Frederic Remington’s Cracker Cowboys Of Florida

Frederic Remington’s Cracker Cowboys Of Florida

Transcribed by Spessard Stone from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of August 1895

     Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was an American painter, illustrator, sculptor, and writer, who specialized in depictions of the old American West. On assignment for Harper’s, he visited Arcadia in 1895 and wrote this article.
     Contrasted from his familiar Western cowboys, who rode horned saddles and used saddle ropes, lariats and lassos, to handle Longhorn cattle on grassy plains and brush country, the Florida cow hunters rode hornless McClellan Army-surplus saddles, didn’t use saddle ropes, used cur-dogs to drive cattle into log pens for handling much smaller cattle grazing on a flat and sandy landscape, with miles of straight pine timber with scrub palmettos and tough wiregrass on an unfenced open range.

Cowboys On Horseback

     One can thresh the straw of history until he is well worn out, and also is running some risk of wearing others out, who may have to listen, so I will waive the telling of who the first cowboy was, even if I knew; but the last one who has come down under my observation lives down in Florida, and the way it happened was this: I was sitting in a “sto’un’,” as the “Crackers” say, waiting for the clerk to load some “number eights,” when my friend said, “Look at the cowboys!” This immediately caught my interest. With me cowboys are what gems and porcelain are to some others. 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. There was none of the bilious fierceness and rearing plunge which I had associated with my friends out West, but as a fox-terrier is to a yellow cur, so were these last. They had on about four dollars worth of clothes between them, and rode 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. I could see that in this case, while some of the tail feathers were the same, they would easily classify as new birds.
     “And so you have cowboys down here,” I said to the man who ran the meat-market.
     He picked up a tiny piece of raw liver out of the meshes of his long black beard, tilted his big black hat, shoved his arms into his white apron front, and said,
    “Gawd! Yes, stranger; I was once one myself.”
     The plot thickened so fast that I was losing much, so I became more deliberate. “Do the boys come into town often?” I inquired further.
     “Oh, yes, ’mos’ every little spell,” replied the butcher, as he reached behind his weighing scales and picked up a double-barreled shot gun, sawed off, “We uns are expectin’ of they-uns to-day.” And he broke the barrels and took out the shells to examine them.

A Cracker Cowboy

     “Do they come shooting?” I interposed.
     He shut the gun with a snap. “We split even stranger.”
     Seeing that the butcher was a fragile piece of bric-a-brac, and that I might need him for future study, I bethought me of the banker down the street. Bankers are bound to be broad-gauged, intelligent, and conservative, so I would go to him and get at the ancient history of his neck of the woods. I introduced myself, and was invited behind the counter. The look of things reminded me of one of those great green terraces which covered fortifications and ugly cannon. It was boards and wire screen in front, but behind it were shot-guns and six-shooters hung in the handiest way, on sort of disappearing gun-carriage arrangement. Shortly one of the cowboys of the street scene floundered in. He was two-thirds drunk, with brutal shifty eyes and a flabby lower lip.

