Hundreds of years before there was the American cowboy, there was the vaquero, an expert horseman who skillfully guarded cattle and whose skills with a lasso were legendary.
First trained by the Spaniards who arrived in Mexico in 1519, the original vaqueros were largely Native American men who were trained to fight cattle on horseback. “It’s a forgotten story of centuries of horseback riding in the Americas that roots the vaqueros in the colonial past,” says Pablo A. Rangel, an independent historian who has studied the history of the vaqueros at length.
Derived from the word vaca (Spanish for cow), vaqueros would become renowned for their skill and adaptability as Spain expanded its North American empire westward, from what is now Texas, Arizona and the New Mexico to the Franciscan missions in California in the late 1700s. In the years before modern cattle branding and herding styles became widespread, Rangel says, the work of vaqueros was essential in a society with supplies food was often scarce and where cattle imported from Spain were often released.
While the Spanish had always had a long tradition of horseback riding, life on the rugged terrain of North America demanded something more. “What separates the vaquero from a simple rider is that they braided rope. They built their own saddles,” Rangel explains. More importantly, “they were able to tame wild horses and they threw the lasso ”.
WATCH documentaries about cowboys and outlaws in HISTORY Vault.
The native roots of vaqueros and cowboys
While classic westerns cemented the image of cowboys as white Americans, the earliest vaqueros were native Mexican men. “The missionaries came from this European tradition of horseback riding. They could get on well, they could surround the cattle, ”Rangel explains. “So they started training the natives in this region. “
The Mexican natives also drew on their own experiences with horseback riding and buffalo hunting to further refine vaquero techniques, Rangel says. In addition to keeping cattle for Spanish ranchers as New Spain extended west, vaqueros were also drafted as auxiliary forces in skirmishes between native communities and others.
READ MORE: The Spanish cowboys who fed an army
The emergence of the vaquero culture
Like the cowboys of American popular culture, the majority of vaqueros were young, unmarried men who could do the grueling and skilled work and could travel where their ranch employers required them to go. As the role of the vaquero developed in New Spain, a unique culture developed, many aspects of which continue to this day. “People who don’t know anything about cowboys would always recognize lassos and guys,” Rangel says of the vaquero heritage.
Derived from the Spanish word lazo (“ribbon”), the term lasso was coined in the early 19th century. Originally made with twisted leather and horsehair, the lasso “was what really separated [the vaqueros] from the rest of the riders we had seen, ”Rangel said. Skillfully handling a lasso allowed vaqueros to hunt and string finicky cattle. Having workers able to keep cows successfully was particularly important in the Spanish missions in present-day California. Cattle provided a crucial source of food for the remote mission outposts around which California cities later developed.
The rugged terrain of the West also led to the development of leggings, the leg covers that vaqueros wore. Originally known as Chaparreras in Spanish, the word is rooted in the word chaparral, the name for the thick thorny bushes and small trees that are a mainstay of the southwestern landscape.
Vaqueros’ legendary lassoing work also helped reshape American entertainment. The vaqueros are credited with creating the elaborate lasso tricks and rope competitions that would later become the foundation of the first rodeo.
READ MORE: Was the Real Lone Ranger a black man?
The American cowboy rises; the remains of the Vaqueros heritage
The skills that Mexican vaqueros prided themselves on began to influence non-Hispanic ranchers in the mid-1800s. After the Mexican-American War, Texas gained independence from Mexico before being annexed by the United States in 1845. As Anglo-Saxon settlers migrated from north to Texas, some took over ranches from Mexican owners. Under the new owner, the vaqueros stayed at their jobs, while training newcomers in their breeding skills and how to braid and string lassos. Some of those they trained were also people of color, with historians estimating that up to a quarter of 19th-century cowboys were African American.
The Mexican vaqueros who helped build the American West were considered such a vital part of the region’s history that Buffalo Bill Cody helped make them famous with his Wild West Shows tours, which portray a much fictionalized version of expansion to the West. But it was only with the rise of the film industry that the popular perception of cowboys became that of the white bachelor who was consistently the hero of the story.
“That’s when the vaquero turns into something else,” Rangel explains. “He becomes this racialized and vilified character. When Latinos and indigenous people were portrayed in movies, they were usually scripted as bad guys or pushed into the background. Instead, the cowboy became the ideal American man who served as a protector and leader.
Even though vaqueros have been sidelined by pop culture and many historical narratives from the West, the breeding methods they perfected endure with most ranches still incorporating their methods. “The heritage and traditions of vaquero exist today in rodeo and breeding today,” Rangel explains. “If you look at how the ranches work in places like Texas and even western Nebraska today, you can see that the vaquero culture still exists. And the vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys, still do this job.