reality however is that even today Florida plays a leading role in cattle production. There are almost 20,000 cattle ranches in the sate of Florida and many of these ranches remain small family owned, non-industrial operations. In 2014 Florida's cattle inventory stood at 877,000 head! Farming operations tend to be smaller in Florida with land being chopped up for development at a rapid pace... the average farm size in Florida is just under 200 acres.
Indeed rampant development and exponential rise in land values will likely be the end of the Florida cowboy in our lifetimes. Every time I take a drive from my family farm in Levy County down to Orlando the scenery changes. I used to hear of this place called "The Villages?" but now I see it for over 30 mins of driving at 70 mph on the Florida Turnpike! The Villages used to be mostly cow fields and gopher tortoises... now its "Golden Years Active Adults". The expansion and construction of The Villages is constant... and that's just one development of many in Florida.
With the current "Blue Exodus" phenomenon taking place... where folks are leaving both blue states and cities for the lower taxes and the private property rights/security of red states... the flood of people into Florida has increased. Since the corona virus epidemic started home sales in parts of Florida have doubled with right at 1,000 people per day moving into the state! Let me say that again for the folks in the back! 1,000 PEOPLE PER DAY MOVE TO FLORIDA!
Before the blue exodus Florida had averaged 777 new domestic migrants per day for the past 35 years! But now it is even greater! According to US census data Florida had the highest level of net domestic migration from 2017-18. Really its Florida and Texas in a race to recolonize people from the northeast and midwest. The corona virus epidemic in NYC was a tipping point there, spurring the current mass exodus to places like Palm Beach county.
But wait... is Florida a red state? a blue state? or a purple state? The short answer.. it depends. From a presidential politics perspective it is currently a red state but has been blue about as many times in the past... it can go either way in that measure. But locally in terms of taxes, local governance, state laws, law enforcement culture, stand your ground laws, the current state governor, private property rights, etc... Florida is firmly red. Florida seems to be drifting further red in all areas due to an aging conservative leaning population, more and more retired military and nationalistic hispanic immigrants.
Of course trying to define Florida and put it in any category will certainly make a fool of smart men. Florida is the most complicated place I have ever been and defies any label you might want to stick on it. So we try to stick a label on Florida and before we even turn around the high humidity slides that label right off! The state, like us native Floridians... is complicated and not easily labelled!
Trying to label any individual Floridian is a dangerous game... just as my dad placed the cowboy moniker on us much to my childhood confusion... so too shall folly befall ANYONE who thinks they can put any single Floridian into any one definable bin! I recall vividly such a moment while attending graduate school at the University of Florida in the Wildlife Ecology Department. I was in a course titled "Research Design in Wildlife Ecology" this particular class was rather small with perhaps 30 students. This unusually small class size greatly facilitated classroom discussion. On the first day of the course we went around the room and each introduced ourselves and described our research projects. I remember after finishing my introduction everyone in the room was staring at me mouth ajar. In that instant fear gripped me and I assumed my zipper was down or perhaps I accidentally mentioned I eat meat! or both! Finally a female student who I just learned recently completed her undergrad at the University of Chicago rather rudely blurted out "Where in the world are you from?" "Dump Truck County, Alabama!??? The entire class including the professor erupted in raucous laughter. As they laughed I realized I was totally alone as the only Floridian in the room. Eventually the laughter subsided and I explained "No quite the contrary... I am from about 35 miles away from this room, it's all of you who are from somewhere else!" This of course is where I should have stopped my explanation... but my inner Florida Man had to add... "furthermore if you don't like the way I talk (directed at the University of Chicago alum) about 3 miles west of here lies interstate 75 with three full lanes flowing north, upon which you can point the snout of your Honda Civic northbound and head right back up to Chicago with nary one of us Floridians trying to stop you!" I was not called on again to speak in class somehow escaping the course with a passing grade!
This singular experience illustrates how every single native Floridian feels almost on a daily basis. A minority in their own home state soon to be swallowed up in a wave of humanity flooding the state from all directions. While today's Florida gold rush might be to escape high taxes and winter weather the original push south was to take advantage of a gold mine in cattle, free for the taking, just waiting to be exploited.
