What's a Cracker?

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I would first like to thank HALIFAX MAGAZINE for allowing me to reprint this wonderful article on helping others to understand what a true Florida Cracker is.  This article appears in the September 1997 issue of Halifax Magazine.


"What cracker is this same that deafe our eares with this abundance of superfluous breath?" —- William Shakespeare, King John, Act II, Scene 1, 1594.

"Death to racist crackers!" — graffiti on a bathroom wall, University of Florida, 1969.

As those quotations show, the word cracker is burdened with several centuries’ worth of bad connotations. At least when the word is applied to people instead of being served with soup.

If Dana Ste. Claire gets his way, a new exhibit at the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences will help lift those connotations from the people known as Florida Crackers.

It’s not going to be an easy job, says Ste. Claire, organizer of the exhibit entitled "Cracker Culture in Florida History."

"Cracker has been used for whites the way the N-word is used for African Americans," According to Ste.Claire, curator of history at the museum, "We’re trying to dispel those myths."

Dispelling myths about what Crackers are would be easier, if anybody knew for sure what the word really means and how it became applied to Florida settlers in the first place.

"It seems that the greatest mystery, though, lies in the origin of the word — more is known about the lifestyles of Crackers through two and a half centuries than the historical development of the word cracker, Ste. Claire wrote in one of 11 panels used in the exhibit.

There are three main theories about how the word developed. But none of the three conclusively show how and why the Cracker became applied to Floridians.

Theory One: Cracker comes from a Celtic word meaning braggart or loudmouth. Shakespeare used this sense of the word in King John. But the theory doesn’t explain why the word in this sense would be applied to the usually taciturn folk of the Florida backwoods.

Theory Two: The word comes from the practice of "corncracking" or grinding dried corn for use as grits and meal, as in the lyrics of the folk song Blue Tailed Fly, "Jimmy crack corn." When used in this sense, a Cracker is somebody who can’t afford any other food. But this theory doesn’t answer the question of how the word got applied almost exclusively to folks in rural areas of south Georgia and Florida. And, by the 1800s, the name "Cracker" wasn’t used to describe only impoverished settlers.

Theory three: The name comes from the sound of whips used to drive cattle and oxen. Florida cattlemen cracked whips to flush their stock out of the palmetto scrub while settlers used whips to spur on oxen that pulled their carts and wagons. Cracker has been used in this sense since the early 1800s. This is the most popular theory today. But it doesn’t explain why people were being called Crackers for centuries before Florida cattlemen began working in the scrub lands.

Different areas of the state embrace different theories. For example, the corncracker theory prevails in the Panhandle and along the Georgia border. In those areas, Cracker is considered an insult.

Meanwhile, the whip cracker theory is popular in Central Florida. Cattle raisers in particular are proud to identify themselves as Crackers.

But a variation of the braggart theory developed during the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 60s. Cracker began to be associated with opinionated, ignorant whites who could easily be incited to violence. In many urban areas throughout the state, "Cracker " still means "bigot."

"It’s a very interesting thing," Ste. Claire says. "I’m very careful about the way I use it. "There are people who are proud of the term. Then there are people who are very offended by the term."

Even when the name is being used in a positive context, some notions about exactly who is Cracker are just plain wrong, says Ste. Claire, who is writing a book on the subject.

Crackers are not simply native Floridians. For example, Ste. Claire was born in Ocala and spent all of his 40 years in the state, but he doesn’t consider himself a Cracker.

Crackers live in rural areas. Historically, they have been self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables, hunting or raising their own meat and building their own houses.

But the houses they built during their heyday weren’t necessarily the large, clapboard homes with the wraparound porches that now are called "cracker houses."

A real Cracker house most likely would have been a small log cabin. Often, the houses looked like two cabins, connected by a roofed-over porch called a dog trot.

Sometimes, the houses were built like a small dormitory—one hallway with rooms branching off from it. That style was called a shotgun house, because it would be possible to shoot through the front door and have the shot pass out the back without hitting the wall of a room.

"It could be said that a good definition of a Cracker house is any house that a Cracker lived in," Ste. Claire wrote in one of the exhibit panels.

Not every pioneer in Florida could justifiably be called a Cracker. Pioneers move into a new territory and develop it. They bring in churches, schools, railroads and various other trappings of civilization.

Crackers might settle into a new territory, but they are too self-reliant and independent to need everything that development brings.

For example, Ohio natives Matthias Day and his son Loomis certainly qualify as pioneers, but nobody ever calls them Crackers.

In the early 1870s, the Days settled on a deserted parcel of land on the west bank of the Halifax River. They began developing a town, attracting other settlers, mostly from northern states. The town was named Daytona in their honor.

Their northern birth doesn’t necessarily disqualify the Days from being called Crackers. Wanting to develop a town around them, where they could buy the amenities of life, does.

Compare the Days to Bone Mizell, who rates an entire panel to himself in the exhibit. Mizell couldn’t be considered a pioneer in the sense that he moved into a new territory and settled it.

Bone stayed near his Central Florida birthplace for all of his 58 years. And he settled nowhere, roaming around the palmetto scrub and working cattle between Orange and Desoto counties.

