By: Jack Jackson

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: May 5, 2017

The vaquero, or cowboy, the mounted herdsman of the Spanish colonial period and his Mexican counterpart of the nineteenth century, is a historical figure that, like the Anglo cowboy, has attained romantic features and near-mythic stature. Actually, the Hispanic and Anglo cowboys faced many of the same harsh working conditions and had more aspects in common than is traditionally recognized. In Texas this was the case because Anglo stock raisers were heavily influenced by the Spanish ranching institutions that they found upon their arrival. Over a period of time, particularly between 1821 and the trail-driving era, many Spanish stock-handling techniques passed into the Anglo way of doing things, and the distinctions between the two traditions blurred. Although such was also the case in other border states, the influence of the Texas "system" was larger, since it extended onto the High Plains and overshadowed other methods of working cattle on the open range. Spanish vaqueros in colonial times were generally viewed by their society as a rough and rowdy lot. Many of them operated outside the law and preyed upon unbranded cattle that roamed the vast estates of northern Mexico. Often they were mestizo or semicivilized Indians on the lower rungs of the social ladder, but they were invariably noted for their horsemanship and stock-tending skills. As ranching made its way north to Texas through the tier of provinces along the Rio Grande, these herdsmen were the vanguard of Hispanic colonization. In many cases they attached themselves to a patrón (an influential rancher who owned a grant of land from the king), married, and built a shack on his property. Their children were born and raised in service to the patrón, an arrangement that sometimes spanned generations. Early Anglo ranch owners in South Texas, such as Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, fell heir to this tradition, which continued well into the twentieth century.

Through their working association with vaqueros, young Anglo cowboys learned their techniques and adopted them as a matter of course. From the era of the Texas Revolution and beyond, South Texas abounded in wild longhorn cattle, noted for their stamina and adaptation to the land. After the Civil War these herds increased dramatically and, when rounded up and branded, formed the basis for a number of prosperous huge ranches. Hired vaqueros figured in this process, as well as in the drives to railheads and northern markets. Not only did they ride for Anglo bosses, they on occasion took herds for Mexicans operators. By this time (1870s), the vaquero's saddle, chaps, bandana, sombrero, lasso, spurs, and even elements of his expertise were so widespread that they lost their Hispanic identity and became simply "Texan." See also RANCHING, and RANCHING IN SPANISH TEXAS.

François Chevalier, Land and Society in Colonial Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963). David Dary, Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries (New York: Knopf, 1981). Jack Jackson, Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721–1821 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986). Joseph J. Mora, Trail Dust and Saddle Leather (New York: Scribner, 1946). Nora E. Ramirez, The Vaquero and Ranching in the Southwestern United States, 1600–1970 (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1978). Glenn R. Vernam, Man on Horseback (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Cattle Management
Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jack Jackson, “Vaquero,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

May 5, 2017

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: