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The Vaquero Origins of the Texas Cowboy by Richard Slatta
Cowboys on the trail
Talk like a vaquero. Cowboy talk in English and Spanish
To handle cattle effectively, the vaquero needed a proper saddle to anchor the rope. The vaquero's technique of "dally roping" (wrapping the rope around the saddle horn for leverage when lassoing an animal) necessitated the large horn found on the Mexican saddle. Vaqueros and later cowboys also indulged their sense of style and fashion. Silver conchos, leather straps, intricate tooling, and other affectations adorned more expensive saddles.

The cowboy's first bits and spurs, necessary to control a horse, also reflect Spanish origins. Texans used mostly Mexican spurs during much of the nineteenth century. Not until about 1872 did Joseph Carl Petmecky, of Austin, Texas, begin crafting stronger, lighter-weight one-piece spurs of tempered spring steel that supplanted the older, heavier, more elaborate Mexican varieties.3 Likewise, the vaquero's leather "chaparreras" became the Anglo cowboy's chaps, to protect the legs while working.

Both vaqueros and cowboys celebrated their work partners -- their horses. Many Mexican "corridos" (folksongs) commemorate famous horses and horse races. "Mi caballo bayo" recalls a vaquero who loved his cutting horse too much to sell him at any price. As Anglo-American pioneers moved westward, they brought their quarter horses with them. These excellent cow horses, a mix of English thoroughbreds and "Spanish ponies," became crucial in handling first wild and later domesticated cattle on the vast Texas plains. W. L. Rhodes, who cowboyed in Texas during the 1880s, put the matter simply: "You see, a cutting hoss [horse] is as important to a cow poke as a hammer is to a carpenter." 4

Vaqueros also passed many of their values to Anglo cowboys. Both admired "top hands" with superior skills in roping and bronco-busting. Both expected men to work in bad weather or with pain, go without food, and track down stray animals at all costs. Both valued courage, such as riding into the midst of a milling herd. Virtuous actions would not bring praise, but failing to measure up to the standard could bring criticism, censure, or ridicule.

Wherever we look at the Anglo Texas cowboy and his world -- language, equipment, clothing, horses, brands, the built ranching environment -- we see the clear imprint of Spanish and Mexican origins that Anglos later built upon. Language alone tells a powerful tale, as Robert Smead has documented in his book VOCABULARIO VAQUERO/COWBOY TALK. As Texas historian Jack Jackson has observed, "Anglo contributions to the industry generally came in the post-Civil War period and consisted of things like the introduction of northern breeding stock (shorthorns), barbed wire fences, windmills, and market-oriented developments such as packeries, railroad shipment, and stockyard operations." 5 Thanks to intensive research in Spanish-language primary sources and to a decline in the anti-Mexican racism of earlier times, we can now see and fully appreciate the vaquero's vital and fundamental contributions to Texas cowboy and ranch life.


1 Lawrence Clayton, Jim Hoy, and Jerald Underwood, VAQUEROS, COWBOYS, AND BUCKAROOS (Austin: University of Texas Press, Austin, 2001), p. 71.
2 American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
3 Ned Martin, Jody Martin, and Kurt House, BIT AND SPUR MAKERS IN THE TEXAS TRADITION: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE (Nicasio, CA: Hawk Hill Press, 2000), pp. 12, 25, 45, 193.
4 American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
5 Jack Jackson, "Hispanic Ranching Heritage," in Helen Simons and Cathryn A. Hoyt, eds. HISPANIC TEXAS: A HISTORICAL GUIDE (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), p. 56.

Richard W. Slatta is professor of history at North Carolina State University. He is author of eight books, including COWBOY: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY (2006), THE MYTHICAL WEST (2001), COMPARING COWBOYS AND FRONTIERS (2001), and COWBOYS OF THE AMERICAS (1990).

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