Herding cattle from horseback has been a tradition in northern Mexico and the American West since the Spanish colonial era. The first mounted herders were the Mexican vaqueros, expert horsemen who developed the skills to work cattle in the brush country and deserts of the Southwestern borderlands. From them, Texas cowboys learned the trade, evolving their own unique culture that spread across the Southwest and Great Plains. The buckaroos of the Great Basin west of the Rockies trace their origin to the vaqueros, with influence along the way from the cowboys, though they, too, have ways and customs distinctly their own.
In this book, three long-time students of the American West describe the history, working practices, and folk culture of vaqueros, cowboys, and buckaroos. They draw on historical records, contemporary interviews, and numerous photographs to show what makes each group of mounted herders distinctive in terms of working methods, gear, dress, customs, and speech. They also highlight the many common traits of all three groups.
This comparative look at vaqueros, cowboys, and buckaroos brings the mythical image of the American cowboy into focus and detail and honors the regional and national variations. It will be an essential resource for anyone who would know or portray the cowboy—readers, writers, songwriters, and actors among them.
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I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy. —"The Cowboy's Lament"
The outfit or appearance of members of a bona fide folk group—principally the clothing but also other personal accoutrements associated with the work and daily life of the individuals in that group—is distinctive enough to be identified at a glance, even by a novice. This is certainly true of the cattle herders in the American West. The tall hat, the scarf, the brightly colored long-sleeved shirt, the faded blue denim jeans, the leather chaps, the high-top cowboy boots, the jingling spurs, and other such items have long been recognized as the distinguishing marks of this Western America folk hero. Certainly similarity exists in the outfits of the mounted herders in various regions of the West, but variations in appearance show distinct regional preferences in the choice and style of the items themselves.
How the hat is styled or crushed, and whether the scarf is cotton or silk, the shirt is cotton or wool, the chaps are long and full or knee-length, the boots are lace-up packers or tall stove-pipe types, the spurs sport large rowels and jingle-bobs or small rowels and little decoration—these factors determine whether the individual is a vaquero, a cowboy, or a buckaroo. Also important is whether his saddle has a slick or swelled fork, is rim-fire or seven-eighths or three-quarter rigged, and has a rolled or straight cantle. If his rope is thirty feet long, he is a cowboy. If it is sixty, he is a buckaroo.
The outfit preferred by these men in their geographic areas developed over a long period under many different influences. The life of these men was controlled by cattle and horses; it took both to make their world turn. By 1600, there had emerged a distinct class of men who herded and worked cattle in North America. By the early 1700s, Longhorn cattle and these herders were common in northern Mexico, southern Texas, and southern California. They were Mexican vaqueros, who lived in poverty and who no doubt dressed themselves in whatever nondescript garb and worked with whatever equipment they could find to meet their needs. Gradually, however, they developed distinctive clothing, gear, techniques, and annual routines, much of which bore similarities to the vaquero's South American cousin, the gaucho of the broad and grassy Argentine Pampas.
More than two centuries later, when Anglos took up the practice of herding cattle in what was to become California and southern Texas, they adapted the vaquero pattern into a culture that can be divided into two distinct versions related to specific areas of the United States—the cowboy and the buckaroo.
In 1927 Charles M. Russell, the noted painter and interpreter of the West, revealed the common thought about the origins of the cowboy and the buckaroo. Speaking through the dialect of Rawhide Rawlins, he gives the following history: "By all I can find out from old, gray-headed punchers," he drawls, "the cow business started [in the United States] in California, an' the Spaniards were the first to burn marks on their cattle an' hosses, an' use the rope," thus confirming the early influence of the Spanish. Then, he says, "the men from the States drifted west to Texas, pickin' up the brandin' iron an' lass-rope, an' the business spread north, east, an' west, till the spotted longhorns walked in every trail marked out by their brown cousins, the buffalo."
He then delineates the differences between the buckaroo and the cowboy: "Texas an' California, bein' the startin' places, made two species of cowpunchers; those west of the Rockies rangin' north, usin' center-fire or single-cinch saddles, with high fork an' cantle; packed a sixty or sixty-five foot rawhide rope, an' swung a big loop." He depicts with the keen eye of the artist their penchant for fancy gear: "These cow people were generally strong on pretty, usin' plenty of hoss jewelry, silver-mounted spurs, bits, an' conchas." Their tack also caught his observant eye: "Instead of a quirt" they "used a romal, or quirt braided to the end of the reins. Their saddles were full stamped with from twenty-four to twenty-eight-inch eagle-bill tapaderos. Their chaparejos were made of fur or hair, either bear, angora goat, or hair sealskin." He identifies the bits used by these men as the "Spanish spade." He had them pegged: "These fellows were sure fancy, an' called themselves buccaroos, coming from the Spanish word vaquero."
In contrast, he notes, the cowboy "originated in Texas and ranged north." Unlike the buckaroo, "he wasn't much for pretty; his saddle was low horn, rimfire, or double-cinch." He identifies another of their salient characteristics and the reason for it: "Their rope was seldom over forty feet, for being a good deal in a brush country, they were forced to swing a small loop. These men generally tied [hard and fast], instead of taking their dallie-welts, or wrapping their rope around the saddle horn. Their chaparejos were made of heavy bullhide, to protect the leg from the brush and thorns." He goes on to note that they protected their feet "with hog-snout tapaderos," those with no flaps. These characteristics are still typical of cowboys, although the tapaderos are found only in brush country.
Russell seems to have preferred the flashy buckaroo to the plainer cowboy, or at least he described the California type more fully. His use of "lass-rope" reflects the dialect of the buckaroo. Without doubt, however, he understood the differences he observed.
The regional differences in the herders of the North American West are discussable only in general terms because there was, and is, no complete uniformity. In fact, any effort to say for certain what style was or was not present in a given region at a specific time is futile, for styles have changed with time as preferred modes of dress have done for centuries with people in all walks of life. The men adopt and then perhaps adapt the customs of their regions. Something different in clothing and technique is initially looked upon with distrust or even with disdain. For example, men of a culture that dallies its lariats when roping will tend to stay clear of a roper who ties off, and the reverse is just as true because tie-off ropers are suspicious of "dally men." There was, however, enough similarity, and there still is, to discuss these types of herders in different regions in general terms.
The first section, by Jerald Underwood, traces the vaquero from his formative background in North Africa and Spain into Mexico, where the Mexican frontier molded an already expert horseman into a consummate range hand. The cowboy section, by Lawrence Clayton, deals with the evolution and current life and work of the cowboy. Jim Hoy's final section on the buckaroo traces the development, life, and work patterns of the range hands of the Northwest United States. The journey to compile this material and collect the photographs has been enjoyable to us; we wish the same pleasure for our readers.