Spanish Cattle in Florida

There are several obvious places to look for signs of Florida’s Spanish heritage. Place names like Santa Rosa Island, Cape San Blas, and Boca Raton are hard to miss. Then there’s Saint Augustine, home to the Castillo de San Marcos and the nation’s oldest Catholic parish.

These are great places to visit, but there’s no need to travel so far to find living traces of Florida’s colonial Spanish era. Often, a nearby cow pasture will do the trick.

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida scrub cattle, or Cracker cows, are often associated with the U.S. settlers who began tending them in the 19th century. Their origins, however, are Spanish.

When Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on his final mission to Florida in 1521, he brought Spanish Andalusian cattle with him to help provision the growing settlement he hoped to establish on Florida’s Gulf coast. Calusa Indians attacked the would-be Spanish colonists, and they were forced to retreat to Cuba and leave many of their supplies behind.

No records exist to explain just what happened to the cattle, but it’s possible some of them survived and remained in the wild.

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

If this didn’t get the herd started, the larger Spanish settlement at St. Augustine certainly did. Once the Spaniards established themselves on Florida’s Atlantic coast in 1565, they began expanding their influence outward into the territory through a series of Catholic missions.

Each became a small village, complete with facilities for ministering to Native Americans and for sustaining the Spanish inhabitants. More Andalusian cattle flowed into the area to serve these missions, and Spanish landowners began raising cattle as well.

These cows were unfenced; they wandered at will in the woods to graze until they were rounded up. Brands were used to keep each owner’s cattle separate. The system worked, although years of conflict between the Spanish, Native Americans, and British settlers from the north acted to scatter the herds across the peninsula.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

The Spanish hold on Florida began to unravel in the 18th century, and new inhabitants began tending the cattle roaming around the region. Years of free range living had toughened the herds, making them less vulnerable to parasites and better able to tolerate life in areas with less than an ideal food supply.

Native Americans began using the cows as an auxiliary food supply. When U.S. settlers began arriving in the area, they bought (or took) scrub cows to improve their own herds. As the 19th century progressed and the Seminoles were pushed farther south, the herds they had once tended came increasingly under the control of these newcomers.

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

A variety of other breeds have been introduced into Florida herds in the past two centuries, but the Cracker (or scrub) cattle can still be found on ranches across the state. To the untrained eye, they might not look much different from any other Florida cows, but in reality they’re a testament to Florida’s Spanish heritage.

For more photos of the Florida cattle industry, check out our Cattle Ranching photo exhibit, or search the Florida Photographic Collection.

Ochopee, Home of the Nation’s Smallest Post Office

Florida’s unique history owes some of its splendor to great people and great visions. In many cases, however, the most interesting tidbits have happened when no one was expecting it. That’s certainly the case with Ochopee, home of the smallest post office building in Florida, and most likely the smallest in the United States. The people of Ochopee hadn’t planned to have such a cramped space for handling mail. If it hadn’t been for a serious tragedy, the tiny settlement might never have had such a distinction.

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 map - Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 highway map – Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Ochopee got its start in 1928 when the James T. Gaunt family purchased a few hundred acres in Collier County on either side of what was to become the Tamiami Trail. The Gaunts were farmers, and they intended to set up a major tomato-growing operation. Farming on the edge of the Everglades was no easy task, of course. The family and their workers lived in surplus Army tents when they first arrived, which made the heat and mosquitoes a daily torture.

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

In the first year, the Gaunts and their business partners wrestled a real settlement out of the muck. They hired a large workforce to tend and harvest their tomatoes, mostly African-Americans from Miami and Georgia, with a few local Seminole families as well. The Seminoles lived in their own chickees near the company property, while the African-Americans typically lived in houses on the site. One of the workers’ quarters was called “Boardwalk” because for much of the year the only way to get between the houses was by boardwalk. Wages ranged between $1.00 and $2.50 per day, plus free utilities and health insurance.

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company - Ochopee (circa 1930s).

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company – Ochopee (circa 1930s).

By 1932, the Gaunt Company had a substantial village to serve their tomato farm, but it didn’t have a name. That year, the family decided to establish a post office, but they wanted something a little more special than “Gaunt” or “Gaunt Farms” for a name. According to one of the family members, Someone asked Charley Tommie, a local Seminole, what the native word for “farm” was. Charley replied “O-chopp-ee,” and the Gaunts decided that would be the name of their growing settlement. The post office was established in August of that year, and postal business was carried out in a corner of the company store.

