Learn About the Vaqueros, the Original Cowboys of Texas

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Classic Westerners have paved the image of cowboys being white Americans. Still, the first wave of horse-riding cow-wranglers in Texas (and other parts of North America) were indigenous Mexican men. Hundreds of years before there was an American cowboy, there was a vaquero – an expert horseman who could herd cattle and whose skills with a lasso are legendary.

For many, there’s nothing more Texan than a cowboy or a cowgirl, but to be historically accurate, they have to say that there’s nothing more North African-Spanish than a Texas cowboy. People belonging to today’s cow folk – including the all-American rodeo – are the legacies of the vaqueros.

Who are the Vaqueros, and What do they Do?

Back view of two vaqueros riding their horses on dry land

The Mexican vaqueros were the original cowboys of Texas, and they started herding cattle in Northern Mexico during the 1590s. They lived in Texas long before the cowboys did because Texas used to be a part of Mexico.

The word “vaquero” is derived from “vaca,” which means “cow.” In Spanish, the “ero” is added to the word’s ending to mean “worker.” So, vaquero basically means “worker of cows.”

Skills necessary to be a vaquero include being able to do things like roping a runaway calf, handing your horse with skill, roping a wild horse, and getting cattle to do what you want. They wore a sombrero to give them shade from the harsh Texas sun and a serape to keep warm when it was cold. The serape was also used to help with herding cattle as they waved it to steer wandering cattle back to the herd.

First trained by the Spaniards who arrived in 1519 on the land later known as Mexico, the original vaqueros were largely indigenous men trained to wrangle cattle on horseback. The vaqueros would later become renowned for their skills and adaptability as Spain expanded their North American empire in the West, from what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to the Franciscan missions in California by the late 1700s. Before cattle branding and modern ranching styles became prevalent, the work of vaqueros was essential in a society where food supplies were often lacking, and the cattle imported from Spain often broke free.

Vaqueros didn’t set out to become icons by skills or clothing choice. To the Spanish owners of ranches in Mexico, the vaquero was a laborer. Most vaqueros were mestizo (of Spanish or Native American ancestry), African American, American Indian, mulatto, or criollo (a Spaniard born in North America). They were the early versions of independent contractors, who haven’t bound to ranching one hacienda or a patron unless they chose to be. They owned their horses, ropes, and saddles, and what they did with these shaped the history of Texas ranching.

The Spaniards may have a long tradition of horsemanship, but life on the rugged North American terrain required a bit more. What separates the vaquero from a mere horseman is that they braided rope and built their own saddles. They are also able to tame wild horses and throw a lasso.

The rough terrain in the West led to the development of chaps – the leg coverings that the vaqueros wore. Known as chaparreras in Spanish, the word came from “chaparral,” which is the name for the small trees and the thick thorny bushes that are a mainstay in the Southwest.

A cowboy on a horse holding a lasso

Meanwhile, lasso came from the Spanish word “lazo,” which means rope. The vaqueros used as a lasso was made of twisted leather hide and horsehair, separating them from the rest of the horsemen. Skilfully handling a lasso allowed them to both hunt and rope in wayward cattle. Workers who could successfully herd cows were particularly important in Spanish missions in what is now California.

The legendary lasso work of the Vaqueros also helped reshape American entertainment. They are credited for creating elaborate lassoing tricks and roping competitions that would later become the foundations of the first rodeo.

History of the Vaquero

The Early History of the Vaquero (16th to 18th Century)

The vaquero tradition came from Spain, starting with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula and was later imported to the Americas. Both regions have a dry climate with sparse grass. Thus large herds of cattle needed vast amounts of land to obtain sufficient forage.

During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions, horses, and domesticated cattle to the Americas. The arrival of horses was significant in the Americas since equines have been extinct in the area since the end of the prehistoric ice age. Horses quickly multiplied there and became crucial to the success of the Spanish and other settlers from other nations.

After the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519, ranches were already established and stocked with cattle and horses imported from Spain. By the early 1700s, cattle ranching had spread north into what’s known as Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico and south to Argentina. Beginning in 1969, a chain of 21 Franciscan missions eventually stretched from San Diego to San Francisco, marking the start of California’s livestock industry.

Livestock production flourished in the Southwest and California, but few markets existed for end products like hides, meat, and tallows. During the mid-1700s, long trains of pack mules would transport these products to Mexico City and return them with supplies. American ships started servicing California ports during the early 1800s and traded them for the same materials. Ranchers had local markets for their animals for the first time, and the hard-riding vaqueros controlled the chaos as hard roundups were held to collect cattle.

Known for their expertise in horsemanship and roping skills, vaqueros were said to only dismount for a chance to dance with the ladies.

The emergence of Vaquero Culture (19th Century)

Cowboys on an open land

Like the cowboys of American pop culture, most vaqueros were young single men who could handle the grueling work and could travel wherever their ranch employers told them to go. As the role of the vaquero developed in New Spain, so did a new culture. 

By the time the vaqueros became part of the Texas ranching landscape, they had been herding and driving cattle and wild horses for hundreds of years. They became so renowned for their skills that a rancher named Richard King traveled to Mexico in 1854 to recruit entire vaquero families to manage his herds. These cowboys fully understood the social structure of cattle herds they knew just where to look for the hiding strays.

King housed and fed the entire vaquero community on his ranch and paid them a monthly wage. Young boys and girls were enrolled in a ranch school until they were old enough to be a vaquero or vaquera. These families became known as the Los Kineños, and through generations of service, they revolutionized the cattle business, helping to build the King Ranch into the legend that it is today. King Ranch is the largest ranch in the United States, located in South Texas.

The skills that Mexican vaqueros were proud of began influencing non-Hispanic ranchers in the mid-1800s. Before the Mexican-American War, Texas gained independence from Mexico and was annexed to the US in 1845. As Anglo settlers migrated into Texas, some bought ranches from Mexican owners. Under the new ownership, vaqueros stayed at their jobs while also training newcomers in their ranching skills.

The Mexican vaqueros who helped build the American West were an essential part of the region’s history. Buffalo Bill Cody helped make them famous with his touring Wild West Shows. But it wasn’t until the film industry became prominent that the popular perception of cowboys became white men who were consistently the hero of the story. When Latinos and indigenous people were portrayed in films – as they were the historically correct versions of the vaqueros – they were usually scripted as villains or relegated to the background.

Vaqueros in the 20th Century and Today

Cowboys about to compete in a rodeo

The roping, riding, and herding work meant long days in the saddle, but when the trail drives and roundups were over, vaqueros relaxed and had fun by riding and roping some more. They competed against each other by racing horses and performing rope tricks to see who was the most skilled. Over time, crowds gathered together to watch and cheer for them and their amazing feats.

Vaqueros continued their competitions, and the crowds got bigger. The nation became entranced by the demonstrations of horsemanship and roping skills. American cowboys and even kids practiced throwing ropes around anything that moved. By 1929, the games of the vaquero have transformed into America’s favorite riding, racing, and roping event – the rodeo.

As long as cattle are raised in extensive American pastures, the vaquero’s legacy will endure. The early Mexican techniques for handling cattle can be seen throughout the modern livestock industry, like wherever a cowboy cinches a saddle on a horse, competes in a ride, straps on chaps, or ropes a horse from his remuda.

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