Florida’s 500-year (Almost) Cattle History

Historians generally agree that Florida – and United States – cattle ranching got its start with Ponce de Leon in 1521. The Spanish explorer and conquistador brought horses and seven Andalusian cattle to Florida that year, according to a University of South Florida website, Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT).
Some scholars believe those first Spanish cattle – along with more brought by Don Diego de Maldonado in 1540 – escaped and survived in the wild, reports the Florida Department of State website, Florida Memory.
“Organized ranching began with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, when cattle from Spain and Cuba formed the basis of herds that fed the (Spanish) garrison and surrounding communities,” Florida Memory states. “Eventually Spanish colonists began exporting cattle to Cuba. During the 1600s, Spanish clergy raised cattle at the missions, where many Native Americans learned to tend them.”
Florida had approximately 34 ranches and 20,000 head of cattle by 1700, Florida Memory continues. “After British-Creek Indian raids in 1702 and 1704 devastated Florida cattle ranchers, Indians sustained cattle raising in Florida.” Cattle herding was economically vital to the early Seminole Indians, whose leader during part of the 1700s was named Cowkeeper.
“During British rule (1763-1783), English planters and Creek Indians in west Florida owned substantial cattle herds,” Florida Memory reports. “Cowmen from Georgia and the Carolinas also spread into north Florida during that period.”
“By the 1800s, the Seminole nation possessed extensive herds of cattle,” FCIT reports. It adds that Indians and white settlers migrated south as far as Lake Okeechobee to find new pastures for the cattle that provided them with beef.

UNDER THE U.S. FLAG
Florida Memory describes the history of cattle ranching in Florida under the United States’ flag: “When the U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821, it was described as a ‘vast, untamed wilderness, plentifully stocked with wild cattle.’” Florida’s scrub cattle were descended from Spanish and British breeds.
Florida cowmen “fought off panthers, wolves, bears and cattle rustlers” and spent weeks or months on cattle drives across marshes and scrub woods. “From central Florida they sometimes drove cattle as far as Jacksonville, Savannah and Charleston. This gradually changed in the 1830s when the cattlemen re-established trade with Cuba, and Tampa, Punta Gorda and Punta Rassa became important export ports.”
From the 1840s until the Civil War, cattle numbers increased rapidly and Florida was second only to Texas in per capita value of livestock in the South, Florida Memory continues. “After the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, cattlemen from the overstocked states of Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas homesteaded 200,000 acres in Florida. Some seized territory that the Seminoles had been forced to relinquish as a consequence of the Seminole Wars … By mid-century, ranchers were running large herds on the extensive open range in central and south Florida.”
Florida cattlemen provisioned armies during the Seminole, Civil and Spanish American wars. Florida Memory reports that they provided beef to both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War; according to FCIT, “Florida became the chief supplier to the Confederacy, both for meat and leather.”
For decades after the Civil War, trade boomed with Cuba, Key West and the Bahamas “and Florida became the nation’s leading cattle exporter,” Florida Memory reports. From 1868 to 1878, more than 1.6 million head of Florida cattle were exported to Cuba.
Today, four million acres of Florida pastureland and another million acres of grazed woodland are involved in cattle production, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Those 5 million acres are nearly half of Florida’s total agricultural land.