In Wait For An Enemy

     “I want twenty dollars on the old man. Ken, I have it?”
     I rather expected that the ban would go into “action front,” but the clerk said, “Certainly,” and completed this rather odd financial transaction, whereat the bull-hunter stumbled out.
     “Who is the old man in this case?’ I ventured.
     “Oh, it’s his boss, old Colonel Zuigg, of Crow City. I gave some money to some of his boys some weeks ago, and when the colonel was down here I asked him if he wanted the boys to draw against him in that way, and he said, “Yes for a small amount; they will steal a cow or two, and pay me that way.”
     Here was something tangible.
     “What happens when a man steals another man’s brand in this country?”
     “He mustn’t get caught; that’s all. They all do it, but they never bring their troubles to court. They just shoot it out there in the brush. The last time old Colonel Zuigg brought Zorn Zuidden in here and had him indicted for stealing cattle, said Zorn: “Now see here, old man Zuigg, what do you want for to go and git me arrested for? “I have stole thousands of cattle and put your mark and brand on ’em, and jes because I have stole a couple of hundred from you, you go and get me indicted. You jes better go and get that whole deal prossed;” and it was done.
     The argument was perfect.
     “From that I should imagine that the cow-people have no more idea of law than the ’gray apes,’” I commented.
     “Yes, that’s about it. Old Colonel Zuigg was a judge for a spell, till some feller filled him with buckshot, and he had to resign; and I remember he decided a case against me once. I was hot about it, and the old colonel he saw I was. Says he, ’Now yer mad, ain’t you?’” And I allowed I was. “Well,’ says he, ‘You hain’t got no call to get mad. I have decided the last eight cases in yer favor, and you kin’t have it go yer way all the time; it wouldn’t look right,’ and I had to be satisfied.”
     The courts in that locality were but the faint and sickly flame of a taper offered at the shrine of justice which was traditional only, it seemed. Moral forces having ceased to operate, the large owners began to brand everything in sight, never realizing they were sowing the wind. This action naturally demoralized the cowboys, who shortly began to brand a little on their own account—and then the deluge. The rights of property having been destroyed, the large owners put strong outfits in the field, composed of desperate men armed to the teeth, and what happens in the lonely pine woods no one knows but the desperadoes themselves, albeit some of them never come back to the little fringe of settlements. The winter visitor from the North kicks up the jack snipe along the beach or tarponizes in the estuaries of the Gulf, and when he comes to the hotel for dinner he eats Chicago dressed beef, but, out in the wilderness low-browed cow-folks shoot and stab each other for possession of scrawny creatures not fit for pointer-dog to mess on. One cannot but feel the force of Buckle’s law of “the physical aspects of nature” in this sad country. Flat and sandy with miles on miles of straight pine timber, each tree an exact duplicate of its neighbor tree, and underneath the scrub palmettos, the twisted brakes and hammocks, and the gnarled water-oaks festooned with the sad gray Spanish moss—truly not a country for a high spirited race or moral giants.
     The land gives only a tough wiregrass, and the poor little cattle, no bigger than a donkey, wander half starved and horribly emaciated in search of it. There used to be a trade with Cuba, but now that has gone; and beyond the supplying of Key West and the small fringe of settlements they have no market. How well the cowboys serve their masters I can only guess, since the big owners do not dare go into the woods, or even to their own doors at night, and they do not keep a light burning in the houses. One, indeed, attempted to assert his rights, but some one pumped sixteen buckshot into him as he bent over a spring to drink, and he left the country. They do tell of a late encounter between two rival foremen, who rode on to each other in the woods, and drawing, fired, and both were found stretched dying under the palmettos, one calling deliriously the name of his boss. The unknown reaches of the Everglades lie just below, and with a half-hour’s start a man who knew the country would be safe from pursuit, even if it were attempted; and as one man cheerfully confided to me, “A boat don’t leave no trail, stranger.”
     That might makes right, and that they steal by wholesale, any cattle hunter will admit; and why they brand at all I can not see, since one boy tried to make it plain to me, as he shifted his body in drunken abandon and grabbed my pencil and a sheet of wrapping-paper: "See yer; ye see that?" And he drew a circle and then another ring around it, thus: . "That brand ain't no good. Well then—" And again his knotted and dirty fingers essayed the brand He laboriously drew upon it and made , which of course destroyed the former brand.
     "Then here," he continued, as he drew , "all ye've got ter do is this— " I gasped in amazement, not at his cleverness as a brand destroyer, but at his honest abandon. With a horrible operatic laugh, such as is painted in "the Cossack's Answer," he again laboriously drew (the circle cross), and then added some marks which made it look like this: . And again breaking into his devil's "ha, ha!" said, "Make the damned thing whirl."
     I did not protest. He would have shot me for that. But I did wish he was living in the northwest quarter of New Mexico, where Mr. Cooper and Dan could throw their eyes over the trail of his pony. Of course each man has adjusted himself to this lawless rustling, and only calculates that he can steal as much as his opponent. It is rarely that their affairs are brought to court, but when they are, the men come en masse to the room, armed with knives and rifles, so that any decision is bound to be a compromise, or it will bring on a general engagement.

