Not everyone thinks of the Sunshine State as being cow country, but in reality Florida has been in the cattle business for about five centuries. 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. Even after the settlement failed, the cattle remained and multiplied.
By the time Florida became a United States territory in 1821, Spanish, British, and Native American Floridians had all taken part in developing the region’s cattle industry. Most of the cattle raised in Florida were what we would call “Cracker cows” or “scrub cattle. They roamed freely over the open range. When cattlemen needed to round them up, they would go out on horseback and “pop” them out of the woods with the aid of trained cattle dogs and whips.
With no fences separating one cattleman’s territory from that of another, you can imagine that the herds tended to mingle. This could produce some nasty disputes among the owners, especially when one of them believed the mingling might have been “assisted” by a fellow cattleman.
The solution? Marks and brands. A “mark” or “earmark” was a pattern of cuts and crops made on the ears, while a “brand” was a symbol stamped on the cow’s flank using a hot iron.
Beginning in the 1820s, each Florida county had an official in charge of recording the various marks and brands used by the cattlemen to differentiate their cows from everyone else’s cows. The State Archives of Florida holds a number of records relating to this practice, including a book of marks and brands from Escambia County dating back to 1823.
In the earliest days, the vast majority of cattlemen branded their cattle with one or two letters on one flank or the other, as this record indicates:
Later on, some cattlemen became a bit more creative. This was in part to make it more difficult for their brands to be altered or confused. Here we see a particularly fitting brand recorded by William and John Bell in 1866.
For all the mullet connoisseurs out there, this next brand ought to bring out a chuckle. Perhaps the William Murphy who recorded it was also a fan of this North Florida favorite:
This book of marks and brands is just one of many, many local government records held by the State Archives of Florida. If you’re considering a project on a Florida community, try searching the Archives and Library catalogs for relevant holdings, or contact us to learn more. We’ll be glad to hear from you!