Fort Myers Florida Weekly
October 13, 2021
BY MARY WOZNIAK
IT ALL BEGAN THAT WINTER DAY in 1521 when Ponce de León came ashore near Charlotte Harbor on Southwest Florida’s coast, looking to create a permanent settlement. It was his second voyage to the land he had dubbed La Florida and this time he had 200 men, about 50 horses and six cattle, hardy Andalusian stock that came from Spain. They were the first cattle to arrive in North America and became the foundation of what became Florida cattle ranching.
Ponce de León’s effort was short-lived and ill-fated. He was mortally wounded in a battle with the Calusa people. The group abandoned the would-be settlement and took the conquistador to Cuba, where he died. But the cattle remained. They survived and even thrived, ranging free through centuries of raging wars and the rise of cattle barons on the pioneer frontier, becoming the backbone of Florida’s fledgling economy.
Half a millennium later, cattle ranching and the cattle industry are still a backbone of Florida’s economy, but threatened by growth that brings about 1,000 people a day to Florida and development that devours about 100,000 acres of land a year — equal to 156 square miles.