Vaqueros, Cowboys and Buckaroos

Posted by John Brand on

Cowboys of the old west were referred to as "vaqueros." (The Spanish word "vaca" means cow.) The term "cowboy" was rarely used back in the old west. It is more commonly used today. The word vaquero pronounced by American cowboys, was "bukera" and finally "buckaroo." For a period of time anyone working cattle, whether in Texas, California, or elsewhere was known as a "buckaroo". It wasn't until the late 1860's when the Texans began to drive their cattle north to the new railroads in Kansas that the term "cowboy" came into widespread use.



Vaqueros were poor, owned no land, probably not even a horse, but he began the noble tradition of the working cowboy that spread from Mexico into the United States. Vaquero's felt superior to farmer's. They were proud of their work, had courage, fortitude, physical endurance, patience, long suffering, and were uncomplaining. The vaquero worked in bad weather and with aches and pains. They went without food and tracked down stray animals at all costs. They had courage, riding into the midst of a milling herd.  The vaquero and cowboys expected and valued these qualities.  Virtuous actions would not bring praise, but failing to measure up to the vaquero's standard could bring criticism or ridicule.

Jo Mora (cartoonist, illustrator, and cowboy in the 1800's) described the appearance of the vaquero: "A kerchief was bound about his head, atop which, at a very rakish, arrogant angle sat a trail-worn weather beaten hat wide of brim, low of crown, held in place by a barbiquejo (chin strap) that extended just below the lower lip. His unkempt black beard straggled over his jowls and his long black hair dangled down his back to a little below the line of his shoulders. His ample colonial shirt was soiled and torn and a flash of brown shoulder could usually be seen through a recent tear. The typical wide red Spanish sash encircled his lean midriff. His short pants reaching to his knees, buttoned up the sides and were open for 6 inches or so at the bottom. Long drawers (which were once white) showed wrinkles at the knees and were folded into wrapped leather botas (leggings). He wore a rough pair of buckskin shoes with leather soles and low heels to which were strapped a pair of large and rusty iron spurs. This costume was finished off by a tirador ( a heavy wide at the hips belt) that helped him to snub with the reata (rawhide rope) when lassoing on foot. The ever present long knife in its scabbard was thrust inside the garter on his right leg."

Much of the dress, language, Vaquero horse tack and values of the Mexican and Californio Vaquero's passed to the Anglo American Cowboy. The Vaquero gear, the la reata became the cowboy's lariat (a rope in the form of a lasso). Chaparejos became chaps and the term "Dar la Vuelta" (take a turn) became "dally". Meaning to twist the end of a Lariat around the saddle horn rather than tying it down.

It is an honor to witness the traditions of the vaquero still being used today, not only in riding style but also dress and tack.


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