One night in 1953, a fire broke out in the boarding house at Ochopee. It spread quickly to other buildings, and with the nearest fire department being miles away at Everglades City, residents were forced to fight the blaze with buckets of water from a nearby canal. Postmaster Sidney Brown was able to get his records out of the general store, but when the flames were finally extinguished, the building was a total loss. The next day, when the mail arrived, Postmaster Brown needed someplace to conduct business. A member of the Gaunt family pointed out a nearby shed used to store irrigation pipes and hoses, and with that the nation’s smallest post office building was adopted. Gaunt Company workers moved the building to a more convenient location, installed a counter and work space, and it was ready for service.

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Since then, the Ochopee post office has been as much a tourist attraction as it has a place of business. The Florida Photographic Collection contains a number of photos of the building from various angles and at different times. Some visitors assumed the locals built the post office that size originally as a novelty, but Ochopee residents knew better. Their post office, like so many curiosities in Florida’s past, was an accident of history.

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building's predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building’s predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Does a landmark in your community have a story like that of the Ochopee post office? Tell us about it by leaving a comment or sharing on our Facebook page!

 

Land Grant from the Creeks and Seminoles to Thomas Browne

On March 1, 1783, several “Kings and Warriors” representing Upper Creek, Lower Creek and Seminole towns affixed their “Names and family Marks” to a document granting British Indian Agent Thomas Browne substantial territory west of St. Augustine, Florida.

These family marks (see excerpt below) are drawings that represent Creek and Seminole clans. Visit the Significant Documents page to learn more.

Excerpt from a copy of a "Land Grant from the Upper Creeks, Lower Creeks and Seminoles to Thomas Browne..." found in Francis P. Fatio v. Philip Dewees (1838), Series 49, Box 476, Wallet 864

Excerpt from a copy of a “Land Grant from the Upper Creeks, Lower Creeks and Seminoles to Thomas Browne…” found in Francis P. Fatio v. Philip Dewees (1838), Series 49, Box 476, Wallet 864

Smallwood’s Store and Chokoloskee

On this day in 1974, Smallwood’s Store was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Seminole Indians at Smallwood’s Store: Chokoloskee, Florida (early 1900s)

Seminole Indians at Smallwood’s Store: Chokoloskee, Florida (early 1900s)

The Seminole women pictured here represent members of a family camped near Smallwood’s Store on Chokoloskee Island in southwestern Florida. Their style of clothing and beads indicate that the photograph dates to the early 20th century, probably between 1900 and 1920. The archival record for this photograph identifies “Lena’s mother” on the far left, with “Frank Charlie’s mother” to her right. This photograph can be found at the State Archives of Florida in the Bedell collection.

Ted Smallwood at his Post Office and Trading Post: Chokoloskee, Florida (early 1900s)

Ted Smallwood at his Post Office and Trading Post: Chokoloskee, Florida (early 1900s)

Deaconess Harriet Bedell was an Episcopal missionary who worked with Native American tribes, including the Florida Seminoles. She established the Glades Cross Mission in Everglades City, Florida, which was active between 1933 and 1960.

Deaconess Bedell with Seminole women and a child: Glades Cross Mission, Everglades City, Florida (ca. 1940)

Deaconess Bedell with Seminole women and a child: Glades Cross Mission, Everglades City, Florida (ca. 1940)

Seminoles visited Chokoloskee Island as early as the 1880s to trade at the store owned by C. G. McKinney, opened for business sometime after he arrived on the island in 1886. Ted Smallwood succeeded McKinney in 1906 and established Smallwood’s Store, which catered to a thriving business with the Seminoles in alligator skins and otter pelts.

Ruby Tigertail: Chokoloskee, Florida (ca. 1910)

Ruby Tigertail: Chokoloskee, Florida (ca. 1910)

 

Seminole families camped on a beach near Smallwood’s Store while visiting the island, trading animal commodities for sewing machines, cloth, canned goods and other necessities. They built temporary chickees (“home” in Mikasuki), made sofkee (“corn gruel”), and supplied locals with venison and other wild game.

Other stores in the area frequented by Seminoles in the early 20th century included George Storter’s and Charlie Tigertail’s, both in the vicinity of present-day Everglades City. Charlie Tigertail’s store was the first Seminole-owned trading post in south Florida.

Charlie Tigertail: Chokoloskee, Florida (early 1900s)

Charlie Tigertail: Chokoloskee, Florida (early 1900s)

Visit the Florida Photographic Collection to learn more about the Bedell collection and to view historic photographs of the Florida Seminoles and Chokoloskee Island.

“Scenes of the Everglades” (1928)

Businessman and adventurer Homer Augustus Brinkley produced “Scenes of the Everglades” in 1928 to illustrate the exotic environment found in the Florida Everglades. He later used the film in a traveling show, which included a live caged bear and Brinkley dressed as a Seminole Indian.

