Westgate River Ranch

River Ranch, Florida | C.1960

Photo Credit: Manuel Guillén

Giddy up cowpokes we’re heading to…Florida? That’s right. Just south of Orlando, the Westgate River Ranch is an authentic dude ranch where visitors can experience what life was like for cattle ranchers who lived in the United States’ southeasternmost state. Originally built in the 1960s, the Ranch has evolved into the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi – but, where did all the cattle come from?

Ranching in Florida began as early as the 1500s following the founding of the settlement of St. Augustine. Spanish explorers brought cattle, horses, pigs, as well as oranges and fruit trees to the peninsula from Spain. Their arrival inevitably sparked clashes with the Native American tribes who called this land home. During these battles, some herds of cattle escaped and scattered within the Florida swamplands.

By the 1700s, these – now wild – herds of cattle roaming the state began to draw settlers to the area – – and thus, the American cowboy was born.

These “Cracker Cowboys” – as they were known thanks to the crack of their 12-foot leather whips – would regularly drive their small herds into one large herd in an area that would later become River Ranch. This tradition continued for decades.

In the 1960s, River Ranch was built and after changing hands a few times, it was transformed into a resort. In 2001, the 1,700-acre dude ranch officially became the Westgate River Ranch Resort. Today, visitors can relax while experiencing the spirit of “Old Florida” — and embrace the American cowboy lifestyle first born within its wild swamplands.

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