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Cowboy History: Were the Vaqueros America’s First Cowboys?

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The cowboy is the iconic representation of America, an enduring symbol of the nation’s frontier and Westward expansion days. While it had been portrayed and often distorted in the movies and modern culture, cowboy history will always be an indelible part of America’s early days.

However, one of the most fundamental aspects of Wild West history seems to have been deliberately torn from the pages.


The Spanish Influence in Cowboy History


The American cowboys’ tradition, skills, and method of managing cattle have been largely influenced by the Mexican vaquero. Due to this, most cowboys in the United States today have derived what they know from the vaquero.

Sadly, however, the vaquero’s role had not been taken into account and, more often, misrepresented. English writers are mostly guilty of this deliberate downplay of the vaquero’s part and their deletion from cowboy history. It is the Western cowboy’s colorful reputation that flourished in American culture while that of the vaquero’s have all but vanished.

The Spanish term vaquero may sound like a segregated social class, but it is actually interchangeable with caballero (literally, gentleman) which is a badge of distinction. It is one of the highest stations a Mexican horsemen would wish to attain in life.


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Mexican vaquero circa 1830

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Vaquero is a rendition of the Spanish words for cow (vaca) and man. Many Mexicans were proud to hold this title and would do almost anything to be on the saddle. A curious case in point is that the American term cowboys is a downgraded version of the Spanish cowmen.


Early Beginnings of the Vaqueros


Hundreds of years before the first cows and cowboys ever set foot in the American West, men in horseback were already rounding up cattle in Spanish Mexico. In the early 1500’s, explorers and settlers from Spain introduced ranching to this newly-colonized continent. They also brought in the Spanish mission system where indigenous people were gradually assimilated into the Spanish colonial empire’s culture and religion.

As part of their mission system, wealthy Spanish rancheros hired the services of cowboys – or vaqueros – to look after and drive their cattle from Mexico to what is now Texas and New Mexico. The rugged and hard-working Spanish-conscripted vaqueros soon became masters in the art of herding livestock. They became magnificent horsemen who also excelled in cattle roping.


The Age of the Vaqueros


The cattle business boomed during the Westward expansion in the States. With the emergence of new job opportunities, many vaqueros rode into America from Mexico.

The first cowboys were Spanish-born Americans and were originally called criollos. There were also cowboys known as mestizos who were a mix of Spanish and Native American settlers. These earliest American cowboys made their way past the Rio Grande to avail of land grants in the then kingdom of New Mexico as well as many of the western states.

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A “Wade” saddle derived from vaquero saddle designs  Image Credit

When Texas gained in its independence from Mexico in 1836, it had a large population of American settlers already living there since the early years of the Westward expansion. These settlers hired the Mexican vaqueros and adopted their style of tending livestock. Over the years, the inexperienced settlers learned how to round up cattle, tame an unbroken bronco, and lasso a steer.

The American ranchers even “borrowed” some of the vaquero culture including their characteristic riding style, attire, lingo, and saddle design. Buckaroo, dally, and lasso are just some of the words derived from vaquero jargon.

All through the 1800’s, the vaquero influence dominated the livestock business. Cowboys originated from a mixed social heritage that included Native Americans, migrants from Europe, African Americans, and settlers from the South and the Midwest.

By the turn of the century, a third of the cowboys in the south is Mexican vaquero.


Where Have All the Vaqueros Gone?


Many centuries have gone by since the first vaqueros drove their cattle to Texas and New Mexico. Just like cattle-driving, many believe that the vaquero culture is dying, if not totally dead.

Cowboy history die-hards all say that cowboys will never ride off to the sunset as long as there are cattle to tend. They maintain that the most effective way to round up cattle is riding on a horse.

As for the vaqueros, think of them as the traditional cowboy boots. Their styles and designs may change from time to time, but the high shaft, pointed toe, Cuban heel, and no lace trademark will always remain. The same holds very true with the vaqueros.



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