The Florida Cracker – early settlers, hunters and gatherers

Florida Crackers - Settling a Wild Land

The Florida Cracker

No one disputes the fact that Florida Crackers exist, but the definition and attribution of the term can be hotly argued. In early English literature (1500’s) the term was used in a number of instances (including William Shakespeare). Cracker generally referred to a rural underclass of people.

By the early 1700s, the term “cracker” continued to be used to describe rural people in the south evidenced by a letter sent to the Earl of Dartmouth stating,

“I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls (sic) on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”

This less than flattering description continued into Florida culture in several ways. 

After cattle were brought to the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage and subsequent Spanish explorers added to the herds. By the late 1500s herds of cattle were introduced into Mexico. In Florida, multiple explorers brought cattle for food and as work animals. Many cattle ended up being lost into the wilderness or part of attempted settlements finally abandoned.

By the mid-1800s, cattle were abundant in the wilds of south-central Florida. Rounding them up for domestic use were the “Cowkeepers”. Later called cowboys, the crack of their whips branded them as “Crackers”.

The cowboy crackers were mainly in central and southwest Florida. During the same period, there were other crackers in remote parts of Florida. They were the settlers, farmers, fishermen, hunters and trappers, Many led self-sufficient lifestyles living as hunters, gatherers and homesteaders.

Who Were Florida Crackers

Partner, be careful how you use the term Florida Cracker. Most people in Florida who call themselves crackers are proud of their history. They are the ones who grew up in rural Florida. These were hard working people encountering the hardships in Florida’s forests, swamps, watery plains and harsh seasonal coastal weather. These are the people who eventually dotted the countryside with farms, rounded up the cattle for our food, harvested our salt and settled the remote areas. They were immigrants, slaves, native Americans and all were the new Floridians we called crackers.

Still, the term “cracker” has connotated some negative meanings from outsiders. Some people say the crack of the whips came from slave owners, not cowboys. Some use the term to refer to poor people. Others use the term as a negative reflection on a person’s character or race. Basically, the term can be derogatory – if meant that way! If you are a Florida cracker, you are more than likely very proud of being a cracker!

Food and the Florida Cracker

One of the common attributes of being a “cracker” is the simple, but delicious food they ate. The less than popular food of the Florida cowboy constantly moving was swamp cabbage (heart of palm), cornbread, salted beef jerky, grits and corn pone, only slightly different than cornbread. In northern Florida food seemed to be much better for the home-based crackers. Many ate catfish, fried green tomatoes, boiled peanuts, hoe cakes, grits and gravy. In coastal areas, Florida crackers could rely on oysters, mullet and even alligator meat.

In all cases, cracker food was based on simplicity and accessibility. Even the cowboys came upon the occasional possum, snake or armadillo that became dinner.

Cracker cooks used an iron stove for cooking, baking and heating. Many foods were fried in an iron pot using whatever fat most common in the area. As the population and farms increased, crackers had more access to flour, pork, spices and vegetables. Chickens were easily raised but at the peril of Florida predators. Today you can find some of the best fried chicken in the country along the Spanish Trail (Route 90) in north Florida.

Today’s Florida Cracker

While most living conditions are far different than the previous couple hundred years, many people continue the cracker lifestyle in rural Florida throughout the state. A drive along the aforementioned Route 90 from St. Augustine to Pensacola, Florida will find the evidence of old lifestyles in today’s world – simplicity is the description.

Without the original Florida crackers, it’s hard to imagine who would have paved the way for modern society. Who would have cleared the land, settled the forests, foraged the coastline and tended the herds? Many of those same jobs are still filled with today’s hard working crackers.

Cracker country in Florida can easily be reminisced by traveling the Old Spanish Trail (Rt. 90) in north Florida.
Typical cracker house on a patch of cleared land
Cracker land clearing
Clearing land for another homestead was hard work.
cowboy cracker
Florida cowboys rode the plains and swamps of south central Florida herding cows.
cracker cattle
Even today cows still road the wetlands.
Florida Swamp Cabbage
Florida Swamp Cabbage from hearts of palm.
Simple Cracker Hoecakes

The Hoecake History

Hoecake recipes can be found all over the internet. Most are more like pancakes than true hoecakes. People forget that pioneers, first settlers and Florida crackers didn’t have many luxuries like leaveners, flours, sweeteners and other ingredients.

Native Americans showed them how to grow corn. Corn was ground and it was cooked in some kind of fat – it’s just that simple.  This simple cake kept many early settlers from starving.

The simple recipe is here –

1 Cup of cornmeal

1 1/4 cup of warm water

1/2 tsp. salt.

Mix all ingredients together and let sit for 15 minutes. In a medium hot skillet, place small cakes of mixture in some kind of flavorful fat (butter, bacon grease, etc.). Lightly brown the cakes on each side. Honey or maple syrup adds a little sweetness when eating.

They say that hoecakes are were cooked on the top of wooden stoves, in the bottom of iron pots and yes, on the blades of shovels and hoes. Many times the fire built at a night campground was used for heat.

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