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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Vaquero: The First Texas Cowboy

Herding cattle wasn't his only skill

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

When we think of cowboys in Texas, the image of the American cowboy often comes to mind. However, before the American cowboy, there were the vaqueros - the original cowboys of Texas. The vaqueros were Mexican cattle workers who brought their horseback livestock-herding tradition from Spain to Mexico and eventually to Texas - they have been called, "the first Texas cowboy."

Vaquero First Texas Cowboy
Vaqueros
Photo courtesy Bullock Museum of Texas History

If we stop and think about it, this is certainly true. After all, Texas was a part of Mexico when the first settlers from the United States arrived here. The Library of Congress is unwavering in its opinion when writing about the first cowboys in America, "The vaqueros came first--not Anglo or black cowboys, but Hispanic-California horsemen. In the Spanish colonial days before the cattle business developed."

Mexican vaqueros are a historic part of the ranching industry in Texas. From the beginning, they brought their rich tradition of horsemanship and cattle herding to the Lone Star State. There's no doubt that the vaqueros are an integral part of the cowboy story.

Thinking about the vaquero seems to automatically conjure up images of the cattle industry—however, there is much more to the legacy of these men. But what about the ability to produce products? Handcrafted articles that were used in their trade. To be honest, I never knew that they did more than herding cattle—these people were artists.

The Portal to Texas History website contains an article about these cowboy craftsmen. The article "Vaquero Traditions in South Texas," was written by Joe S. Graham. There is no information available as to when it was written, but Graham includes a lot of detail about the Mexican craftsmen and the products they produced. He writes that some of the best bootmakers in the region were from Raymondville and Mercedes. He mentions Roberto Salas of the King Ranch Running W Saddle Shop, which has been in business since 1865. However, we must remember that the date of publication for this article is unknown; but he does mention "helicopters" at one point, so it's not completely ancient.

Graham concludes, "And in spite of the fact that some of the vaqueros' own folk arts and crafts traditions have fallen prey to modern technology (e,g. the braided rawhide lariat has been replaced by first the manila lariat and later that of nylon), vaqueros continue to make a number of types of equipment and gear from rawhide."


Information abounds when it comes to finding resources about the vaquero. The Bullock Museum website contains information on how the rancher Richard King sought out vaqueros to work on his vast properties in south Texas. "The vaqueros were so renowned for their skills that rancher Richard King traveled to Mexico in 1854 to recruit entire vaquero families to manage his herds. King knew that these Mexican cowboys knew what to do with horses and cattle much better than he did. Seasoned vaqueros could stop a horse in its tracks or send it into a flat-out gallop with the slightest sway of the reins."

There is no doubt that the vaquero tradition had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of Texas. Their influence can be seen in various aspects of Texan culture, from the language (with terms like rodeo and lariat derived from Spanish) to the cuisine (such as Tex-Mex cuisine) and even in the arts and music. The vaqueros' distinctive attire, including the iconic sombrero and colorful serape, became symbols of their cultural heritage.

Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary September 28,2023 Column

Related Topics:
Texas Ranching


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