So let's set up the conditions for that original first wave immigration of english speaking Europeans. Sometime before these english speaking cowboys came down perhaps the first cowboy in Florida was a Seminole leader named Ahaya (Ca. 1710-1783) or as European-Americans called him "COWKEEPER". Since I am an english speaker I will use Cowkeeper. Cowkeeper maintained a very large herd of Spanish origin cattle on the largest ranch in Florida called la Chua or what we now would say Alachua. Cowkeeper's main house or ranch headquarters was located on a bluff overlooking a sink hole now called the Alachua Sink which drains current day Paynes Prairie just south of Gainesville FL where I sat in those University of Florida classes to be laughed at due to my heritage. College campus's are so inclusive!
Cowkeeper and the Seminoles were not necessarily Florida natives either, likely coming down into the region to escape the rather brutal English just to the north. At the time Spanish influence and concomitant cattle ranching in Florida and other parts of the new world was starting to weaken, creating a bit of a power vacuum in Florida wherein the seminoles could find a haven and a supply of ready cattle. The word "Seminole" is indeed derived from the Spanish word "cimarones" meaning wild and untamed... Basically to the Spanish these were "unChristianized" people. Most likely it wasn't the cattle that lured Cowkeeper down but more so it was to escape the ruthless English in GA and AL. But it is indeed the presence of the cattle that enabled his people to stay and thrive.
So how did these cattle get to Florida before Cowkeeper? The first cattle and pigs to arrive in the United States was to Florida! (javelina native to the southwest US are not pigs) Andalusian (Spanish) cattle and European pigs brought by the expeditions of Ponce de Leon in 1521 and Don Diego De Maldonado in 1540 escaped and survived in the wilds of Florida! Florida's first exotic animals! By the founding of America's first city- St. Augustine in 1565 cattle ranching as an organized venture was well under way. These early herds served to feed the garrison and surrounding communities near the fort. Eventually by the 1600s these cattle naturalized in the wild and flourished to an extent they became Florida's first major export product with schooners carrying 200 head or more per load regularly making the trip down to Cuba.
By 1700 Florida held over 20,000 head of cattle! Between 1702 & 1704 a series of British-Creek raids devastated these early Florida Spanish ranches leaving things in place for Cowkeeper and his people to take over the enterprise. The Seminoles remained Florida's major cattle producers throughout the first half of the 18th century. But unfortunately for the Seminoles, the English caught on to the availability of this resource and with the advent of British rule in west Florida by 1763 cowmen from Georgia and the Carolinas began to spread into north Florida. This brought on a period of intense "cattle rustling" a condition which helped bring about the rather brutal Seminole wars of the 1800's.
A representative picture of Florida Andalusian cattle, courtesy Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
*****And... side note... since I also mentioned pigs... at this very moment Florida has over 500,000 wild free ranging pigs! Second to Texas only because TX is so much bigger. Of course horses were also brought over in this same period with Ponce and Don Diego... but since I am not a huge horse fan I am skipping over that part.... I am a huge fan of hoofed animals I can eat!
My grandmother Viola Barlow (Goss) holding one of my older brothers in front of our Florida cattle, near Plant City FL circa 1965.
By the start of the 1800's all the cattle rustling between the Americans and the Seminoles was taking a toll... the rustling was also inter tribal as well, a truly lawless time. The Seminole wars were actually 3 military conflicts between the United States Army and the Seminoles from about 1816 to 1858. The Seminole wars were the longest and most expensive of all the Indian Wars in US history. I am not a Seminole history expert but according to Wikipedia here is a brief explanation I have put together for each of the 3 conflicts.
The First Seminole War 1816-1819: General Andrew Jackson's excursions into Florida against the Seminoles. Leading to the cessation of Florida by Spain to the US in 1821. Hostilities temporarily ended with the treaty of Moultrie Creek in 1823 requiring the Seminoles to leave northern Florida and be confined to a large reservation in the center of the Florida peninsula.
The Second Seminole War 1835-1842: This conflict was the result of the US government attempting to force the Seminoles to leave Florida altogether and move to Indian Territory per the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Only a few hundred Seminoles survived in Florida by the end of this conflict on an unofficial reservation in southwest Florida.
