The first cattle in North America were brought ashore in Sarasota by the Spaniards in 1521– they also introduced pigs and horses to this area. Large land holdings in Alachua County and near Tallahassee were devoted to raising Andalusia cattle. The herds were shipped from Punta Rassa to Cuba and traded for gold.
After the Spanish departed, the cattle roamed free and Indians who arrived here from Georgia slaughtered these “woods cows” for tribal consumption only. In the late 18th century, British settlers crossed strains of these with herds they introduced and along he way, Brahmin and Red Devon, from Scotland, have been added.
Today, some Florida cattle are descended from these mixed breeds. They were originally known as “cracker cattle” because early cowmen herded them by cracking their whips. During the Civil War, the Confederates needed the meat and leather supplied by Florida herds, especially as the naval blockade tightened.
Francis Hendry, a Confederate cavalryman, was in charge of this operation. After the war, his uncle, Charles Hendry, rounded up many of the roaming cattle and settled himself on five acres of the high alluvial sandy area near the modern town of Immokalee. His place was called Gopher Ridge, for the gopher tortoises then abundant in the area.
Hendry ran his mature cattle to Punta Gorda or Punta Rassa for shipping, and the ranch prospered through three Seminole Wars and other troublesome periods in the state’s history. The title passed to William Allen (at one point Immokalee was known as Allen’s Place, and later to a family named Garner.
In 1914, Robert Roberts arrived by oxcart from the small town of Ona with his wife and seven children – they had two more while living at the ranch. At that time, the ranch was 40 acres and the operation was called he Red Cattle Company. Roberts successfully weathered cattle diseases and tick infestations and by 1950, the acreage had expanded to more than 100,000, owned and leased, and was one of the top 10 ranches in the state.
Citrus became an important crop for the ranch, as well as the cattle. For many years, the majority of cattle in America were born in Florida and raised to 500 pounds, at which point they were shipped to fattening pens in Texas and Oklahoma. Our state still ranks highly in beef production.
Income was also derived from leather. Hides from cattle, deer or pigs consumed in the area were cured in a hide house on the property and then transferred to the prison at Raiford to be tanned.
In the 1960s, the Roberts family sold most of the ranch, retaining only some parcels and the main buildings. They donated five acres to Collier County, which also purchased an additional 10 acres. In 1995, the county holdings were placed under he umbrella of he Collier County Museum system. Lora Jean Young, of he Marco Island Historical Society, and Donna Ridewood, the first manager of the ranch for the museum, succeeded in establishing the property on the Register of Historic Places. Over the years, the ranch has often been the scene of historic battle reenactments and many improvements have been made since 1995.
As a point of historic trivia, the Roberts family descended from a Scottish clan whose members came to America before our Revolutionary War.
Information for this article was supplied by the current manager of he Roberts Ranch Museum, Lee Mitchell. To inquire about tours, call 272-4856 or 239-658-2466.
Marion Nicolay and Betsy Perdichizzi, of the Marco Island Historical Society, compile this report on a weekly basis for the Eagle. Shirley Beckwith oversees the archiving of photos for MIHS.