Fighting Over A Stolen Herd

     There is also a noticeable absence of negroes among them, as they still retain some ante bellum theories, and it is only very lately that they have “reconstructed.” Their general ignorance is “miracalous,” and quite satisfying to an outside man. Some whom I met did not even know where the Texas was which furnished them their ponies. The railroads of Florida have had their ups and downs with them in a petty way on account of the running over their cattle by the trains; and then some long-haired old Cracker drops into the nearest station with his gun and pistol, and wants the telegraph operator too settle immediately on the basis of the Cracker’s claim for damages, which is always absurdly high. At first the railroads demurred, but the cowboys lined up in the “bresh” on some dark night and pumped Winchesters into the train in a highly picturesque way. The trainmen at once recognized the force of the Cracker’s view on cattle killing, but it took some considerable “potting” at the more conservative superintendents before the latter could bestir themselves and invent a “cow-attorney,” as the company adjuster is called, who now settles with the bashmen as best he can. Certainly no worse people ever lived since the big killing up Muscleshell way, and the romance is taken out of it by the cowardly assassination which is the practice. They are well paid for their desperate work, and always eat fresh beef or ‘razor-backs,” and deer which they kill in the woods. The heat, the poor grass, their brutality, and the pest of the flies kill their ponies, and, as a rule, they lack dash and are indifferent riders, but they are picturesque in their unkempt, almost unearthly wildness. A strange effect is added by their use of large, fierce cur-dogs, one of which accompanies each cattle-hunter, and is taught to pursue cattle, and to even take them by the nose, which is another instance of their brutality. Still, as they have only a couple of horses apiece, it saves them much extra running.

A Bit Of Cow Country

These men do not use the rope, unless to noose a pony in a corral, but work their cattle in strong log corrals, which are made at about a day’s march apart all through the woods.

Cowboys Wrestling A Bull

Indeed, ropes are hardly necessary, since the cattle are so small and thin that two men can successfully “wrestle” a three-year-old. A man goes into the corral, grabs a cow by one horn, and throwing his other arm over her back, waits until some other man takes her hind leg, whereat causes some very entertaining Greco-Roman style.
     When the cow is successful, she finds her audience of Cracker cowboys sitting on the fence awaiting another opening, and gasping for breath. The best bull will go over three hundred pounds, while I have seen a yearling at a hundred and fifty—if you O knights of the riata can imagine it! Still, it is desperate work. Some of the men are so reckless and active that they do not hesitate to encounter a wild bull in the open. The cattle are as wild as deer, they race off at scent; and when “rounded up” many will not drive, whereupon these are promptly shot. It frequently happens when the herd is being driven quietly along a bull will turn on the drivers, charging at once. Then there is a scamper and great shooting. The bulls often become so maddened in these forays that they drop and die in their tracks, for which strange fact no one can account, but as a rule they are too scrawny and mean to make their handling difficult.
     So this is the Cracker cowboy, whose chief interest would be found in the tales of some bushwhacking enterprise, which I very much fear would be a one-sided story, and not worth the telling. At best they must be revolting, having no note of the savage encounters which used to characterize the easy days in West Texas and New Mexico, when every man tossed his life away in the crackle of his own revolver. The moon shows pale through the leafy canopy on their evening fires, and the mists, the miasma, and the mosquitoes settle over their dreary camp talk. aIn place of the wild stampede, there is only the bellowing in the pens, and instead of the plains shaking under the dusty air as the bedizened vaqueros plough their fiery broncos through the milling herds, the cattle-hunter wends his lonely way through the ooze and rank grass, while the dreary pine trunks line up and shut the view.

     After word: Historians concur that Colonel Zuigg was Ziba King (1838-1901), a cattle king of DeSoto County, and Zorn Zuidden was Motgan Bonaparte “Bone” Mizell (1863-1921), the legendary cowhunter.

     This was published in two parts in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of 6C, July 22, and 6A, July 29, 2010.