Vaqueros were the most important workers in the mission and rancho eras. And some of the first vaqueros were Native American. Learn more about these unique figures on the California frontier.
- 1 What Does “Vaquero” Mean?
- 2 Vaqueros in Latin America
- 3 Origins of the Vaquero
- 4 When Did Horses Come to California?
- 5 Soldados as Horsemen
- 6 Indians: The First Mission Vaqueros
- 7 Indians Banned from Horses
- 8 Native Vaqueros and Mission Status
- 9 Vaquero Gear
- 10 Mission Vaqueros and Hill Vaqueros
- 11 How Many Vaqueros Lived at the Mission?
- 12 What Did Vaqueros Do?
- 13 Native Vaqueros on Private Ranchos
- 14 Indian Vaqueros and Native Heritage
- 15 Learn More About Indian Vaqueros
What Does “Vaquero” Mean?
The word vaquero is usually translated as “cowboy” in English, and literally means “someone in charge of cows.” It also gave rise to the word “buckaroo,” another name for cowboy in English. The vaquero was in charge of managing the cattle and horses of Spanish and Mexican California, and was the most important worker in the mission and rancho economy, .
Vaqueros in Latin America
The vaquero phenomenon is widespread all over Latin America. In Mexico they are commonly known as charros, and the gaucho of Argentina and Paraguay is well known, as is the huaso of Chile. Wherever cattle were raised, vaqueros became important.
Origins of the Vaquero
The tradition of the vaquero probably originates in the horse culture that arrived in Spain from North Africa in the year 711, with the moorish invasion. The Berbers of North Africa (also known as the Moors) were a horse-riding people, and they brought their horses and horse culture with them to the Iberian Peninsula, which soon became an integral part of the culture.
When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez and his men came to Mexico in 1519, they brought horses, and as the Spanish established their empire in the Americas, horses became an essential part of both agriculture and conquest.
Very early on, Spanish horses came to what is today the Southwestern U.S. When Juan de Oñate established the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1598, he and the settlers that came with him brought hundreds of horses.
When Did Horses Come to California?
Horses probably came to Alta California in 1769. That year, Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Baja California, led a land expedition north and eventually reached the San Francisco Bay. With him came 60 men, mostly soldados de cuera (leatherjacket soldiers), as well as horses and mules.
The Spanish soon established military presidios or forts Alta California: the first was at San Diego in 1769. Because of the need to raise and care for horses, the presidio usually had a ranch connected to it. This ranch was known as Rancho del Rey or “The King’s Ranch.”
Soldados as Horsemen
The soldado de cuera was a skilled horseman, and Spanish soldiers learned at an early age to ride horses. But the presidio was a military operation, so it did not have the resources to dedicate to large-scale livestock raising. It was the missions, under the direction of the Franciscan padres, that really brought ranching life to Alta California.
The missions were agricultural operations meant to support the Native American communities that lived there. Missions raised large numbers of cattle for their meat and hides. It was important to have trained workers with the special skills to raise, breed and manage livestock. They needed vaqueros.
Indians: The First Mission Vaqueros
The Franciscan friars had some of the Native Americans at the missions trained as vaqueros. They learned to ride horses and raise cattle. Whether the Franciscans trained the Indians themselves they had help is not clear.
Although not all Native Americans adopted horses into their lifestyle, most California mission Indians took very well to horses. Those chosen to be vaqueros became renowned horsemen. Visitors to Alta California would often comment on the great horsemanship of the California vaqueros, both Indian and non-Indian.
Indians Banned from Horses
But horses was a powerful weapon of war and Spanish officials were against giving Indians access to them. Horses could be used against the Spanish, as the Comanches had done in New Mexico and Texas.
In 1787, the Spanish governor of the Californias, Pedro Fages, wrote to Fr. Fermín de Lasuén, president of the California missions. Fages warned Lasuén that Indians were forbidden to ride horses. Lasuén responded that there was no one else to do the job, therefore Indians would have to handle the tasks of the vaqueros. For the rest of the Spanish era, mission vaqueros would be Native Americans.
Native Vaqueros and Mission Status
The vaqueros were among the most important members of the mission community. Because of the special skills they learned and the dangerous nature of their jobs, vaqueros earned very high status and prestige.
Because of their great responsibilities, the padres chose young men considered to be the most trustworthy to be trained as vaqueros. Vaqueros were among the Indians who lived a lifestyle more like that of the gente de razón or Hispanic settlers.
According to Fr. Lasuén, vaqueros received special clothing for their jobs. They were given pantaloons and boots, “and where possible leather jackets, all made from buckskin in addition to a hat and shoes.”
