Cowboys and Vaqueros

by Donald Chavez

The word cowboy is actually a Spanish word, a transliteration of the original Spanish word for the first of his kind, the “vaquero.” The word vaquero evolved from the root word “vaca” meaning cow. Ergo the word vaquero, (cowman), translated into the English – cowboy. The English term for someone who managed cattle prior to the adoption of the Spanish Vaquero method and name for cowboying was “Drover.” Both the English and French managed cattle on foot with a dog within a fenced enclosure. As pasture was exhausted in one area, the cattle were then led to a new field to graze. The colonists arriving on the U.S. east coast were unfamiliar with Hispanic ranching. Stock raising was a small adjunct or side business to the mainstay agricultural industry and other areas such as shipping, city retail businesses, fur trading and fishing. Ranching was not practiced in their particular European homelands, so they were not acquainted with the ranching business, nor would they have had any idea where or how to begin even if they were aware of the industry. The northern colonies focused on industrial pursuits using immigrant labor and the southern colonies concentrated on agriculture using slave labor. It was the open spaces of the Nueva España, (New Mexico), in America where the original American cowboy, the Spanish vaquero evolved along with the original western saddle, cowboy methods, (e.g. roping), and vocabulary, beginning along the Rio Grande river basin. Ironically, it was the application of the old English fencing system and American barbed wire which led to the decline of the great American Cowboy Empire.

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