A Little Florida History, Y’all

Roaring Springs presented by Pinch a Penny is the all-new, family water adventure that plays an homage to the old Florida way of life. Who better to write about that than our friends at the Tampa Bay History Center?

A Little Florida History, Y'all - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Tampa ‑ the Cowtown of the Cuban Cattle Trade

The ancestors of many founding families in the Tampa Bay area were "cowmen" or "cowhunters."  Interestingly, the term "cracker," now sometimes used to describe native Floridians, was probably borrowed from the Florida cattle trade.  Florida cowhunters cracked eighteen-foot rawhide whips to drive cattle down the trail.  They were so adept with these whips that they could flick horseflies off an animal's hide without breaking the skin!

In his travels, Tampa entrepreneur and ship captain James McKay learned of a huge demand for beef in Cuba.  By 1858, McKay was organizing regular cattle drives from the interior of Florida to loading stations on the Interbay Peninsula southwest of Tampa.  The venture made him a very wealthy man as the Spanish paid him in gold doubloons.

Tampa quickly became the railhead for cattle shipments to Cuba.  Cowhunters and their ponies were a common sight on 19th century Tampa streets.  "The effect of the opening of this trade is witnessed daily," noted the Florida Peninsular in the July 28, 1860 issue.  "Thousands upon thousands of dollars are thrown into our midst, and as a necessary consequence other branches of traffic and industry are proportionately enhanced."  William B. Hooker, who had pioneered the Hillsborough cattle industry in the 1840s, owned 10,000 head by 1860 and was considered the "Cattle King of Florida."  He was soon joined by other cattle barons: James Alderman, John T. Lesley, and Jacob Summerlin.

A Little Florida History, Y'all - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Written by Rodney Kite-Powell, Curator of History - Tampa Bay History's Center


Florida Cattle

Contrary to popular belief, Florida, not the American West, was the site of the first North American cattle industry.  Juan Ponce de León brought a herd of Andalusian cattle to Florida in 1521, long before the first Spanish expedition brought them to the American Southwest.  By the 1700s, Spanish vaqueros had established large cattle ranchos in Northwest Florida.

The "golden age" of the Florida cattle industry began in the 1850s.  Despite predators like wolves, panthers, bears and alligators, thousands of wiry cattle thrived in the tall brush of the unfenced interior.  By 1860, Florida "cowhunters" routinely rounded up herds from the Florida brush and drove them to ships in Hillsborough Bay for sale in Cuba.  Although there was little demand for tough and lean Florida beef in the U.S., Cubans had few cattle and were willing to pay premium prices.

A Little Florida History, Y'all - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Beef for the Confederacy

During the Civil War, Jacob Summerlin provided 600 cattle a week to the Confederate Army at $8 per head.  However, his job was complicated by the reluctance of Florida ranchers to part with their cattle in exchange for almost worthless Confederate currency.  Hearing of a round‑up, the cattlemen would drive their herds into the brush to avoid the Confederate contractors.  At times, they even sold cattle to Union forces and later reported them stolen.  When Summerlin could no longer round up enough cattle to meet the demand, the Confederate Army cancelled his contract and gave it to James McKay.  Despite many challenges, McKay and his men managed to provide Confederate forces with some cattle throughout most of the war.

A Cattle and Shipping Empire

The cattle industry played a major role in the Tampa Bay economy after the Civil War.  Cubans still wanted Florida beef and the Florida cattle industry was still intact.  At first, most Florida cowmen were reluctant to sell to James McKay and the other shippers, hoping to receive a better price.  They gave in and sold after a Peninsular newspaper story chastised them for stalling the state's economic recovery.  Profits from the first postwar shipments eliminated any further reluctance.  During the decade of the 1870s, 165,669 head of cattle were shipped to Cuban ports at nearly $15 per head.

A Tampa Bay shipping industry grew out of the cattle export business.  This business expanded to include citrus, phosphate, tobacco, bananas and other commodities.  The Tampa Bay sail and steamship trade was dominated by Dr. Howell T. Lykes and his sons.  In 1874, Dr. Lykes married Almeria McKay, daughter of James McKay.  Dr. Lykes and his sons created a shipping empire in Florida and Cuba that grew into the extensive operations of Lykes Brothers, Inc., and Lykes Brothers Steamship Company, Inc.  While cattle is no longer shipped through the Port of Tampa, it is the 7th largest port in tonnage in the United States.

A Little Florida History, Y'all - ZooTampa at Lowry Park