Eulalia Pérez, who lived much of her life on Mission San Gabriel, said that there were generally two kinds of vaqueros: those who rode with a saddle and those who rode bareback. According to Pérez, “those who rode bareback received nothing more than their shirt, blanket, and loincloth. Those who rode with saddles received the same clothing as the gente de razón. They were given a shirt, a vest, pants, a hat, boots, shoes and spurs. They were given a saddle, a bridle, and a reata for their horse.”
Those who rode bareback received nothing more than their shirt, blanket, and loincloth. Those who rode with saddles received the same clothing as the gente de razón. They were given a shirt, a vest, pants, a hat, boots, shoes and spurs. They were given a saddle, a bridle, and a reata for their horse.– Eulalia Pérez
Mission Vaqueros and Hill Vaqueros
In addition to saddle vaqueros and bareback vaqueros, they were sometimes divided into “mission vaqueros” and “hill vaqueros.”
Many of the missions not only had their own livestock, but they also had more distant ranchos known as asistencias or estancias many miles away. These ranchos were more isolated, and the padres visited only occasionally. Indian vaqueros who worked and lived at the asistencias were known as “hill vaqueros.” They had much less contact with the mission and probably lived a more traditional native lifestyle.
How Many Vaqueros Lived at the Mission?
As the mission cattle herds grew, so also did the number of vaqueros. They were usually overseen by a mayordomo del campo (a “ranch foreman”). According to Nasario Galindo, who grew up at Mission Santa Clara, in the first decades of the 19th century, “There was also a mayordomo del campo who had 25 vaqueros, all Indians, under him.” The mayordomo del campo was usually an experienced cowman selected from among the gente de razón.
What Did Vaqueros Do?
While the vaquero’s abilities gave him a privileged position at the mission, his life was very hard, and involved a lot of different skilled activities. Vaqueros had to be young and able-bodied — the average age of a mission vaquero was 23 years old.
Vaqueros had to break and train horses. They had to manage herds of cattle and move them from place to place. And they had to protect the livestock from predators such as wolves and the California grizzly bear.
The vaquero’s work depended on the calendar, like most agricultural labors. February, March and April were usually dedicated to rounding up cattle in the rodeo. At that time the cattle would be castrated, earmarked, and branded, though this varied from mission to mission. Nasario Galindo recalled that at Mission Santa Clara, cattle were usually branded in June or July. The matanza or slaughter began in July or August.
Native Vaqueros on Private Ranchos
Because there were few private ranchos before Mexican independence, most native vaqueros worked for the missions. As the ranching economy expanded through the trade in hides and tallow, the skills the vaqueros learned on the mission became even more valuable. With mission secularization and the explosion of Mexican land grants, these vaqueros began to find work on private ranchos.
At the ranchos vaqueros often worked on a seasonal basis. The rancho owners would often bring on more vaqueros during the months of the rodeo and the matanza. Cash was not very common in Mexican California, so vaqueros were often paid with goods such as clothing, though some rancheros did pay their workers in cash.
Indian Vaqueros and Native Heritage
Throughout the 19th century, Native Americans continued to work as vaqueros all over California. For many of them, maintaining the vaquero lifestyle was also a way to preserve their native heritage.
According to author Arnold Rojas, a cowboy who chronicled the life of the California vaquero, even into the 20th century, expert horsemanship was often associated with Native heritage. In Rojas’ words, “when some vaquero had performed his work with great skill, the other men would look at each other, smile approvingly, and say, ‘Se crió entre los indios pues’- ‘Well, he was brought up among Indians’.”
When some vaquero had performed his work with great skill, the other men would look at each other, smile approvingly, and say, ‘Se crió entre los indios pues’- ‘Well, he was brought up among Indians’.”– Arnold Rojas
Learn More About Indian Vaqueros
- Book: Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz. Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848.
- Book: Russell Freedman. In the Days of the Vaqueros: America’s First True Cowboys.
- Book: Jo Mora. Californios: The Saga of the Hard-riding Vaqueros, America’s First Cowboys.
- Book: George Harwood Phillips: Vineyards and Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771–1877.
- Book: Arnold Rojas. These Were The Vaqueros: Collected Works of Arnold R. Rojas
- Book: Stephen W. Silliman: Lost Laborers in Colonial California: Native Americans and the Archaeology of Rancho Petaluma.
- Book chapter: Lee Panich: “Indigenous Vaqueros in Colonial California” in Foreign Objects: Rethinking Indigenous Consumption in American Archaeology.
- Article: Paul Albert Lacson. “Born of Horses:’ Missionaries, Indigenous Vaqueros, and Ecological Expansion during the Spanish Colonization of California.”