//Vaqueros: California’s First Cowboys

Vaqueros: California’s First Cowboys

By Dave Fountinelle | dave@fresnoflyer.com

Today’s modern rodeos are more than just the competitive showcase of the generations of riding and roping that helped to tame the wild west, they are a celebration of the rich and diverse history of the people who developed these skills and turned them into an art form. 

Hundreds of years before the first American cowboys hit the trail, vaqueros were wrangling cattle and herding livestock all across the southwest. Vaqueros – Spanish for “cowboy” – were highly-skilled cattlemen and expert riders, composed largely of men from the indigenous tribes in what is now the southwestern US and Mexico. When Spanish colonists arrived in Mexico in the early 1500’s, they brought with them livestock, including sheep, longhorn bulls, and horses. The animals thrived and multiplied quickly in their new home, and soon the Spaniards began enlisting the help of the local indigenous population to maintain the growing herds. The Spanish colonists were all adept horsemen, and they taught young indigenous men how to ride and also how to use braided ropes, called reatas, to catch cattle that often broke free. 

In 1769, when Spanish Franciscan missionaries began colonizing California, they arrived with roughly 1,000 head of cattle and horses. Less than a hundred years later, that number had ballooned to nearly 300,000 head of cattle, including about 23,000 horses. The Franciscan missionaries were woefully short handed when it came to managing the massive herds of cows, sheep, oxen, and mules. They began training the young men and boys from the Native tribes in the area, with the help of vaqueros that had traveled west from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to find work in the new California territory. By learning these equestrian techniques, the young Native riders became an integral part of creating the agricultural communities that were the foundation of Franciscan expansion across the state. However, they also attracted the attention of military leaders, who felt that these highly-trained Native riders posed a threat to the safety and security of Spanish settlements. Indigenous people were considered primitive and savage by Spanish colonists, who kept the young men of the tribes in quai-slavery under the guise of “servitude” to their Christian God. Therefore, any knowledge or training that might put them on an even footing was considered dangerous. However, despite the protests from both the military and the governor, Franciscan missionaries nevertheless continued to train Native vaqueros. The missionaries reasoned that the shortage of available labor to manage the massive livestock herds left them with no other alternative.

The military soon found justification for its concerns when some Native vaqueros began to flee the forced servitude of the southern and central coastal mission communities on horseback, riding up to Native territories in the Central Valley. These escaped Indian horsemen passed their knowledge on to the young Native men in the Central Valley, and soon they formed bands that would frequently raid the Franciscan settlements, stealing horses and cattle. The same roping and wrangling skills that were so effective for recovering loose cattle proved extremely useful for quickly catching and riding off with livestock from the mission ranches. 

While California’s livestock industry was flourishing, there were very few production facilities in the state at the time for commodities such as meat, hides, and tallow. Mule trains routinely ran from California ranches down to Mexico City, where livestock would be processed into these goods and brought back. Mexican vaqueros were in great demand to lead these trains, manage the herds, and provide security against raids from the Indigenous riders.

By the mid-1800’s, California’s leadership had declared the Indigenous population to be a threat to the safety of the growing Anglo population in the state. A number of discriminatory laws were passed, and local militias were armed and provided with bounties for Indian lives by the federal army, giving them license to drive Native people from their lands by any means necessary. Roughly 16,000 Native Americans died in the resulting genocide, and the Indigenous vaquero all but disappeared, replaced by their Mexican counterparts. 

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the growth of the shipping industries in San Francisco and San Diego, the demand for Mexican vaqueros and Anglo-American cowboys dwindled. While most Anglo-American cowboys were well-paid and able to purchase land to farm, or open businesses when their cowhand services were no longer needed, Mexican vaqueros weren’t as lucky. Discriminatory laws prevented them from owning property and having the same opportunities to transition into new industries. 

A number of the vaqueros in California headed north to help settle the Pacific Northwest. Many others found work as farm laborers and became an essential part of California’s agricultural industry. Mexican migrant labor continues to be the backbone of agribusiness in the state to this day. 

Of the remaining vaquero population, some found work in a new form of entertainment born from post-expansion romanticism, called the “Wild West Show.” Entertainers such as Wild Bill Cody toured the country with a variety of performers whose acts revolved around various aspects of frontier and cowboy life. Sharpshooters like Annie Oakley, cowboys like Will Rogers, Bill Pickett, and Pawnee Bill, and other skilled shooters and riders like Calamity Jane, Tilly Baldwin, and Geronimo were part of Wild Bill’s famous touring show, performing all over the United States and Europe until the 1920’s. Both on stage and behind the scenes, Mexican vaqueros were a fundamental part of the cowboy entertainment industry. Their riding and roping skills were in high demand as they trained performers, worked as extras, and starred in their own productions.

By the end of the 1920s, the touring wild west shows had lost their popularity with American audiences. Television westerns, dubbed “horse operas,” sated America’s obsession with tales of the old west instead. The cowboy entertainment industry found itself at a turning point, it needed to find a new way of attracting an audience to stay alive. Once again, the vaquero culture would come to the rescue.

It was common for vaqueros to engage in friendly competition with each other as a way to pass the time and blow off steam during and after long rides. The men would challenge each other’s riding and roping skills for money and bragging rights. These competitions became the foundation of the modern rodeo, and many of them are still part of today’s competitive rodeo events.

Despite the importance of vaquero culture to the cowboy/western entertainment industry, vaqueros themselves were omitted and whitewashed, particularly in Hollywood, where cowboys were exclusively portrayed by white men and both Mexicans and Native Americans were vilified as bandits and savages. Despite their marginalization in pop culture, vaqueros continued to be essential to both entertainment and agriculture. The horse riding skills of the vaquero, including the use of horse bits and the braided lasso (from the Spanish lazo, meaning “rope”), are still fundamental to modern riding and roping training. Likewise, vaquero ranching techniques are employed by modern cowhands around the world.

For as long as a cattle industry exists in America, the vaquero legacy will endure. Everything from saddles and chaps (from chapperas, meaning “leather leggings”), to the practice of roping horses, to the use of spurs and branding, and even the existence of rodeos as we know them today, all come from the vaquero culture. Many California missions, including Mission San Juan Batista, honor vaquero cultural history with displays, while touring events like Fiesta Del Charro bring the traditional Mexican rodeo experience to California state fairs and festivals. 

Still, there’s nowhere else that showcases just how much the vaquero legacy has endured like the modern rodeos that continue to tour the US. From the competitive events and the equipment used, even to the clothes the cowboys wear, vaquero culture is the heart of modern rodeo – which beats as strong today as it did during California’s infancy and the dawning west.