But, by the time he drank himself to death in 1921, Bone was a legend among Crackers. He was so self-sufficient that he once didn’t even need a knife to ear mark a cow. Ear marking is a practice similar to branding. Cattlemen cut notches in their stock’s ears to identify them.

Bone once lost his knife while trying to earmark a cow in some heavy scrub. He finished the job by biting the notches into the ears.

"I’m trying to sort out the generic pioneer from the Cracker," Ste. Claire says.

His exhibit has about 150 artifacts in it, ranging from cow whips and battered Stetson hats to a covered wagon. Many of the artifacts have been kept for generations by decendants of Florida pioneers. For example, the wagon, built by the John Deere Company about 1900, was loaned to the museum by Jenny’s Mule Ranch in Samsula.

A replica of a counter in a rural general store, complete with a lifesized cutout from a photograph of a store owner, is at the entrance. Other photos of Crackers line the walls. Most of the photos are from the Florida Archives.

Ste. Claire organized the exhibit with a $35,000 grant from the state Division of Historical Resources. It will be at the Daytona Beach museum until January 11, when it goes on the road to other cities in the state.

The museum, 1040 Museum Boulevard, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It is off Nova Road south of the U.S. 92 intersection. Admission is free on Saturdays. On other days, admission is $4 for adults and $1 for children and students.

However museum-goers define Cracker when they walk into the exhibit, Ste. Claire hopes they walk out with an appreciation of what Crackers actually are.

" There are all these negative connotations. It’s a complex word," Ste. Claire said. "We’re trying to move away from all that."

Rick Tonyan is a free-lance writer living in DeLeon Springs. Most of his work deals with Florida history. His novel, Guns of the Palmetto Plains, is described as a "Cracker Western." The novel is available at bookstores.


Here are words and phrases used by Crackers over the centuries.

Catchdogs — Cracker cattle-herding dogs trained to literally "catch" a cow and hold its ear or nose in its teeth until a cowman arrived.

Chittlins — Cracker version of chitterlings, or hog innards, cleaned and cooked.

Conchs — Key West Crackers.

Cooter — A freshwater soft-shell turtle eaten by Crackers.

Corn Pone — A "dressed-up" hoecake, made from the standard cornmeal, but with milk instead of water used in the batter. Cone pone differs from cornbread in that the former is fried and the latter is baked.

Cracklin — Fried hog fat used for food, sometimes mixed into meal to make cracklin cornbread.

Croker sack — Burlap gunny sack sometimes used for clothing.

Curlew — Pink spoonbills hunted for food and for their plumes.

Drag — A rawhide whip used by Crackers for driving cattle or wagon oxen.

Fatback — Called fatback because this is exactly where it comes from — off the back of a hog. It was cut in small squares and put in cooking pots to flavor beans and other vegetables. Sometimes, it was roasted until it became crunchy and eaten like popcorn for a snack. Lard was made by boiling the fatback and straining it through fine cloth.

Fetch — To get, as in to "fetch" some water.

Grits — A principal Cracker staple made from dried and coarsely ground corn, used in place of potatoes, never as a cereal. Hominy grits, not to be confused with hominy corn, is a Northern label for a coarser grain of ground corn.

Hoecake — Primitive bread cake made of cornmeal, salt and water and cooked in an iron griddle or skillet. It is said that these cakes were once baked on a hoe held over an open fire.

Hominy — Whole grains of white corn treated with lye and boiled for food.

Literd — A hot fire started with fat pine.

Low-bush lightning — Cracker term for moonshine–liquor made and smuggled during Prohibition.

Marshtackie — A small horse with a narrow chest, prized by cowmen for their smooth ride, durability and quick maneuverability. Descendants of the horses brought to Florida by the Spanish, they are adapted to the Florida wilderness.

Pilau — Any dish of meat and rice cooked together, like a chicken pilau. Pronounced "per-loo" by Crackers.

Piney-woods rooter — Wild hog and a regular part of the Cracker diet.

Poultices — Medicinal salves made with materials such as soap, fat meat, chewing tobacco, chopped onion, scraped Irish potato and wet baking soda.

Pull — To take a hard drink from a liquor jug.

Rot gut — Bad whiskey.

Sawmill chicken — Salt pork.

Scrub chicken — Gopher tortoise, once a Cracker delicacy, now illegal to take.

Scrub cows — Cracker cattle bred to withstand the tough conditions of the Florida range. They are descendants of original Spanish cattle introduced to Florida in 1521.

Swamp cabbage — The tender heart of Sabal palm, cut and boiled like cabbage.

Store-boughten — Cracker materials which could only be purchased from a store.

Truck garden — A plot garden which was grown to produce a surplus of vegetables for sale to local grocery stores, etc.

Varmit — The Cracker version of varmint, or any small animal, especially rodents.

Courtesy Dana Ste. Claire, curator, The Cracker Culture in Florida History. Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences.

This article has been posted only after receiving the express written permission from the editor of Halifax Magazine; Bev Hanson, August 7, 2000.





Christopher G. Tanner

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