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The Vaquero Origins of the Texas Cowboy by Richard W. Slatta
Cowboys on a trail drive
Talk like a vaquero. Cowboy talk in English and Spanish
Like much else in American life, the cowboy and his language, tools, techniques, and the cattle he herded are amalgams of imported influences. In this case, Spaniards laid a foundation that environmental, indigenous, and later British influences would mold into the American cowboy. Spanish influences in Texas arrived with the soldiers, missionaries, vaqueros, and settlers who fanned out across the vast frontier, beginning in the late 17th century.

The Spanish nobility had originally barred nonwhites from riding horses, thereby reserving the equestrian life for the upper class. It was too dangerous and democratic to let nonwhites rise up from the ground to mount a horse. The growing demands for ranch workers, however, coupled with the Spanish elite's aversion to manual labor, opened riding to Indians, blacks, and mestizos.

Franciscan missionaries brought their mission system, which included livestock raising, into many areas of Texas from 1682 to 1793, establishing some 26 locations in all. Indian depredations doomed some efforts, but after about 1750, Franciscan missions as well as private ranchers became the principal stock raisers in Texas. Franciscan activities centered at missions in the San Antonio River valley from San Antonio de Béxar to La Bahía (Goliad), where missionaries trained Indian neophytes to ride horses and handle cattle.

In early spring 1721, the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo recruited 500 men for an "entrada" or colonization effort in East Texas. He set out with 2,800 horses, 4,800 cattle, and 6,400 sheep and goats. Significant Spanish ranching and thus vaquero life in Texas accelerated because of his efforts. Later colonizers, such as José de Escandón, brought more livestock to Texas beginning in the late 1740s.

Thus Mexican vaqueros, both mestizos and acculturated Indians, worked cattle in Texas long before the arrival of Anglo-Saxon immigrants from the United States. On the vast open ranges of west Texas or in the brush country of south Texas, vaqueros developed special techniques and equipment to handle unruly Longhorn cattle. Early Anglos, with no such open-range experience, adopted these practices. South Texas cowboy Frank Graham described the vaquero as a "master teacher. He was here before Anglos came, and he gave his terminology to us." The vaquero showed Anglos "how to work cattle in this wild, open country. And the vaquero knew the brush; the English did not."1 Armando C. Alonzo provides an excellent case study of early "ranchero" life in south Texas in his book TEJANO LEGACY.

The Longhorn could reach a weight of 1,800 pounds, with an average horn span of four feet, though widths could reach up to nine feet. The Longhorn's enormous size and frightful horns made him especially dangerous to handle. Vaqueros responded by becoming masters of the art of roping. Thereafter, the lariat (Spanish "la reata") remained the key work tool. Vaqueros braided their "reatas," as long as 100 feet, out of rawhide. Cowboy James Childers, who lived in Copeville, Texas, in the 1930s, recalled the rope's importance: "The lariat is the key to a cowboy's success as a workman, and I determined to master the art. I was successful and at the end of my first year's work, I could place the loop where I desired quite accurately."2

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TEXAS RANCH HOUSE