The Third Seminole War 1855-1858: A series of raids by US Army and settlers on the remaining Seminoles leading to Seminole reprisals and further skirmishes, with no large battles fought. By 1858 most of the remaining Seminoles agreed to be moved to Oklahoma... but an estimated 500 or so retreated deep into the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp.
At least two of my ancestors were involved in the Seminole wars of this era. My 4th great grandfather (maternal side) Lt. Alderman Carlton (US Army) was killed in a skirmish with Seminoles near Ft. Meade Florida in 1856. Grandpa Carlton was leading a group of soldiers... really just cowboys... when they got the call... The Tillis family farm near the fort was being attacked by a band of Seminoles. Lt Carlton told his men "boys there's work for us in those woods let's go!". In battle as he lay mortally wounded his last words were "I'm done, take my gun and kill one".
Lt. Alderman Carlton 1803-1856
The Carlton name lives on today and is well known as a Florida cattle producing family.
My kids and I at the battle site where Grandpa Carlton was killed near Ft Meade Florida.
Another ancestor who played a leading role in Florida history during this era was my 3rd great grandfather (paternal side) Rev John H Tucker 1785-1853. Rev Tucker was the first Southern Baptist Missionary in the territory and later state of Florida! It was a very dangerous assignment- turned down by all others! His travels between the safety of military forts and garrisons were indeed perilous. At one point he was attacked by Seminoles barely escaping with his life only to keep a souvenir of the event- a bullet lodged in his body for the rest of his days! Evidently God was on his side as he established well over 100 new churches in the territory... many of them still in existence today.
My kids and I visiting one of the Churches originally established by Rev Grandpa Tucker.
Throughout the early 1800s and the 3 Seminole wars cattle remained the driving resource of the territory and soon to be new state we know as Florida. The English speaking cowboys that arrived in the early 1800s were best described as and indeed often called COWHUNTERS. Remember the cattle in Florida had escaped from the Spanish almost 300 years prior! These were basically wild free roaming feral cows! Working cattle in those days was more akin to hunting.
An important thing to understand regarding cowhunters and the early history of Florida cowboys were these wild cattle were not contained by fences. For the most part fences did not exist in the state at all. At the cattle shipping ports there were pens and corrals to load the herded cows onto steamships but otherwise this was truly a free range era. Also understand most Florida cowhunters were not large landowners back then... maybe owning 80-160 acres. But many also owned no land.
A typical cowhunter had a horse, a whip and some cow dogs. And of course various firearms! While they might have a milk cow contained at their home... the vast majority of the herd was out there roaming the swamps, hammocks and pine flatwoods. Periodically this wild herd had to be rounded up and herded to one of the ports where they were exchanged for gold. This rounding up of the wild herd was more of a hunting expedition than an animal husbandry type event!
Because of all this Florida has the longest history of cattle producing than any state in the USA! Along with being called cowhunters at times Florida cowmen were also referred to as "crackers". With the term "cowboy" being more of a western word for cattlemen. The cracker reference was likely due to their use of long bullwhips to gather the herd on a cow hunt. It is written that by cracking the whips cowhunters not only corralled and drove the cattle to the ports but also communicated to each other as the whip crack could be heard by others in the hunting party over several miles.
Steamship ready for cattle at wharf in Punta Rassa FL late 1800's. Courtesy of Florida Memory State Library and Archives of Florida
Cattle drive near Bartow, FL 1890's Courtesy of Florida Memory State Library and Archives of Florida
I mentioned the lack of fences to contain cattle back in these wild times, but it is also worth noting... Florida has only very recently been tamed. Florida indeed was the last state to enact a statewide fencing law! This is a hard fact to believe when you look at modern Florida today with all the high speed roads, enormous cities, huge universities, busy airports and people! Finally in 1949 Florida became the last state to impose a mandatory fence law. This singular event basically ended the days of the Florida cowhunter or cracker. Cowhunters depended on free range access... mostly utilizing public lands or vast tracts of "absentee owner" lands.
