Hispanic Role in the West
By Roy Cook

September was the month that large horse raiding parties of Comanche went into Mexico after horses and captives. The Comanche referred to September as the Mexican Moon; Mexicans called it the Comanche Moon.
By the mid-sixteen hundreds, the Spanish rancheros near Santa Fe and Taos had thousands of horses, sheep and mules. The Spanish government issued decrees forbidding Indians to own or ride horses, but as slaves, or as workers on the Spanish Rancheros, Indians learned to handle livestock. Following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the Spanish removal from New Mexico the Southwest Pueblo and Navaho Tribal people owned their own horses. Also, at that historical time of the European sovereignty of the west returned to Tribal Aboriginal Land Title.

What remained is the language of the Hispanic west. For example, what other word is more identifiable with the "Wild West" than buckaroo? Yet buckaroo (first recorded in 1827) is merely a mispronunciation of the Spanish vaquero (literally "cow-man", ultimately from Latin vacca, "a cow"). Also, what is generally acknowledged but rarely mentioned is that major elements of the clothing, food, language and most importantly the cultural values and attitudes derive from Mexican as well as Southern American sources.
The Mexican contribution to cowboy culture is readily apparent when we examine some of its terminology. Anyone who ropes broncos with a lariat and pens them in a corral should be aware of their debt to the Spanish language. Bronco (1850) is the English spelling of broncho, Mexican Spanish for "wild" or "rough". A lariat is really la reata, "the lasso", from the Spanish verb reatar, "to tie together".

In California the Colonial Spanish cattle industry was huge and directly tied to Spain and the Catholic Missions. The Spanish had diverse economics in the new world, mining, sugar and cattle and trade that reached the four corners of the earth. In the arid region of their Northern frontier, what we know now as California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, cattle grazing was sometimes the sole economic prospect until dams and irrigation techniques were developed. Spanish cattle leather often returned to the Spanish colonies as fine leatherworks such as chests, clothing and furniture.
Spanish money was the earliest form of specie in the Americas, including the English Colonies, but leather hides had become a form of currency in some regions such as California, with some traders calling the hides, "California Dollars." The first original labor source for the Spanish Colonial cattle industry were Native Americans, 'Mestizos' and bonded Mexicans. In many regions, such as the California Missions, it remained that way until the American (U.S. of A.) cattle industry supplanted it. The Indian labor force was replaced by vaqueros of African and European descent as well as mixed race Mestizos after the advent of disease and repression nearly obliterated the indigenous population. As with the English colonial cattle labor force, the Spanish colonial cattle labor force were not of a class of wealth, their pay was meager and in the case of the Mission Indian Vaqueros, compensation was equal to the unpaid slaves of the English Colonies. In order to fairly demonstrate that neither the American Cowboy nor Mexican Vaquero enjoyed a glamorous economic status here is an excerpt regarding the Vaquero:

The Ranch in Mexico
by Joe S. Graham
"...Slowly, ranching haciendas began to replace the government as focal points of social, economic, and political life. As the hacendados (ranch owners) became more powerful, the system took a step backward toward the feudal system of Europe, since the hacendados basically ruled over everyone within the boundaries of the hacienda. ...Hacendados attempted to cut expenses by lowering wages for the vaqueros and enforcing a system of credit at the hacienda store, through which many vaqueros became "bonded" servants to the hacienda. Some vaqueros were even born into a life of debt incurred by their fathers, and many went through life as 'peons' never seeing their wages, which were simply credited to their store accounts."

Skilled ropers and riders, Hispanic-American cowboys employed tools and techniques perfected by Spanish vaqueros (buckaroos) in Mexico and the southwestern United States. They snared livestock with ropes made of rawhide or Manila hemp and rode heavy stock saddles equipped with a horn, which served as a snubbing post while roping. Cowboys also adopted a distinctive, often colorful style of dress that reflected the requirements of the job, the local work environment, and included many elements of the Mexican Vaqueros' personal taste. Most wore wide-brimmed hats to protect their head from sun and weather, tall-topped boots with slanted high heels to help secure their feet in the saddle stirrups, and spurs, sometimes embellished with silver, to motivate their horses. In brush-infested regions they also donned leather leggings, called chaps, short for the Spanish term chaparejos.

The sharp decline of the herds of the Plains created a vacuum which was exploited by the growing cattle industry. Spanish cattlemen had introduced cattle ranching and longhorn cattle to the Southwest in the 17th century, and the men who worked the ranches, called "vaqueros", were the first "cowboys" in the West.


Also, the area which is now Texas was part of the vast area claimed by the Spanish crown. Since it was not notably superior to other areas of New Spain that the Spanish kings needed to develop not much was done in the Texas area until it looked as though France might establish control there. The Spanish expedition that was sent to investigate possible French incursions into the area found that the French had established a colony at Matagorda Bay but it had been wiped out by hostile natives. The peaceful Caddo and Tonkawa Native Americans that met the expedition announced their peaceful intentions by shouting friends in their language. The word for friends in that language was Thechas, which the Spanish wrote as Tejas and used as the name for the natives. The Spanish version Tejas was converted into Texias by the Anglo immigrants. Those first immigrants in acknowledgement to the stipulation that they become Mexican citizens called themselves Texians for a period of time before the spellings took the modern forms of Texas and Texans.
Most of us derive our mythical impressions of the old West from Western movies, none of which accurately depict the cultural demographics of the times. Most cowboys were Mexican and, of the remainder, a large proportion was African-American, about 10,000 to 15,000 black cowboys.

See also:
September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month
The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.