“Slaves, former slaves and free blacks served important roles as ranch hands, overseers, drovers and independent ranchers in Florida’s cattle industry for centuries”
By Linton Weeks
NPR, History Department, September 1, 2015 — To Mary K. Herron and others, the history of black cowboys in Florida is a venerable element of the state’s past.
To that end, Herron, who is director of development at the Florida Agricultural Museum in Palm Coast, is busy assembling a traveling exhibit to honor the tradition. “Black Cowboys of Florida: Past and Present” illustrates “the story of Africans and their New World descendants over the centuries,” she tells NPR, and “of their involvement with Florida’s cattle industry.” Once completed, the display — with funding from the state humanities council — is scheduled to go to at least 18 venues in the region.
“Slaves, former slaves and free blacks served important roles as ranch hands, overseers, drovers and independent ranchers in Florida’s cattle industry for centuries,” Herron says.
Cattle ranching in Florida emerged in a parallel universe to the conventional cowboy culture of the American West. From the legends in the museum’s exhibit:
During Colonial Times … Repeated attacks by English invaders and their Indian allies took their toll on the rancheros in Florida. Eventually, the Seminole Indians rounded up untended cattle and adopted the Spanish ranching system for themselves. Many slaves and free blacks joined the Seminoles and found work in the cattle business …
When Florida became an American territory in 1821, most of its inhabitants fled for other Spanish Colonies. 5,000 Seminoles — including 500 of African descent, stayed on. So did many free black cowboys, even though the American system imposed severe restrictions on them.
Florida became a state in 1845. It quickly became a major cattle-producing state. During the Civil War, vast herds of cattle were driven north by black and white cowboys to supply the Confederate Army. Many runaway slaves joined the Union Army and often served as drovers to supply the troops with beef. After the war, many of Florida’s black cowboys migrated to work the large cattle ranches out west.
The exhibit features African-American cattle ranchers such as:
Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley, who was brought to the New World as a slave. A man named Zephaniah Kingsley married her and eventually freed her. In 1813, the exhibit literature explains, “she established her own plantation. Peter, an African slave, managed her cattle operation. But to avoid capture and re-enslavement by invading American forces, she lit a fire and escaped with her children and her slaves. Later, she managed the large Kingsley plantation on Fort George Island, near Jacksonville.”
Lawrence Silas, who was the subject of a Saturday Evening Post profile by writer Zora Neale Hurston in the fall of 1942. “I’ll be a cowman as long as I live,” Silas says in the portrait. “I might even die out on the range with a cigar in my mouth. Wouldn’t be nothing wrong with that.” Silas “was raised in the Florida tradition of cowhunters,” according to an Orlando Sentinel story on May 3, 2007.
“Florida cattlemen would drive wild cattle out of the scrub and swamps with the crack of their whips. Pioneer cowhunters needed thick skin and quick wits to thrive in the hardships of Central Florida’s frontier. Long cattle drives and outdoor living on the range created vivid personalities who still get people talking.”
Because of the sound made by the whips of Florida cowboys, many were called “crackers.” The onomatopoeically named “cracker cowboys” also used cattle dogs and rode small ponies, according to the Florida Center for Instructional Technology’s Exploring Florida.
As one exhibit legend points out, African-American cowboys continue working on Florida’s ranches today. “Many have continued their family tradition in the cattle business, but much of the next generation will not. High land prices, many seasons of drought and urban development are changing the landscape. Cattle ranches in Florida are fast disappearing. Florida’s black cowboys share that fate.”