Subject: vaquero cowboy
Culture: northern Mexican mestizo
Setting: cattle drives, northern Mexico / western United States 19thc
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Hábitos y costumbres del pasado 1996 p197
"El sistema de la encomienda dominó las faenas agrícolas y la minería. Mientras que los terratenientes más ricos vivían casi todo el año en las ciudades, sus representantes supervisaban el trabajo en minas y ranchos. Las aldeas indígenas proveían la fuerza de trabajo para arar los campos, erigir cercas y criar ganado. El vaquero de la América hispánica generalmente era indígena o mestizo, de la mezcla de sangres indígena y española."
* National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame
"The Vaquero A good half century before the Western beef-cattle industry blossomed in Texas, a singular breed of professional horsemen calling themselves 'vaqueros' had already set the style, evolved the equipment and techniques, and even developed much of the vocabulary that would become the stamp of the American cowboy."
* Weston 1985 p138-139
"The vaqueros in old Mexico worked on the big cattle haciendas of the northern states, particularly Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon y Coahuila, the southern half of Nuevo Santander (after Mexican Independence, Tamaulipas), and the north-central state of Durango. Unlike our cattlemen, who used public land for their ranges, the hacendados owned their huge estates outright, either by government grant, purchase, or expropriation of Indian holdings. These Mexican cattle kings were European and were conservative in politics, like the Church and the agricultural, mining and lumbering hacendados; together they dominated the economy of the north, where cattle and sheep were the main products. Each ruled over his estate with absolute power, controlling all the people around him by the institution of debt peonage. These people in the north, the workers on the haciendas, were not Indians but mestizos, because the Indians of the semiarid cattle country were all nomadic hunters and raiders whom the Mexicans killed off or forced into settlements, as the United States did its indigenous nomads like the Apaches. The mestizos of this more southern portion of the Great Plains came from the early Spanish settlements that had attracted Indians over the three centuries of colonial rule -- some former nomads, some agricultural Indians kidnapped from the central plateau. This association had created a mixture of genes in the laboring class, los pobres, more Indian than European. From old settlements, inside or near these vast estates, came all the near-Indian cooks and servants and craftspeople and farmers and shepherds and unmounted corral, stable, and barn workers, and, of course, vaqueros. The latter had the most prestige among their fellow peons because they were mounted, like gentlemen; nevertheless, they were enslaved like all the rest by indebtedness to the patrón."
* Clayton/Hoy/Underwood 2001 p18-19 (Jerald Underwood, "The vaquero" p1-65)
"On the King Ranch and the ranches of northern Mexico, the vaqueros flourished. The vast space of the Borderlands has a dramatic effect upon people, and to ride a spirited horse in a wide-open country adds another dimension to the soul. 'Room, room to turn round in, to breathe and be free / To grow to be a giant, to sail as to sea,' says the poem 'Kit Darson's Ride' by Joaquin Miller in an appropriate description of this concept. This space and the horse culture allowed men the opportunity to achieve the 'Centaur Wish,' to be one with the horse, to live the life of the gods. True, the vaquero's life was very hard, and he was generally very poor, but when he was in the saddle with the sun on his back and the wind in his face, he was free.
"The vaquero rode his horse great distances, working cattle but also defending the hacienda against hostile Indians. ... Because of this and other dangerous feats, the vaquero became a folk hero on the frontier of northern Mexico. Noyes notes that the Indian learned the use of the rope from captured vaqueros. The Mexican cowhand could ride down any wild cow and rope it; he could catch, ride, and break wild mustangs; he could dance all night; he was a ladies' man, and a fighter who scorned danger. he had a determined look in his eyes -- one that looked far off to the horizon. Few people have looked more at home on a horse than a vaquero. He rode with his hands feather-light on the reins, and sat down in the saddle, whereas the cowboy tended to stand up in his stirrups. The vaquero rode in a kind of balance that is the mark of a true horseman."
* Rosa 1995 p111-112
"Texans, it seemed, continued to cause and attract trouble. The Eagle of 20 and 27 August described the murder of a Texan by two Mexicans following a gambling dispute. Friends of the deceased pursued the pair and both were shot and killed 'in an attempt to resist an arrest, that at least is what they call it in these parts'. It was only one of several incidents that occurred in Wichita that summer and fall. On 13 November 1873, the Eagle pinpointed the basic prejudices of the races when it reported that 'a dozen Mexican greasers, camped upon the other side of the river, last night attacked Constable Prentiss and beat him with their revolvers most inhumanly. Sheriff [William] Smith is out with a posse this morning and we have no doubt of their arrest and punishment. Some of the people of this city have been laboring under the impression that there was an ordinance in force prohibiting the carrying of firearms within the city. From the number of revolvers flourishing upon our streets in the last two weeks, we conclude that it was only an impression.'
"Ellsworth experienced similar problems. On 7 March 1868, the Junction City Union reported that one 'Chaves', described as a 'Mexican bummer' formerly of Kansas City, and accompanied by other Mexicans, entered a saloon and announced that 'Americans did not like Mexicans'. Drawing his pistol he opened fire, shooting a man in the arm. Despite the shock of his wound, the man drew his own pistol and shot Chaves dead. The unpopularity of the Mexicans was voiced by the Leavenworth Daily Commercial of 7 July 1872, when it noted that society at Ellsworth was 'of the roughest kind, boiled down. The Greasers are rougher, and the soiled doves [prostitutes] are roughest.' The writer described a 'genuine greaser' lounging in a saloon, who was 'dressed in a buckskin suit, Mexican spurs, Navy revolvers, bowie knife, and long hair. Across was a Texan similarly dressed.'
