|Cattlemen were at war in the 1890s.|
When you think of war erupting in a village or town, the catalyst that comes to mind usually isn’t livestock - but cattle ruled in late 1800s Florida. The cattleman with the largest stock held the title of king, and others weren’t afraid to spill rivals' blood to ascend to the top.
Free-range cattle were one of the first major exports in Manatee County.
The original Florida crackers were hunters who used whips to round up the cows left over from Spanish explorers of the 1500s. The horsemen branded them, contained them and drove them to one of four loading docks on the Manatee River, from where they were shipped to Cuba and traded for gold.
Records show that there were 1,036 recorded cow brands in Manatee County alone. Much like the Wild West, there were very few rules in backwoods Florida. When ranchers got greedy they often raided their neighbors, rebranding the cattle before they could be driven to the ship. It got to the point where farmers posted guards to watch over the fields, but they were often evaded by crafty thieves, according to Punta Gorda in the Beginning 1865 to 1900 by Vernon Peeples.
In his book, Peeples states “cattle were branded and rebranded so many times, the marks were indecipherable and it was impossible to determine the real owner.”
It seems gun was the only law when it came to cattlemen in Southwest Florida. Peeples describes numerous murders, shootouts and all-out debauchery. One of the most interesting characters from this place and time is John Lucas, a man who had been acquitted of murder when the jury found that his shooting of another man at close range was “justifiable homicide.”
Lucas had his sights - or the sight of his shotgun - on a cow hunter named Jim Merchant, who had a bounty on his head for killing a merchant in Zolfo Springs, Fla. Lucas and another man ambushed and killed Merchant one day, then loaded his body on a wagon set for Arcadia to collect the reward.
Terrible deeds have a way of coming back to haunt. According to Peeples, Lucas got into a deadly argument with his best friend two years after Merchant's death; Lucas was “cut into pieces” and killed. While on his deathbed, Lucas asked that no harm come to his murderer because he wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn't been drunk.
According to Peeples, the true “king” of cattle was an Arcadian man ironically named Ziba King. In 1898 he reportedly owned over 50,000 cattle. King stood at 6 feet 6 inches, weighed about 225 pounds and often took the law into his own hands when it came to his livestock. He once stole back 2,500 cows that had been stolen from him, and kept some extra as reparation.
There were several attempts to kill Ziba, but none succeeded.
In the end Ziba and other cow herders could not stand up to external factors that eventually brought cow hunting to an end. Two epidemics — the fever tick in 1917 and the screwworm in the 1930s— completely depleted the native piney-wood cattle.
During the boom of the 1920s, fences went up all over the state. Although Florida continues to be one for the leading beef producers in the nation, the original crackers became extinct with demise of the piney-wood cattle and the disappearance of Florida’s free range.
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