Around 8,000 to 10,000 years before the first Europeans arrived, Florida became wetter and the mammoths and other big game animals that people hunted for food disappeared. Although the Native Americans continued to hunt deer and other smaller animals, they began to depend on fish and shellfish for the bulk of their diet, especially in places not well suited for agriculture. Villages developed along the coasts and the shores of rivers and lakes, and people began discarding the remains of their meals-mainly shells and bones-in what were to become huge shell middens. Some peoples also built mounds to bury their dead and as platforms for their temples. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, Indians were living and prospering throughout Florida. Within Three Lakes are at least two pre-historic mounds.

photo cow hunter
Florida Photo Archives
Florida cow hunter on open range, 1910

Three Lakes was part of the last large open range ranching in the United States, which persisted until 1949 when the Florida Legislature passed the Fence Law requiring all cattle to be fenced. Well into the 20th century, 90 percent of the land in several central and southern Florida counties was in open native range.  The Seminoles first herded cattle here at the beginning of the 19th century. American colonists replaced them after the Second Seminole War (1842) when the surviving Indians sought refuge in the Everglades and Big Cypress. In the later part of the 19th century, it was not unusual for these early cowmen to see wolves and hear panthers as they moved their herds across the range from Kissimmee to Tampa.

drawing of cracker family
Florida Photo Archives
Florida cracker family on way to church

The prairie was home to the Florida cow, a small, bony, long-horned descendant of Spanish cattle able to survive heat, drought, insects, and poor forage, and the rugged, independent semi-nomadic Florida cow hunter who rounded up and herded cattle with the help of well-trained dogs, the best of which were a mix of hound and bulldog.

The name "Florida Cracker" is thought to have its origin from the distinctive sound of the cowman's whip.

Each year from February to the end of March, cattlemen burned the prairie to kill back pine saplings, oak, and palmetto and to encourage the growth of grass. Early in the 20th century lumbering and naval stores industries followed the railroad south. At first large stands of pine were turpentined, then the larger saw timber was cut, and finally the pulpwood was removed.

Formerly known as Three Lakes Ranch, Three Lakes was purchased by the state in 1974 under the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. The Prairie Lake Unit was established to protect and manage wet prairies and marshes and to provide natural flood storage.



FWC Facts:
The world's whooping crane population has gradually increased from a low of 22 birds in 1941 to 503 birds in 2009.

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