Nelson Bailey Shares Unique Take On Florida History

Reminiscing on Florida frontier days is Nelson Bailey’s passion. As a judge in Palm Beach County, he has seen his fair share of Florida stories, but prefers the ones about a time that once was.

Bailey, a native Floridian, was the guest speaker at the Loxahatchee Groves Landowners’ Association meeting Thursday, March 22 at Palms West Presbyterian Church.

“We own horses out here, and we just love horses,” Bailey said. “Our oldest horse is 29 years old, and we got him when he was 3.”

Bailey is a 1969 graduate of Florida State University College of Law. He was appointed as county court judge in 1995. “My courthouse is in Belle Glade, and I’m the only judge out there, which is the real western half of the county,” he said.

Bailey kept the crowd mesmerized, not only with his interesting cattle rancher appearance and long beard grayed with knowledge, but also with his unforgettable tales of Florida history. He began with the story of his first ride on what is now called the Florida Cracker Trail, which he took back in 1989.

“A group of about 100 folks were getting together with their horses, three or four mules and two or three wagons, and were going to ride clear across the State of Florida from coast to coast,” Bailey said. “They were going to follow an old cattle trail route and ride for six days starting in Bradenton to the other side of the state in Fort Pierce.”

Bailey signed up for the life-changing ride, which ended up giving him a new perspective on Florida history. “On the second day of riding, I was riding next to a man who I thought, at 72 years old, was old at the time,” he joked. “And now I’m about to be 70.”

That gentleman told him the history of the Florida cattle rancher. “He was a fourth-generation cattle rancher, and his family had been in the cattle ranching industry since 1822 in Florida,” Bailey recalled. “He told me the story of his father, grandfather and the cattle business in Florida, and how they experienced Florida.”

Those experiences and stories, learned on his first ride across the state, sparked an interest in him that has manifested into one of his greatest passions. “Those stories sent a chill up my spine where the scalp is attached, and gave me a physical sensation I could actually feel right down to my bones,” Bailey said. “I felt like I was riding my horse back into history.”

Bailey became interested in everything pertaining to the history of the Florida cattle rancher. He joined many organizations, such as the Florida Cracker Cattle Association and the Florida Cracker Trail Association, which gave him further insight into the history of Florida cattle ranching. “I got a new perspective on the history of the State of Florida,” Bailey said. “The story of the horsemen and cattlemen in Florida is the story of Florida itself for the past 500 years.”

Bailey clarified the history of the term “Cracker,” as defined in Florida, and how it is not thought of here as a derogatory term used to describe whites. “In the Cracker tradition in Florida, especially with the old Cracker families, they take great pride in the term ‘Cracker,’” he said.

The history of the Florida Cracker is extensive, from when Juan Ponce De Leon brought the first cattle and horses to the state, providing cattle to Cuba during Spanish colonialism.

That definition is unlike the one in the black community, according to Bailey, particularly in northern Florida, where the term has a decidedly negative connotation. “After the Civil War, the oral tradition of the term ‘Cracker’ meant someone who cracked the whip over the slaves, which is not accurate history, but it is oral tradition, and believed to be true,” Bailey said.

He closed out his speech by emphasizing a major concern he has, which is education. Bailey believes that youth should be educated accurately about the history of this country and the state they live in.

“Don’t cheat children out of that beautiful multicolored quilt of history that is Florida,” he said, “out of that thing that is so important to you and always will be until the day you die — that sense of place that is home. And just remember that their home is Florida.”

From the history of the various Native American tribes to African-American history in the state, everything is important and should be told to future generations in a fair and balanced way, Bailey said.