Despite the 1949 Florida fence law certain isolated but large tracts of land in Florida actually remained free range even into my lifetime! One area only recently tamed was the "California Swamp" in Dixie county. This region of Dixie county was eventually acquired by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the mid 1980's for inclusion in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. At the time I was in high school and heavily involved in a Future Farmers of America (FFA) wildlife proficiency project, where I was working as a volunteer for the US Fish & Wildlife Service. I recall going into the California Swamp with the refuge manager Mr. Kenneth Litzenberger literally moments after this large land transaction had taken place with the federal government. As we traveled through the swamp free range cattle were abundant and local thieves were stealing everything they could... knowing their run was about to be over! Everything was being picked clean- cattle, palm trees, cypress trees, palmetto berries even the fiddler crabs were being hastily gathered up!
Me in the California Swamp helping to document stolen cypress timber on newly acquired federal lands. Photo by Kenneth Litzenberger circa 1985-86
With the fence law and the end of free range cattle the era of the cowhunter also closed. The 20th century brought sweeping changes to the cattle production industry in Florida and to the entire state in many ways. No more could a cowhunter make it with just a scraggy pony, bull whip and a few cow dogs... now one actually had to own both the land and the cattle! About this time the University of Florida began its extension programs to help transition the industry from the free range cowhunter days to the modern era of cattle production. New breeds of cattle were introduced to improve the stock from the rangy Spanish woods cows, with brahma and angus being the new look for Florida bovines. With these new breeds improvements in range quality were also ushered in, gone were the old ways of grazing woods cows on wiregrass and palmettos... these newer cattle needed real grass pastures! By the 1960's the green pastures of exotic Argentine bahia grass Paspalum notatum, were a common sight throughout the state to include the roadsides. I can remember my dad reminiscing when he was a kid there were no solid green grass pastures... only sand, palmettos and wire grass clumps.
From an article "Cracker Cowboys of Florida" published in Harper's new monthly magazine v91. issue 543, August 1895.
I am very grateful for the rich history I was born into and to have grown up on a 160 acre family cattle ranch. However at the time I admit working cows and cows in general were never "fun" or "romantic" to me! I can remember Saturday mornings I would quietly sneak into the living room... hoping to have an hour or two to watch the Saturday morning cartoons... Only to have my dad rush in and holler "Come on you cowboys, there's work for us in those woods!".
There was always work to be done... much of it involved repairing fences, gates, pens, or broken water pipes to the water troughs. There were also various seasons throughout the year when things got busy such as "weaning time"... when 20 or so yearlings would need to be moved to the "front 40" to be weaned off their mommas milk. As luck would have it our home sat in the middle of the 160 acres so there was a one week period where the yearlings were amassed just outside the rail fence confines of our front yard while the mamma cows were all gathered up against the back yard fence. It was a constant chorus of bellowing (how cows cry) in which no one in our household got any sleep...making for a very long week!
I can recall one period where we got a "bad bull". I can assure you having a "bad bull" is not good! Not only did this particularly randy brahma routinely destroy our fences but he always managed to put forth extremely large newborn calves. This required us to "pull" the calf from the mother cow as birthing could not be accomplished in the way God had intended! For the reader who has never worked cows I cannot begin to describe the shear gross drama this involved for both me and the cow! Often times I would need to reach shoulder deep into the mother cows vagina to ensure the newborn calfs head was not twisted back.. what we wanted to see was the calfs nose right between the tips of the front hooves... once we had this arrangement only then could we proceed with pulling the calf out. Since I had the skinniest, long arms, naturally it was my job to arrange the calf into the proper position! But despite all this more often than not we were successful and ended the effort by saving both the cow and calfs life. But on some occasions I took a little too long to get the calf in position or maybe we were a little late finding where the mom had snuck off to birth...and we would end up pulling a dead or dying calf. But we always saved the momma cow. I can still remember how great it felt when I saw that mean ass brindle color brahma bull in the cow hauler leaving out for the Gainesville cattle market to become a McDonalds burger!
