When it comes to American identity, images of the Wild West and roaming cowboys are some of the most iconic. The Wild West period was a time of frontier expansion in the country’s southwest area, which took place from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century.
Influences from the Wild West can be felt today. They include films like Cowboys & Aliens, True Grit, and Wild, Wild West, along with video games like Red Dead: Redemption. In fact, even some slots providers have taken inspiration from the time period. Games include images from the old days of dusty saloons, as well as bandits, and cowboys roaming vast prairies.
However, the perception that the Wild West is a uniquely American experience isn’t quite the whole story. In fact, when closely investigating the Wild West frontier from a historical and anthropological perspective, there’s another unsung hero in the scheme: the Mexican vaquero. Much like the traditional cowboys, these grizzled and independent ranchers belonged to a unique cultural sect—and many of their traditions live on today.
The Sonoran Desert
First, let’s cover the landscape that cowboys are known for roaming. The US states of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and southern California were the stomping grounds for tough men looking to drive cattle, bounty hunt, and wander in search of gold.
But much of the backdrops used in these images, including saguaro cacti, golden sunsets, and shadowy canyons, actually come from the Sonoran Desert in Northern Mexico. The American cowboy, by contrast, tended to stick to the northern area of the Chihuahua Desert in states like Texas and New Mexico.
Now, let’s break down the clothing and items typically belonging to a cowboy. These include the ten-gallon hat, leather chaps, lasso (from the Spanish word ‘Lazo’ for rope), and hand-made saddles and reins. In reality, both chaps and lassos come straight from Mexico’s vaquero tradition. They could ride horses expertly and corral cattle, and many techniques were borrowed from Native groups that had ample experience hunting bison.
By contrast, the American cowboy is pictured as a lone frontiersman exploring the borders of civilization and undertaking odd jobs. There’s less emphasis on steering cattle and more emphasis on wild adventures. By contrast, the original vaqueros often worked in groups for a common goal.
A Wild Frontier
Another common misnomer about the Wild West is how long the period existed. For Americans, the Wild West endured less than a century. Its existence was closely tied to lawlessness as a fledgling US government attempted to exert control over its more rugged and empty regions.
However, Spanish colonists first arrived in the Sonoran Desert around 1530 with the arrival of conquistador Nuño Beltrán Guzmán. The region saw multiple waves of influence from various Spanish colonizing groups, which over time co-created the vaquero identity.
Ranching vs. Bounty Hunting
Much like the vaquero, the cowboy was often young, male, and able to handle extremely grueling physical labor in a hot climate. However, the vaquero spent more time around cattle than the average cowboy, who was often contracted for bounty hunting, mining, and other tasks.
The vaquero, on the other hand, spent more time herding cattle, hunting predators, and taming wild horses using their trusty lasso. Like the lasso, chaps also come from the Spanish word ‘chaparreras’, which comes from ‘chaparral’, or a thorny bush that inspired the garment’s creation.
Cowboys in Training
As mentioned above, vaquero history in Northern Mexico stretches hundreds of years farther than the earliest cowboy legacies. Some have hinted this is because many vaqueros directly trained the earliest cowboys. Following the annexation of Texas from Mexico to the US in 1845, many Americans headed south and took over ranches left behind by Mexican owners.
However, many vaqueros decided to stay behind and sought employment with the new owners. One of their first tasks was to train other men to handle and braid lassos, break wild horses, and herd cattle. Shortly after, expansion into the Wild West took off in earnest for American frontiersmen.