Monday, September 27, 2010

Ponce de León's accidental gift

Courtesy of
The breed was small, tough and agile – the result of centuries of crossbreeding in Spain.

Explorer Juan Ponce de León brought the ancestors of what became the Cracker Horse to Florida in 1521. He hadn’t planned to abandon them but his departure from Florida was kind of hasty.

Ponce de León brought 50 horses and other domestic animals, including Spanish cattle. He also brought 200 men and farming equipment. He planned to set up a colony.

But the native Calusas didn’t want new neighbors. They attacked the Spaniards to make it clear that visitors were not welcome, especially ones who were planning to stay. Ponce de León was hit with a poison arrow during the melee and his men got the message.

They set sail quickly and headed back to Havana, where Ponce de León died from his wound. They left the cattle and the horses in Florida to fend for themselves.

The horse breed was small, tough and agile – the result of centuries of crossbreeding in Spain, where the Spanish Sorraia and the North African Barb eventually became the Iberian horse in the 16th century.

The horses and cattle roamed free and thrived, adapting to their new environment and becoming breeds apart and specially suited to Florida. Explorers who followed Ponce de León brought horses to Florida, too.

During the English Period (1763-1783) and the Second Spanish Period (1783-1821), horse breeding and cattle ranching were well established, built from the feral Spanish herds.

By the 1760s, when Seminoles were breaking away from the Creek nation and moving into Florida, the horse breed the Spanish explorers had brought to the New World was quite at home.

In another 50 years or so, the United States took possession of Florida and encouraged settlers to move into the new territory. These descendants of Colonial era Scots-Irish and English American pioneers streamed into the peninsula, established farms and raised cattle.

They were called Crackers. Historians still debate the origin of the term. Some note that in Middle English, the word crack meant entertaining conversation as in cracking a joke. It also was used to describe a braggart. "What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?" asks Austria in the Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John.

The Florida cow hunter or Cracker cowman didn’t use lassos like their Spanish or western counterparts, for such tools weren’t suited to the palmetto prairies. Instead, they used braided leather cow whips and dogs. The cracking sound of the whips gave rise to the Cracker name, suggest others.

Given some cowmen’s reputations for being raconteurs, the two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In any case, the lean, quick horses they rode and the scrub cows they drove acquired their names from the men who herded them.

Florida Cracker horses have remained a vital part of cattle ranching in the state. They are known for having strength, endurance and “cow sense,” a strong herding instinct. They are 54 to 60 inches high and weigh 750 to 900 pounds. They are quick animals with a fast walking gait.

The Cracker Horse was nearly lost during the Depression. A government program designed to provide help to ranchers had unintended consequences.

Before the 1930s, cattle roamed the state free and cow men rode Florida Cracker horses to herd them. During the Depression, though, cattle were shipped to Florida from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl but some of the cows had screwworms, which had to be treated. So fencing and dipping vats were introduced for the first time in Florida.

Ranchers started using the larger Quarter Horse to work the cattle. The Florida Cracker Horse lost demand and became rare.

Only a few old-time ranching families continued to breed the Florida Cracker Horse, among them the Ayers, Bronsons, Harveys, Matchetts, Partins and Whaleys.

The Florida Cracker Horse Association was organized in 1989 to search for remnant herds of Cracker Horses. The non-profit organization’s mission is to promote the horse as a valuable and vital part of Florida’s heritage.

It is dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of the Cracker Horse as distinct and unique Colonial Spanish breed descended from the horses of Juan Ponce de León.

Information from the Florida Cracker Horse Association, Juan Ponce de Leon and the Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida (2000) by Robert H. Fusion, Cracker: Cracker Culture in Florida History (2006) by Dana Ste Claire and Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee Peoples (1996) by John K. Mahon and Brent R. Weisman was used in this report.