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cattle ranches

The Cattle Rancher

Would you believe that the first cow to plant her hoof on the soil of North America did so, not in Texas, but in Florida? Both Ponce de Leon and Menendez carried cattle on their voyages; however, there is no evidence that these animals survived to develop into any sort of substantial herd. In fact, all during the 16th century and well into the 17th, the garrison on the Florida beachhead which protected the treasure fleets on their stately way to Spain had to import most of their meat.

Although Sir John Hawkins, the English pirate who had had experience as a cattleman in the Caribbean, extolled the potential of Florida as a grazing area, the Spanish soldiers lived on a subsidy paid in money and goods, what little game they could shoot, and produce from patchy farms close to St. Augustine. It was not until the administration of Governor Diego de Rebolledo in the middle of the 17th century that documentary evidence can be found proving that there were cattle ranches in Florida. He reported that an Indian revolt had flared in Timucua, resulting in the slaughter of the Spaniards herding cattle there.

Between 1680 and 1702 there was a real cattle boom, which had its foundation in the changing character of life in St. Augustine. Up until then most military men assigned to St. Augustine were very unhappy about it and pulled every string they could to attain a new post in one of the bigger capitals of Spanish America.

But things changed. Both officers and men began to remain here as private citizens and soon there was a solid nucleus of local families, whose sons sought a way to gain wealth and security. Two governors, Luis Horruytiner and Pablo de Hita y Salazar, chose to stay on when their terms were up.

In 1685 we find that Lorenzo Horruytiner, who was also an officer of the garrison, was demanding more land for his cattle. The family already operated an extensive ranch along the St. Johns. It is believed that Salazar had relatives in St. Augustine. At any rate during his term of office (1675-1680) he was very liberal in allotting tracts of grazing land to local ranchers. For this he was reprimanded by the Crown, but there is no record any of this land ever went back to the royal patrimony or to the Indian chiefs who presumably had a claim to it.

Succeeding governors looked sourly upon the burgeoning power of the local families, but since there was nothing they could do to break up the power of the cattle barons, they decided to make the best of things. After all, their soldiers could eat the beef.

It was ordered that all cattle be brought to the slaughterhouse which was established in St. Augustine and a tax of one head in every ten was imposed. This did not make some ranchers happy, so those farther west and out of the governor's closer scrutiny bootlegged their beef down the Suwannee River and sold it at higher prices elsewhere around the Caribbean.

Records for 1698 and 1699 show that there were 25 ranches in the province and tax of 223 head of cattle, but it is thought that far more than 2,230 head actually grazed in Florida, since many were never reported to the tax gatherers.

In 1702 when the English invaded Florida and besieged the fort, cattle were driven into the moat and helped the garrison to weather the long attack. In the next five years rustlers from over the Georgia border and marauding Indians destroyed nearly all of the herds. However, in 1740 when Oglethorpe descended on the city there was still a big ranch to the north of town on the "Plains of Diego" (now Palm Valley).

As the Englishmen drew near, 93 head were driven south and ferried to Anastasia for safekeeping. The Spaniards did not know, alas, that the British fleet would soon appear and use Anastasia Island as a site for the battery which would lob shells into town, so it is presumed that most of those 93 beeves were eaten by the sailors.

Today, of course, cattle-raising is big business in Florida and St. Johns County has a good share of the fine ranches where the latest methods of pasturage and cross-breeding are studied.

The Change of Flags, July 10th 1821

Chapter II The Americans Move In

The Army Makes Repairs

In 1821 Spain officially turned East Florida over to the United States but after the colorful ceremony at the Castillo de San Marcos the soldiers of the 4th Regiment of Artillery, which was to be the town's first U.S. Army garrison, were hard put to find comfortable quarters. Fort San Marcos, or Fort St. Augustine as the new owners first called it, housed them temporarily since the St. Francis Barracks at the other end of town were in complete disrepair. The following year, in 1822, these barracks were renovated and the three companies of the 4th Artillery (121 men in all) took up permanent quarters there.

It was the old fort's turn to be neglected, since at that time it was held to be obsolete, although it went by the high-sounding title of Arsenal of East Florida. An unfortunate quartermaster officer who was expected to live there found that the only two rooms not being used for storage leaked badly, so he rented housing in town.

The renovators at St. Francis Barracks got the stone for their nice new wharf by dismantling part of the seawall near the fort, and through the breach the tides washed in threatening the fort and the town as well. The water towers began to crumble, there were large cracks in the walls, and the outworks leaned crazily into the encroaching sea.

Finally, in 1833, Congress appropriated $20,000 for repairs to the old fort (by then known as Fort Marion), and eventually a Lt. Stephen Tuttle was sent down to boss the job. He lost no time in earning the undying enmity of the townspeople, who even in those days knew that the fort was an irreplaceable historic monument.

But Lt. Tuttle had decided to use the money to rebuild the seawall instead, although he did make a few perfunctory repairs. While opening some closed rooms to clear out rubbish, he made the famous discovery of the human bones in the old gunpowder storage (the dungeon), which so many thousands of visitors have since bent their backs to see.

Lt. Tuttle was so unpopular he was eventually taken off the job and a successor arrived to estimate the cost of both a new seawall and repairs on the fort, but it took Congress three more years to allocate the necessary funds.

The army engineers fought a series of problems in accomplishing their task, but the work was finally completed in 1842. Local citizens were still not too happy, however, since Bay Street presented a rather sad spectacle. The government had done a good job on the seawall, but neglected to fill in Bay Street all the way out to it. At every flood tide, the bay waters washed in behind the wall and remained for days in smelly, stagnant pools.

But by the end of 1843, Fort Marion was in good shape and once more a functioning bastion in the area's defense. The old Spanish seawall in front had been rebuilt, and the moat filled in, providing a site for a powerful battery which commanded the harbor. Guns were mounted on the terreplain, and the walls were repaired. When Florida became the 27th state of the Union, it was ready to be used in its defense.

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