This film shows perhaps the earliest known moving images of the Florida Seminoles. They are shown playing their version of the southeastern Indian stick ball game, performing traditional dances and tending to the business of daily life. Most of the Seminole footage was taken at a camp known as Californee in the western Big Cypress. Also included in Brinkley’s film are scenes of wildlife, plants and views of the Florida Everglades.

“Scenes of the Everglades” is one of seven full-length films available on Florida Memory featuring footage of the Florida Everglades.

Want to learn more about the environmental history of the Florida Everglades? The University of Florida has digitized nearly 100,000 pages from their archival collections on the subject.

The Joseph Janney Steinmetz Collection

Few photographers captured the allure and promise of Florida like Joseph Janney Steinmetz. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1905, Steinmetz came to Florida in 1941. During World War II, he served in the United States Navy developing techniques for aerial reconnaissance photography.

Steinmetz at his studio: Sarasota (May 5, 1948)

Steinmetz at his studio: Sarasota (May 5, 1948)

After moving to Florida, Steinmetz found regular work with the Florida Development Commission, a promotional agency of the Florida state government. He also operated an independent photography studio in Sarasota.

Seminole family selling patchwork clothing near the Brighton Reservation (January 27, 1948)

Seminole family selling patchwork clothing near the Brighton Reservation (January 27, 1948)

Over the course of his career, Steinmetz’s images appeared in numerous publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Time, Holiday, Collier’s, and Town and Country. Although his favorite subject was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Steinmetz captured a variety of subjects ranging from weddings to Tupperware parties to the Florida Seminoles.

Ringling Brothers Circus clown Emmett Kelly enjoying a bath

Ringling Brothers Circus clown Emmett Kelly enjoying a bath

Visit Florida Memory to learn more about Joseph Janney Steinmetz and to view photographs from his wonderful collection.

Tamiami Trail, A.K.A. U.S. 41 (Officially Opened April 25, 1928)

Before the completion of the Tamiami Trail (U.S 41), few travelers successfully navigated the 108 miles between Miami and Naples. Wetlands, mosquitos, alligators and cypress swamps made travel across southern Florida difficult at best.

Advertisement for real estate on the Tamiami Trail (1924)

Advertisement for real estate on the Tamiami Trail (1924)

Until the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the interior of the Florida peninsula south of Lake Okeechobee was largely unknown, except to the Seminoles themselves. Through repeated attempts to expel the Seminoles from Florida in the 19th century, the United States government slowly learned about the region known today as the Everglades. Greater knowledge of the vast swampland hatched various schemes to exploit its resources.

Boosters envisioned agricultural enterprises converting wetlands into farms producing sugarcane, livestock and copious vegetables—enough to feed the frozen north in winter. Massive drainage efforts in order to “reclaim” the rich Everglades soil began in the early 20th century.

Surveyors on the highest spot in the road (1920s)

Surveyors on the highest spot in the road (1920s)

Roads suitable for cars followed closely behind drainage infrastructure. On April 25, 1928, the Tamiami Trail opened to travelers. Construction on the east-west section of the road lasted for 12 years. Once completed, cars could travel east from Naples to Miami for the first time.

Nellie Tommie and her son in the Tamiami Canal (1956)

Nellie Tommie and her son in the Tamiami Canal (1956)

The southernmost Seminoles, known today as the Miccosukee, took up residence alongside the Tamiami Trail in the 1920s. Many Miccosukee Seminoles worked on the construction of the road and enjoyed greater access to Miami after its completion. The Miccosukee living on the Tamiami Trail built businesses specializing in crafts and animal demonstrations and led hunting expeditions into the Everglades.

Tamiami Trail blazers (1923)

Tamiami Trail blazers (1923)

Florida Seminoles and Musa Isle

Three Seminole medicine men: Musa Isle, Miami, Florida, ca. late 1910s

Three Seminole medicine men: Musa Isle, Miami, Florida, ca. late 1910s

The above photograph was taken in the late 1910s or early 1920s at Musa Isle, near Miami, Florida. The individuals in the photograph are described as “medicine men,” but are otherwise unidentified in the catalog record from the State Archives of Florida.

Musa Isle was a tourist attraction started by John Roop in 1907 on property he purchased on the Miami River from A. J. Richardson. In 1919, Roop leased a section of his property to a Seminole man named Willie Willie. Willie Willie and his father, Charlie Willie, operated a trading post west of Miami. They brought animal commodities to Musa Isle and sold them directly to wholesalers.

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