by Alison Bruce
The cowboy is an American icon. But the cowboy was adapted from the Spanish American vaquero and the vaquero had it's origins in the Spanish Reconquista.
Before the Spanish could build its empire in the Americas, it had to reconquer the Iberian peninsula which was under Islamic rule. In order to hold onto the lands, the Castilian king granted vast tracts to his nobles and military officers. Similar to the American South West (as we have seen in so many westerns) these lands were best suited to raising cattle and sheep. Because of the expanses involved, working from horseback was essential. The resulting hacienda system was the forerunner of the American ranch.
Coincidentally, the last Moorish kingdom fell in 1492 - the same year the Columbus "sailed the ocean blue." Soon after Spain established colonies in Mexico, caballeros (gentlemen) started training Mexican to work their ranches. They were called vaquero, cow men, almost as an insult and certainly as a term to differentiate them from the Spanish-born caballeros. In time, the name was used with pride.
"One of the highest stations you could have in life was to be a caballero," said Chavez, a resident of New Mexico whose lineage can be traced to the Don Juan de Oñate colony, the caballero who was among the first cowboys in the U.S.
"Even the poor Mexican vaqueros were very proud and there were few things they couldn't do from a saddle."
"Vaquero is a transliteration of the words 'cow' and 'man.' Vaca means 'cow,'" said Chavez. "Interestingly enough, in Spanish, we call ourselves cowmen; in English, it was demoted to cowboys."
With the missions, vaqueros spread west to California. When pioneers from northern European stock spread southwest, they adopted and adapted the Spanish way of ranching.
In their origin countries, raising herds of sheep and cattle were a different business altogether. Instead of vast tracks of semi-arid land, the people of central Europe and Britain moved herds by foot from pasture to pasture, usually on foot, using dogs to herd. This wasn't practical in the American west.
One out of every three cowboys in the late 1800s was the Mexican vaquero, says Kendall Nelson, a photographer from Idaho whose recent book, Gathering Remnants: A Tribute to the Working Cowboy (was made into a movie.)
"All of the skills, traditions, and ways of working with cattle are very much rooted in the Mexican vaquero," Nelson told National Geographic News. "If you are a cowboy in the U.S. today, you have developed what you know from the vaquero."
Like tapas, pizza and Chinese food, the cowboy culture has its roots outside North America. Also like those dishes, the culture has evolved in the melting pot of America.