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Cowboys of New Mexico

The stereotypical cowboy most people think of today actually began with Spanish traditions, and before that, the Moors. During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as both horses and domesticated cattle to the Americas, starting with their arrival in what today is Mexico and Florida. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate sent an expedition across the Rio Grande into New Mexico, bringing along 7,000 head of cattle. From this beginning, vaqueros of mestizo heritage drove cattle from New Mexico and later from Texas to Mexico City. Mexican customs spread both South and North, influencing equestrian traditions from Argentina to Canada.

The geographic, environmental and cultural circumstances of New Spain--which later became Mexico and the Southwestern United States—transformed the traditions of Spain into the vaquero of northern Mexico and the charro of the Jalisco and Michoacán regions. While most hacendados (ranch owners) were ethnically Spanish criollos, many early vaqueros were Native Americans trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds. Vaqueros went north with livestock.

American cowboys in the Southwest came from many places. After the Civil War, the cattle industry expanded and former soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy came west to seek work. The cowboy life appealed to former slaves in part because there was not quite as much discrimination in the west and there were opportunities for homesteading. Native Americans and Mexicans worked as cowboys since colonial Spanish rule.

Census records suggest that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest. Cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15% of the total, but were more common in the southwest. Other estimates suggest that in the late 19th century, one out of every three cowboys was a Mexican vaquero, and 20% may have been African-American.

Unlike his Spanish counterparts of old, the American cowboys came from lower social classes and the pay was poor. The average cowboy earned approximately a dollar a day, plus food, and, when near the home ranch, a bed in the bunkhouse, usually a barracks-like building with a single open room.

Over time, cowboys of the American West developed a culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values that retained vestiges of chivalry. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions also bred a tradition of self-dependence and individualism, with great value put on personal honesty, exemplified in songs and poetry. 


American History Collection, African American History, Library of Congress, (accessed 1/27/2014).
Bennett, Deb. Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship. Amigo Publications, Inc., 1998.
Clayton, Lawrence, Jim Hoy and Jerald Underwood. Vaqueros, Cowboys, and Buckaroos: The Genesis and Life of the Mounted North American Herders. University of Texas Press, 2010.
Haeber, Jonathan. “Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range”, National Geographic News, 8/15/2003. (accessed 2/1/2014).
Hanes, Bailey C. Bill Pickett, Bulldogger: The Biography of a Black Cowboy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Slatta, Richard W. Cowboys of the Americas, Yale University Press, 1994.