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Frederic Remington And Florida’s Cracker Cowboys

When the artist and writer visited Florida in 1895 to do a story and illustrations for Harper’s magazine, he didn’t exactly paint the whole picture.

Image: Remington, Frederic, "A Cracker Cowboy." Publication by Harper & Brothers, 1895

When Frederic Remington first encountered Florida’s “cracker” cowboys while on assignment for Harper’s magazine in 1895, he couldn’t have imagined them as future guardians of some of the state’s most important resources. In fact, he didn’t quite know what to make of them at all.

By the time he arrived in Arcadia to sketch and write, Remington was already familiar with the Western breed. Cowboys to him, he reported in his article, were what gems and porcelain were to others. But the fringe characters he observed in that part of Florida were something altogether different, and his first vision of them was unforgettable: “Two very emaciated Texas ponies pattered down the street, bearing wild-looking individuals, whose hanging hair and drooping hats and generally bedraggled appearance would remind you at once of the Spanish-moss which hangs so quietly and helplessly to the limbs of the oaks out in the swamps.”

With his artist’s eye, Remington immediately observed that unlike Western cowboys — with their horned saddles, ropes, and lariats used to work longhorns in a landscape of grassy plains and brush — these Florida “cow hunters” rode “[hornless] McClellan saddles, with saddle-bags, and guns tied on before. The only things they did which were conventional were to tie their ponies up by the head in brutal disregard, and then get drunk in about fifteen minutes.” From what Remington could see, “while some of the tail feathers were the same, [the Florida cowboys] would easily classify as new birds.”

These “new birds,” were, in fact, part of a very old and rugged tradition. When Spanish explorers and missionaries settled Florida, their early cattle raising was fraught with difficulties: Indian raids and mosquitoes, cattle fever ticks and snakes, swamps and storms. Still, by 1700, dozens of ranches lined the Florida Panhandle and the St. Johns River.
By the 1800s, the Seminole Nation had huge herds, and early Floridians were raising enough beef to feed themselves. During the Civil War, the state was one of the main suppliers of cattle — for both meat and leather — to the Confederacy.

The story was intriguing enough that 30 years after the end of the Civil War, Harper’s dispatched Remington. While the artist didn’t care to establish the history of this “new” breed of cowboy, he was endlessly fascinated by their appearance and behavior. These “cracker” cowboys — the term ostensibly from the crack of their whips — “lacked dash” and were “indifferent riders,” but Remington nonetheless found them “picturesque in their unkempt, almost unearthly wildness.”

Remington gave Harper’s readers a biased picture, says photographer Carlton Ward Jr., an eighth-generation Floridian and a member of one of the state’s oldest ranching families. “Visiting the lawless gunslinging town of Arcadia in 1895 didn’t exactly present Remington with a complete picture of ‘cracker’ culture. For each drunken ranger he met, there were dozens of noble and sober pioneers quietly persevering with their families throughout the frontier.”

By 1895, Ward points out, the wildness that Remington encountered in the far South had already been largely tamed out of the West. The census of 1890 concluded that the Old West was no longer part of the frontier. By then, fences already carved up much of the western lands. “When Remington arrived in Florida, his romanticized view of the Old West must have been jostled by the rawness he confronted in the Old South. Even though ranching reached Florida years before it reached the West, visiting Arcadia in 1895 would have been like visiting Lincoln County, Nevada, two decades before, predating the civility Remington himself had experienced.”

The geography and climate probably didn’t help, either. “Imagine being Remington, already a celebrated artist living comfortably in New York City and accustomed to painting in the temperate West, and then dropping straight into a wild cow town in the heart of tropical Florida. The transition may have been overwhelming,” Ward says. To top it off, Remington ended up depicting rangeland raconteur and convicted cattle rustler Bone Mizell for his painting titled Cracker Cowboy. “Mizell was definitely notorious, but I would not call him representative.”

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