Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley

The Origins of
the Cowboy Culture
of Western America


The culture of the western United States, which many consider the epitome of American-ness, is in origin a synthesis of Anglo and Hispanic cultures which was created in Texas in the days of the Texas Republic and spread with the trail herds to what is now the western United States (and Canada). Major elements of the clothing, food, language and most importantly the cultural values and attitudes derive from Mexican as well as Southern American sources. There were many sources for the population of the western North America but these disparate peoples assimilated the Anglo-Hispanic culture of Texas. Although this culture is perceived as American by the rest of the United States it is a cousin culture rather than a sibling culture and it is just as much a cousin culture for Mexicans as it is for Americans of the eastern and midwestern Unitied States. The ties of the Texan culture to the culture of the southern United States, particularly that of the Scot-Irish of the southern Appalachians, are closer than those to the rest of the United States.

The Origin of Western-style Ranching in Mexico

Cattle ranching is driven by a population's desire to eat beef. When Cortez' conquistadores had completed the conquest of the Aztec and Mayan empires they were rich and powerful beyond their wildest dreams but the local foodstuff lacked the meat they desired. It is small wonder that the importation of cattle was of the highest priority for the conquistadores. Even before Cortez' conquest of the Aztecs of Mexico an expedition led by Gregorio de Villalobos brought cattle to the Panuco River valley near what is today Tampico. Villalobos was later the lieutenant governor of New Spain and coordinated the settlement of Spanish immigrants to Mexico. Along with those immigrants came considerable numbers of horses and cattle. The stock raisers in Hispanola were afraid they would lose their monopoly for the supply of horeses and cattle to the Spanish settlements so they instituted severe restrictions on the delivery of brood stocks to Mexico. Hernan Cortez himself had to petition King Charles V of Spain to get the restrictions lifted.

Although all the country from Vera Cruz to Mexico City was suitable for cattle raising Cortez chose to establish a major stock breeding program in the high altitude valley of Mexicalzimgo south of what is now Toluca. (See map below.)

The Spread of Cattle Ranching in New Spain
North from the Region of Mexico City

The cattle ranches could produce a number of different products in addition to beef for eating. The tallow could be used to make candles and the hides could be used to make leather. The spread of cattle ranching was tied to the access to markets for the products of cattle ranching in addition the sutitability of the land for nourishing cattle. Both conditions had to exist in order for a region to develop a cattle ranching industry.

The Origin of Cattle Ranching Culture of Texas

The area which is now Texas was part of the vast area claimed by the Spanish crown. Since it was not notably superior to other areas of New Spain that the Spanish kings needed to develop not much was done in the Texas area until it looked as though France might establish control there. The Spanish expedition that was sent to investigate possible French incursions into the area found that the French had established a colony at Matagorda Bay but it had been wiped out by hostile natives. The peaceful natives that met the expedition announced there peaceful intentions by shouting friends in their language. The word for friends in that language was Thechas, which the Spanish wrote as Tejas and used as the name for the natives. The Spanish version Tejas was converted into Texias by the Anglo immigrants. Those immigrants called themselves Texians for a period of time before the spellings took the modern forms of Texas and Texans.

Out of fear of losing the area to France the Spanish crown supported the establishment of 50 missions in the area to convert the natives to Christianity. The native tribes such as the Comanche constituted a constant threat to the security of the missions. Hence the network of missions was costly to support and given the lack of any real economic interest in the Texas area the government was only half-hearted in its support. The Franciscans who manned the missions needed some economic base and they introduced cattle ranching based upon the model of cattle ranches to the south in central Mexico.

In 1761 France gave its Louisiana Territory to Spain to keep it from falling into the hands of the British. Once the French threat of encroachment on Spanish territories was eliminated the government of New Spain had even less incentives to support the missions in Texas. The Franciscan brothers struggled on the best they could but Texas was in the nature of an abandoned area.

When Mexico gained independence from Spain the government demanded that all officials in the government and church take an oath denying their allegiance to Spain. Many in the missions in Texas decided to leave Mexico rather than take that oath. This denuded the Texas missions even more of personnel. The area of Texas was in danger of losing all semblance of civilization. This explains the receptiveness of the government in Mexico City to proposals for the immigration of colonists from the United States.

Moses Austin a sixty year old Connecticut Yankee negotiated the approval of the government of New Spain to allow immigrants from the U.S. to settle in Texas. About the same time as the immigrants started arriving Mexico rebelled against Spain and shortly thereafter Moses Austin died. His son, Stephen Austin, was a lawyer and negotiated a similar aggreement with the new government. The immigrants poured in by the thousands. Most were farmers from the southern states of the U.S. looking for cheap land.

