Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Wild West … Florida?

That’s right, Florida is America’s oldest cattle-raising state courtesy of Ponce de León. In 1521, Ponce de León returned to Florida with horses and several Andalusian cattle. Life wasn’t easy for those early cattle—or the early ranchers, for that matter—what with cattle fever ticks, gators, swamps and snakes. Throw in a few hurricanes for good measure and, well, you get the idea. No, life wasn’t easy at all.

But those early cattle adapted. (I have a feeling the early ranchers did a sight of cussing along with the adapting.) Ranches sprang up, dozens of them by 1700. By the 1800’s, when settlers moved south in search of new pasture, so did the cattle. Then along came the railroads. With transportation, the beef industry grew.

What does all this have to do with the Wild West, you ask? I’m getting there. Along with the herds of cattle, some numbering upwards of 50,000, towns sprang up. Now, where there are towns you have people, and people have needs so you have shops. People also have horses, and horses need blacksmiths. Still with me? You have cattle, people and horses. What’s missing in this picture? Oh, yes, cowboys.

Okay, you say, I get it—cowboys equal Wild West. Umm, no, I don’t get it. Well, hang on, you will. Along with all the people, cattle and cowboys came something any fan of the Wild West is acquainted with—rustling.

And lots of it. Florida was open range. Miles and miles of it. Cowboys rounded up stock from open plains, from hammocks, from swamp, river and streams, and then drove them to market. Of course, not everyone was content sticking to cattle they had any right to. Sound familiar yet?

That’s right, just as in the Wild West, Florida had its share of rustlers and range wars, like the one between the Barbers and the Mizells, where the shooting of Orange County Sheriff David W. Mizell in 1870 sparked at least 8 more murders. That was only one of many such instances. In fact, it was a series of sensational murders from Florida’s last range war that some say led the Florida Legislature to authorize private fences and, in 1949, helped put an end to open range in Florida altogether.

Today we think of Florida as sun, fun and beaches, but it had a start as wild and woolly as any you’d find in the Old West.

Fighting Over A Stolen Herd, by Frederick Remington. Included in an article entitled, "Cracker Cowboys of Florida" published in Harper's new monthly magazine v.91, issue 543, August 1895
Orlando Sentinel: Barbers, Mizells Had History On Opposite Sides Of The Law
Orlando Sentinel: Thief Altering Others' Cattle Brands Sparks Beef In Old Orange County 
The Clewiston News: No arrests made in triple murder near Lakeport  
Glades County Democrat: Murders end Florida's range wars