Let There Be Cowboys - Part 3 Vaqueros
To better understand the vaquero culture, it helps to look back on how they evolved, for their journey stems from centuries ago.
Hernán Cortés of Spain has conquered a portion of Mexico, the heart of the great Aztec Empire,Tenochtitlan in the 16th century, and renames it New Spain. Here, we find a class of people, primarily Indians or mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian blood) who learn the skills of rounding cattle, and the art of horsemanship.
The Vaquero Song, Dave Stamey
Around the early 1700’s, Spaniards and mestizos begin herding cattle northward into the newly acquired Spanish domain called Spanish Texas. It is a land already inhabited by Native American Indians and encompasses only a portion of what we now call Texas.
Meanwhile, around 1769, vaqueros are beginning to call modern day California their home, keeping a close eye on cattle brought from Mexico to San Diego, then further north where a string of missions are positioned from San Diego to San Francisco. They are responsible for the care and training of horses used for cattle herding. They find California’s climate superb in which to perform their work and feel no rush, calling California the land of many tomorrows: if a vaquero is unable to complete something in one day, there is always mañana, he will say.
Between the years of 1810 and 1821, there will be uprisings as Mexico fights for independence from Spain, and in 1821, Mexico will finally gain its first independent empire.
Around 1834, Mexico grants occupation rights to the United States if it will agree to have its people convert to Catholicism, become Mexican citizens, and abolish slavery. The United States agrees, but haughtily reneges on the deal and instead, makes plans to gain control of Texas. Tensions rise, and war is eminent. In 1834, there will be a decisive battle at a Franciscan mission called The Alamo in San Antonio. The Mexican leader, General Santa Anna penetrates the Alamo and defeats the Texans, but in the near future, under the leadership of Sam Houston, the Texans, joined by other United States volunteers, prepare to strike back. They defeat the Mexican army and take Santa Anna as prisoner. Santa Anna secretly signs treaties stating that the Mexican army will withdraw from areas near the Rio Grande, and agrees to arrange the recognition of Texas as an independent entity from Mexico, in exchange for his freedom.
In the mid part of the 18th century, raising livestock becomes a highly favorable occupation in the United States. In Texas, large estates called haciendas will emerge as the ranching industry rises.The cattlemen of these ranches will be recognized as vaqueros and will blaze the path to a future of working with Anglo cowboys.
History, thus far for the vaqueros, has required them to adapt to new skills, new environments, and new rules. Their ability to do so benefits them greatly because now their experience is in high demand.
- Los Primeros Trailer from Vaqueros Series: Spanish Vaquero traditions dating back from the 16th century.
Meanwhile, in other states, the demand for beef elevates, and ranches multiply which continues to necessitate the demand for cowboys. By now, Anglo cowboys have intermingled on trails with the vaquero and have adopted their skills in roping, rounding, and branding cattle. Trains now have the ability to transport beef, so large cattle drives bring herds to Abilene, Kansas via the Chisholm Trail, the most prominent of its time having seen more than 1.5 million herds of cattle between the Civil War and 1873.
Cowboys, also known as buckaroos, and vaqueros join forces and embark on lifestyles that will define the culture and future of the American cowboys. After the Civil War, freed African American slaves and Native Americans will also emerge as cowboys.
Skills of the Vaquero - traditional and modern day
With nimble fingers, the vaquero braids a rawhide reata, which is Spanish for reatar, meaning a rope that ties one animal to another. The vaquero will twist, pull, and weave strands of rawhide approximately 40 to 65 feet long, with the most eloquent of reatas made from young heifer hides cured with special intentions of making the vaquero’s reata. The art of braiding a reata is time consuming. Preparing the rawhide is a process in itself. It requires the cleaning, stretching, and cutting of the rawhide into long strips, which faces yet another challenge: how to keep the rawhide moist. It must contain enough moisture content, so it is greased to keep it pliable enough to work with. Braiding the reata demands full concentration and could require the ability to weave 8 to 24 strands simultaneously.
The bosal (hackamore), also called jaquima, is often made of rawhide, which the vaquero uses for training horses. Below the horse’s chin, the ends of the bosal join with a heel knot.It will assist the vaquero when breaking horses into a bridle by using a headgear that delivers pressure points on the horse's nose and jaw. Attached to the bosal is the mecate (reins made of horse’s hair). When the rein is pulled, it sets pressure on the nose via the nose knot, pulling the head in the direction he wishes to go.
After a period of working with the horse, the vaquero will progress to using a lighter weight hackamore until he has brought the horse to the stage where he can use the two-reign method, which means he will use both, a lightweight hackamore and a bridle simultaneously until he can convert the horse to a bridle.
The Spanish vaquero will use a Garrocha, a pole that is approximately 12 feet long, as an alternative to using a lasso, or rope.
Rawhide braiding is an eloquent art in itself. Bill Black, a rawhide braider from Oregon, shares a fascinating story:
The Spanish conquistadors will bring to their New Spain, clothing made of leather. There will be botas (boots), chalecos (vests), chapareras (chaps), chaquetas (jackets), and hats (bolero). Boots extend above the knee tied with leather straps. In later centuries, the Mexicans will specialize in making the style boots that are seen today - the pointed toe, heels, high topped and intricate stitching.
When their paths emerge, Anglo cowboys will find the vaqueros wearing specific attire: their hats are called a sombrero, a low shaped hat with wide brim held in place by the barbiquejo, or chinstrap. The vaquero will part his hair in the middle and comb it back into a long braid. He will wear a sarape, or small blanket or poncho on his back or shoulder that will double as protection from the cold and as a bedroll.
In 1863, J.B. Stetson will design a newly styled western hat, and Hyer Boot Company will manufacture the western, high-heeled boots we use today.
National Geographic: "Mexico's Pilgrim Cowboys" - a traditional journey honoring Jesus Christ.
- Mexico's Pilgrim Cowboys | National Geographic Magazine
Mexico's Pilgrim Cowboys
When the most difficult work has been done, it is time for fun and sport. The vaqueros compete with each other in roping and riding skills and it has become such a favored pastime, that a new style of horsemanship begins to emerge.These men will wear fancy, studded hats and pants, and will ride bucking horses and bulls and participate in charreada - a Mexican style rodeo.They will call themselves charros... (upcoming hub)
"Cowboys and Longhorns", Stanley, Jerry, Crown Publishers, New York. 2003.
US Govt, photos & Images - public domain