The terms of the Mexican law would give the immigrants up to 277 acres if they declared that they were farmers but an additional 4338 acres if they declared they would raise livestock. The American farmers were familiar with raising livestock but in small numbers on small acreage. Furthermore those farmers herded the livestock on foot rather than on horseback.

The offer of 4338 acres for declaring that they would raise livestock was irresistible. But to follow through on their declarations they had to learn the Mexican system for raising livestock. The Americans did not even have a word for this large-scale stock raising. They had to adopt the Spanish word rancho which originally meant farm. They had to adopt the techniques for ranching developed in Mexico. This meant the lariat and the Mexican style saddle. It also meant the sombrero and the chaps. It meant the adoption of a large variety of Spanish words such as rodeo for the semi-annual roundup of cattle. The name cowboy for the mounted herdman of cattle is almost a direct translation of the Spanish word vaquero from vaca meaning cow. David Dary notes that the word cowboy was previously used in Ireland and although there may be some connection with that source it is more likely that the term derived from vaquero.

The Technology of Cattle-Handling

Small numbers of cattle on the small farms of the Anglo colonies of North America could be herded and controlled on foot but the control of large numbers of cattle on vast open ranges of western North America required an entirely different technology. That technology as developed in the Spanish empire is based upon horses. Cattle are too fast for unmounted herders and humans on foot do not have the endurance to keep up with cattle on open ranges. Further more cattle herders need some means to stop and control individual animals.

The method developed in Mexico for controlling individual animals is lassoing them with a lariat which is secured to the horn of a saddle. This system seems so simple and effective that it is difficult to imagine any other system being used. But it took many decades if not a century or so for this system to be perfected in Mexico. Note that in South America the bolo was used instead of the lariat. In other places dogs were an important element of cattle control.

In Mexico the method of lassoing with a lariat did not emerge immediately when cattle raising developed and there were a number of elements of the system that had to be created for the overall system to work. Initially the mounted cattle herders in Mexico used a hocking knife to stop a cow. A hocking knife was a crescent-shaped blade on a pole that was used to cut the ligaments in a cow's hocks, a process that is otherwise known as ham-stringing. It was a brutal technique that could be used only on an animal that would be subsequently butchered.

Later the hocking knife was replaced by looping a lariat over the horns of an animal. But the lariat was not thrown; instead the cattle herder placed the loop of the lariat at the end of a lance and then rode up close enough to the animal to drop the loop over its horns. It would not have done the herder much good to have a lariat attached to an animal if he had to rely upon his own strength to control the animal. The lariat would have to be fastened to the herder's horse to match the strength and weight of the horse with that of the cow. Now system of wrapping the lariat around the saddle horn seems so obvious but it took some time for it to develop. At first the herders looped the lariat around the tail of the horse. This method had the obvious short-comings of being slow and awkward and hard on the horse. But the lariat could not be snugged to the saddle when the saddles had no horn.

The Spanish saddle had to be redesigned not only to create an adequate saddle horn but also to make it sturdy enough to take the stress imposed by the lariat attached to a recalcitrant cow. It would do no good to have the lariat tying the cow to the saddle if the saddle broke loose throwing the rider.

With the modified saddle developed the final element of the system was for the cattle herder to learn to throw the lariat over the cow's neck. This could be done from a greater distance than the length of the lance used previously. For a lariat to be thrown it must be reasonable flexible. It also had to be strong. Now lariat are ropes but in the days of development of cattle ranching ropes did not have strength and flexibility required for an effective lariat. Lariats were made of braded strips of cowhide. But any strips cut in an obvious way from a cowhide would have been too short. The lariat came to be upwards of sixty feet in length. To get a strip of that length a special technique have to be created. A sharp knife and an awl would be set up, separated by the width of strip to be cut. The cowhide would be pulled against the knife so the strip was cut from the cowhide in a roughly spiral fashion.

There were other elements for the management of cattle herding perfected in Mexico. One was the branding of cattle for identification. In addition to the actual branding there had to be a system for registering the brands. In Mexico this was handled by cattlemen associations which maintained brand-books.

The Six Gun: the six-shot revolver hand gun

The six gun had a specifically Texas origin. The Texans had found that single shot long guns were not effective defense against the hostile tribes of Texas such as the Comanches. Very soon in the conflict the native tribes learned that once a settler had fired his single shot they could attack firing a multitude of arrows while the settler was reloading. The repeating rifle was essential for the survival of settlers in small numbers. The hand gun was handier in the close combat the settlers faced. The Colt Company of New Jersey manufactured a five-shot revolver. Some of these handguns were provided to the Texas Rangers. They were pleased with them but Sam Walker of the Texas Rangers felt they could be made even better. Walker is said to visited Colt in New Jersey and suggested a number of modifications:

These suggestions were adopted and the Texas Rangers made the Colt six shooter its official hand gun in 1847.