* Slatta 1990 p41-42
"The vaqueros' virtues remained constant, but their dress varied with the terrain they rode. Most, like the llanero and the gaucho, wore a poncho, also called a serape in Mexico. The broad-brimmed sombrero, another necessary item of clothing, was made from a variety of materials. Theodore Dodge described the vaquero dress of northern Mexico in 1891: 'Our Chihuahua vaquero wears white cotton clothes, and goat-skin chaperajos [chaparejos or chaps] with the hair left on, naked feet, and huarachos [huaraches], or sandals, and big jingling spurs. A gourd, lashed to his cantle, does the duty of canteen ... and his saddle is loaded down with an abundance of cheap plunder.'
"A slightly more detailed description, written in 1912, offers insight into the little flourishes that a vaquero might make in his wardrobe.
[His dress] consists of a short jacket made of some cheap coarse material, usually in colors, and tight-fitting pantaloons belled out at the bottom just enough to permit easy foot action. Down the outside seam of his trousers runs a broad strip of brilliant cloth. Instead of a belt he wears a faja (sash) which is wrapped around his body several times with the ends tucked in. It is always of some bright color, usually red or blue. His sombrero, of course, is an object of almost universal conjecture, often having a three-foot expanse of brim, which is dipped at a rakish angle, with a conical-shaped crown. It is made of braided straw and is invariably decorated with bands of brilliant colors.
"On the range he always has about him somewhere his beloved serape, which seems indestructible. He wears it thrown over his shoulder like a shawl, and how he keeps it on, in the thick of a round-up, always puzzles the American cowboy. He also uses it as his bed at night; and when it rains, one will see him stoically sitting his horse (he rides a horse on the plain but not in the mountains), enjoying the full glory of it like an Indian chief on dress parade. His foot-gear is almost laughable, for instead of the high-heeled graceful boot worn by American cowboys, he wears the charro shoe, which is low-heeled, thin-soled, and very pointed at the toe, resembling, in very respect but the toe, the old-style congress shoe. It is usually of russett [sic] leather of very soft texture. As a rule, he wears no kerchief round his neck, and his chaps fit tight and flare at the bottom like his trousers."
* Clayton/Hoy/Underwood 2001 p19-20 (Jerald Underwood, "The vaquero" p1-65)
"Not only did the vaquero develop a style of riding and roping that fit his land, his clothing was suited to the geography of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The vaquero's clothing not only protected him from the elements he faced daily but also gave him a unique appearance. In the hot climate in which he worked, he had to protect his head. He adopted the sombrero, a hat with a 'low flat crown and straight brim ... constructed of leather, cheap felt, or woven palm fiber'. Because of the poverty of the vaquero, these hats rarely if ever sported the ornament found on the hats of wealthy Spaniards.
"Vaqueros' shirts were usually made of cotton or wool, depending upon the climate in which the vaquero lived and the season. Wool was readily available because of sheep brought to the region from Spain, and cotton had long been cultivated in the area. Leather was no doubt used as part of the wardrobe as well, since a ready supply was available. Eventually, a bolero-style jacket was adopted, along with pants that laced up the sides and fit tightly round the vaquero's thighs and waist. Often at the waist the vaquero wore a sash of red or green silk or cotton." [references omitted]
* National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame
"Leather clothing and equipment protected vaqueros of Baja California and northern Mexico from thorny cactus and brush. The 'taps' (tapaderas) hanging down over the stirrups protected the feet and prevented them from slipping through the stirrups.
"Vaqueros made excellent leather and horsehair ropes, which they threw with great skill. Vaqueros generally could be found with a rope, a tall wide sombrero, and depending on local conditions, high leather boots and leggings or sandals. Vaqueros might wear a short, trim charro jacket or use a poncho."
* Clayton/Hoy/Underwood 2001 p19 (Jerald Underwood, "The vaquero" p1-65)
"The vaquero rode his horse great distances, working cattle but also defending the hacienda against hostile Indians. In this struggle, the vaquero had only his lance, knife, and rope, since guns were expensive on the frontier. It was common for a vaquero to use la riata (the rawhide rope) as a weapon. It took great courage for a man to ride down an Apache warrior, rope him around the neck, and drag him to death. Because of this and other dangerous feats, the vaquero became a folk hero on the frontier of northern Mexico."
* Slatta 1990 p43
"Both vaqueros and gauchos disdained firearms, which were considered unmanly. Vaquero folklore emphasized the value of outwitting an adversary, rather than confronting him with a gun. The gaucho relied on his long knife and the bolas, the vaquero on his rope, which served as both a tool and a formidable weapon. Vaqueros looked disdainfully at the gun-toting Anglo who could not protect himself like a real man."
* Rosa 1995 p112 (describing vaqueros in Texas)
"Most of the Mexicans ... preferred the knife to the pistol, and proved to be very dextrous [sic] in its use."
* Clayton/Hoy/Underwood 2001 p20-22 (Jerald Underwood, "The vaquero" p1-65)
"Leather leggings called botas covered the lower part of the legs. The high-heeled boots, which enabled later herdsmen to keep their feet securely in the stirrup, were not available to the early vaqueros. These early herders wore crude sandals; only the rich could afford the boots of supple leather. Since the climate was warm most of the year, protective footwear was not required. Dary notes that those who could afford to do so strapped large-roweled Spanish spurs, much like those the conquistadors wore, to whatever footwear was available. These gave the rider better control of the horse. Bet even these were luxuries that many of the poor vaqueros could not afford."