The Vaqueros “Cow Men”


Five Vaqueros
Five Vaqueros

some excerpts from Jonathan Haeber’s  article for the National Geographic News written about Kevin Costner’s movie Open Range. Jonathan interviewed Donald Chavez y Gilbert about the Cowboy.

“One of the highest stations you could have in life was to be a caballero,” said Chavez, a resident of New Mexico whose lineage can be traced to the Don Juan de Oñate colony, the caballero who was among the first cowboys in the U.S.

“Even the poor Mexican vaqueros were very proud and there were few things they couldn’t do from a saddle.”

Caballero is literally translated as “gentleman.” The root of the word comes from caballo—Spanish for “horse.” For every caballero there were perhaps dozens of independents—the true “drivers” of cattle: vaqueros.

Vaquero is a transliteration of the words ‘cow’ and ‘man.’ Vaca means ‘cow,'” said Chavez. “Interestingly enough, in Spanish, we call ourselves cowmen; in English, it was demoted to cowboys.

In 1821 Anglo settlers arrived in Texas and became the first English-speaking Mexican citizens in the territory. Led by Stephen F. Austin, they arrived in San Felipe de Austin, Texas, to take advantage of the vast expanse of cattle, free for the taking.

It was something the vaqueros had been doing for 223 years, since 1598, when Don Juan de Oñate, one of the four richest men in New Spain (present-day Mexico) sent an expedition across the Rio Grande River into New Mexico.

Oñate spent over a million dollars funding the expedition, and brought some 7,000 animals to the present-day United States. It eventually paid off; the first gold to come from the West was not from the Gold Rush, but rather from its wool-bearing sheep and then its long-horned livestock.

“Compare the cowboy culture to a car,” said Chavez. “If the vaqueros invented the car, the styles change a little bit, but you still have the basic chassis, four wheels, and a motor. I think it will stay very much the same.”

Donald Chavez’ Cowboy website

Cowboys and Knights

Traditional Spanish riding clothes
Traditional Spanish riding clothes

From Donald Chavez y Gilbert

The Middle Ages found the mounted herdsman a frequent fixture of the semi-arid lands of Spain, but rare in countries like England and France. Strong intrepid horsemen were required to deal with the rugged geography of the Iberian Peninsula, and the wild ganado prieto, predecessor to the savage bull ring black cattle. So integral a part of the Spanish culture was horsemanship, that the world caballero (horseman) became, and still is, the equivalent of the English word for “gentleman.” The word for horse in French is cheval and knight is chevalier. The English term cavalry is derived from Italian. In Spanish the word “horse” is caballo and knight or noble horseman is Caballero.

Keeping in mind that many of the first Spanish vaqueros were well heeled aristocratic Caballero (gentlemen), land holders and noblemen, and certainly inextricably integrated in Spanish society with the culture of Spanish knights, it should come as no surprise that the horseman’s techniques used by knights flowed into the work practices back at the estancia / ranch. Getting down and dirty with the livestock was work relegated to the servants. The Caballero/Vaquero rarely ever got off his horse for any menial purpose. He did virtually everything from the back of his steed.

The 13th century knights and Spanish rancher / Caballeros developed a method of rounding up (rodear) and capturing cattle for branding, etc. borrowed from the knight’s skill of jousting with a lance. This heritage of Knighthood was carried from Europe to the Americas in the 15th century. The technique evolved from the Caballeros use of the lance. In this case the lance is called a garrocha. It was a 12-foot long wooden pole with a blunt tip used by the Garrochista on horseback. The garrocha is carried and used in a fashion similar to the Caballero’s lance. But instead of the Garrochista and the steer racing toward each other as in a knightly joust, the Garrochista chases the steer.

The best website on American Cowboys

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.