Who’s a Cracker?

There’s been a good deal of discussion lately about the origins and meaning of the word “cracker” because of its use in the high profile Zimmerman murder case in Florida. Just before being shot Trayvon Martin complained about a “creepy-ass cracker” following him, and considerable ink has been spilled about whether this was a racial slur. Not much question that it’s used that way today in the black community, but OTOH some have pointed out that it is often used as a term of pride in Florida (although I doubt that’s how Martin meant it). Who’s right, and where did the term come from?

Bear with me as there is a Civil War connection here, but first let me say that when I was growing up in North Florida cracker was a term of pride because it meant you were a native as opposed to a snowbird or a damn Yankee who moved there two weeks ago. And as I’ll show it is a native Florida term, at least in one sense.

The most prevalent explanation of the word is that it is a shortened form of “corn cracker,” which was a term for poor white folks, mostly Scotch-Irish, who subsisted on a corn based diet (and suffered from Pellegra as a result). I’ve seen this term used many times during the Civil War by Federal officers when describing local Southerners. So what is “cracking” corn? It just means to mill it into corn meal. Grist or corn mills were an integral part of community life in the 19th Century and sometimes gave their names to battles (e.g. Pickett’s Mill). The term survives today when we talk about “cracking” hydrocarbons at a refinery. Today foodies and preppers have their own hand or electric powered corn crackers. Eventually the word came to be seen as a pejorative. Random House dictionary agrees, saying the term came into use in 1825-35 and notes that it is now considered “disparaging.”

But there’s another explanation – that it refers to the cracking of the slave driver’s whips and thus has a racial context from the beginning. As it turns out there is some truth to this but it refers to cattle, not slaves, and is specific to Florida. The Sunshine State has a long history of cattle raising going back to the Spanish days of the 1500s when the first cattle were brought over from Europe. Even today some of the largest cattle ranches in the country are in central Florida, and during the Civil War these cattle herds were vital for feeding the Confederate armies, with periodic drives going into Georgia and even the Carolinas. They were driven there by one of the most colorful of Confederate units, the Cow Cavalry.

Florida ranges were typically choked with scrub and forest that left little room for using a lariat, thus Florida cowmen (there were no cowboys in Florida) preferred a whip to drive and corral cattle. Proficiency with a whip was a necessary skill and the cracking sound soon became associated with the cowman. The name cracker was applied and stuck. One of the most famous was Jacob Summerlin, the “King of the Crackers,” – an early settler, prominent rancher, blockade runner and member of the Cow Cavalry. Of course Florida was a slave state and although they were a very minor part of the ranch economy I don’t doubt that what slaves there were occasionally tasted the whip.

It’s easy to see, then, how “cracker” came to be applied to native Floridians and how this was different than “crackers” elsewhere in the South.


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