Those interested in the cattle ranges of the Great Plains can find some of its beginnings in the colonial times in what was to become South Carolina as well as the Spanish ranches of the Southwest. There were similarities between them as well as differences. It must also be remembered that the terminology used to describe the raising of cattle on the open range all across America changed over the years.
A permanent British presence in the low country was established along the Atlantic coast in 1663 after the ownership and possession of territory was determined. The first colonists arrived in South Carolina in 1670. It did not take long before cattle were thriving in the pinewoods, savannahs, canebrakes, and marshes. As more and more folks moved into the area and established their homes, the frontier began to move westward and without any fanfare, the race to the Pacific Ocean had started.
It was here in the early 1700s that cattle-herding traditions from the British Isles, Spain, Africa, Jamaica, and Barbados were woven together into a culture which provided for the tending of free-range cattle. The herders, always on the fringe of settled society, herded and protected the cattle through the upland pine and wiregrass forest and swamp-cane environment of the Carolina backcountry. Wolves were their biggest threat.
These herders, the cowboy as we know him today was first called a “cow hunter.” The first “cow hunters” were native and black Americans. Their ranch was referred to as a “cowpen.” The rancher was a “cowpen keeper,” “cowpen manager,” or “Pinder.” “Pinder” is a word whose usage goes back at least to the medieval era in the British Isles and probably earlier. The culture of cattle herding among the Celtic- and English-speaking peoples is ancient.
These original cowboys lacked the familiar rope (lariat), six-shooters, and saddle horn and unnecessary leather straps on their saddle. Instead, they depended on flintlock guns, hatchets, whips, and herd dogs. Because of the many pines, tall cane, and tall grass “savannas,” herders were not able to use the lariat.
Salt, herd dogs, and the whip were their most useful tools in herding and rounding up cattle. The key tool used for the rounding up of the wild cattle was a long bullwhip, with its distinct “crack” which could be heard for miles. It was used to direct the cattle by the sound, not to strike or injure them. The herders also used it for signaling and communication across the open range which in reality was not very open.
It was a perfect tool for rousting the cattle out of the dense foliage which provided them with plenty of places to hide. The distinctive “crack” of the cowhide whip was the origin of the term “cracker.” Those “cow hunters” became proficient in the use of the whip and were careful not to strike the critter.
Another important aid for rounding up the cattle was the use of specially bred cow dogs. A good dog was (and still is today) worth four men in beating through the brush and rousting cattle. They were known as “cracker cow dogs” and “catch-dog.”
Cattle back in the 1700s were no different than those today on the prairie of South Dakota. Those of you who have spent time rounding up those wily domestic animals in the “river hills” know all-to-well how they behave. Once they figure out what you are up to, they hide in the most tangled brush and weeds they can find. For them, it is a game and they will do anything to win! By the way, that herder back on the east coast used the hatchet to cut his way through the underbrush.
The first cattle drives in America occurred along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts long before the more celebrated cattle drives on the plains. The cattle were driven to tidewater markets where they were shipped to Cuba and other places in the Caribbean. Charlestown’s earliest history is tied to its prominent location as a center of trade.
From the days of the thirteen colonies through the Civil War era, most Americans rode a pretty flat type of saddle without a saddle horn. It was similar to an English style saddle. Those “cow hunters” in the late 1600s only needed a saddle which met their utilitarian needs. They did not need a roping saddle nor did they want anything fancy.
Besides being economical to purchase, the McClellan saddle (army cavalry) which was invented in 1859 was exactly what they wanted. It was light in weight, easier on the horses, and had no saddle horn. It is still widely used in the southeast today and the U.S. Army used it right up until the U.S. Cavalry disbanded before WWII.
The “Cracker Horses” became adapted to the harsh environment, were able to forage on the natural vegetation, and withstand the high temperatures and bugs. The mosquitos were especially troublesome. They were much smaller than the western horse of today. This made it easier to move between the brush and other obstacles.
During the Civil War, the “cowpen keeper” was the main provider of beef and horses for the Confederacy. Cattle drives were performed regularly to deliver beef to the Confederate Army. This became spirited when dealing with thieves and Union raiders.
As the open range on the east coast gave way to farming, the cattle and ranching moved west. Many of the cattlemen went to Alabama and Mississippi. Some eventually ended up in Texas where they helped establish the colorful cattle industry of the Great Plains.
In Florida, the open range which they enjoyed for so long ended in 1949.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on April 6, 2022