Other than designated "deep vagina calf coaxer" my more regular position on our cowboy crew was that of chief surgeon. Wherein my most common surgical procedure was to castrate newly born bulls. Our strategy to "cut" bulls was to catch them freshly born... the newer the better. At this very young age the little bull could just barely walk and was rather easy for us to catch. My dad also felt this was a time when the procedure was less traumatic than it would be when the little bull was older... I was never real sure about that! If we were lucky we would catch the new bull still wet with the momma licking the new calf clean. This was all a great approach except for one crucial element... a very pissed off 1,200 lb. momma cow! Turns out momma cows do not like you snatching up their newborns and cutting on them! To assist us in this rather high stakes encounter we depended on our dogs... it was their job to completely distract the momma cow while I hastily performed the surgery. While my dad held the calf I was completely in the zone making very fast but precise work removing both testicles from the young bull. I can still recall the sound of the momma cow's hooves galloping after the dogs running in circles around me as I worked. In one particularly close call I can remember feeling the long trail of wet placenta afterbirth, which was still hanging out of the momma cow, slapping into my back as they ran by me! I became very fast at this procedure! I cut all our bulls from the time I was about 11 until I joined the Army at 17... probably castrating anywhere from 10-12 bulls a year in that period. When it was all done the dogs got a treat in two fresh testicles and momma was reunited with her calf... as quickly as it started it was all over.
Again at the time growing up... none of this was glamorous at all to me. It was nothing like the Hollywood version of a "cowboy". Nor did I realize the historical significance of it all as a part of Florida history, cowboy history and the settlement of the new world. It was just work. Mostly boring but at times life or death scary!
The only thing perhaps a little glamorous from all of this was showing a steer or pig in our local youth livestock fair. Mostly because as an exhibitor you got an extra week out of school resulting in a 2 week spring break! This was one heck of a deal and something you best believe I would capitalize on. Particularly considering this fell on the opening week of spring turkey season... a time not to be bothered with school at any cost! So every year I would enter either a steer or a pig into the livestock fair.
My mean ass show steer taken from our herd for the Suwannee River Livestock Fair my senior year of high school. 1987 (note the bent and damaged cattle panels, he would regularly jump these "gazelle" style only to land halfway on top of them). In Florida animals and people tend to be on the wild, meaner side!
Along with my bull cutting surgery I also regularly performed the procedure on that other Spanish heritage animal... the aforementioned Spanish woods pigs! Florida feral pigs in modern times have continued to flourish... unlike wild Spanish cattle the fence laws had no effect on their abilities to roam the country side. Today these pigs exist in sort of a legal limbo where no one really wants to claim them. Here is how it works... if the pig is on your property its your pig! As soon as it leaves your property to another it instantly becomes their pig! However should the pig run into the roadway causing damage to life or limb it is no one's pig... in other words the state does not claim ownership on state roadways!
While feral pigs are mostly a nuisance today, they can indeed be a delicacy. The importance of life giving sustenance these pigs provided to the earliest era of our country's settlement cannot be overstated. The feral pig should probably be our official national animal and at the very least be featured on currency, monuments and maybe even some state flags.
Castrating Spanish heritage feral pigs on our farm circa 1983
My way of life today with my own children is drastically different than how I grew up... likely in some good ways and some not so good. I do my best to give them a taste of old Florida and their cowhunter heritage but it's nothing to the extent that I experienced. As my own experience pales in comparison to what my Dad and those before him did and saw. Though my Dad did not have access to the AncestryDNA services I can recall him saying more than once "Florida Cracker runs deep in your blood". Through the use of AncestryDNA technology I have put my dad's words into living reality and learned a ton about my family history. It has been a fascinating journey and I tear up anytime I think of how awesome it would have been to share my findings with my dad. He would have been just as fascinated.
My Florida DNA story via Ancestry.com
Along with fascination of our new modern techy science world with the accuracy of DNA testing, I am sure my dad would also be wildly confused with everything else in the world now in 2020! For example I probably could not even begin to explain to my dad how I work... working from home... using zoom and microsoft teams... spending countless hours on "conference calls"... I can guess my dads reaction after I would try to explain all this to him... he would probably reply "Ok but when do you work?"
So as we charge forward towards 2021 the only thing I know to say to my kids is "Come on you cowboys we got work in them woods!"
Barlow family 1972
Barlow family 2020