Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range

Jonathan Haeber
National Geographic News
August 15, 2003

View a gallery by photographer Kendall Nelson from her new book, Gathering Remnants >>

"As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dripping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?"—Walt Whitman

Open Range, directed by Kevin Costner, opens in theaters today. The movie sheds light on the life of the cowboy, after what critics consider an 11-year drought in the genre of Western movies.

In the movie, the characters of Boss (Robert Duvall), Charley (Kevin Costner), Mose (Abraham Benrubi), and Button (Diego Luna) are "free-grazers" during a critical time in the history of the cowboy. In the backdrop of the movie, the Mexican cowboy, Button, represents the rarely recognized truth of how the West was really won.

Hispanic Roots

One out of every three cowboys in the late 1800s was the Mexican vaquero, says Kendall Nelson, a photographer from Idaho whose recent book, Gathering Remnants: A Tribute to the Working Cowboy, showcases the few remaining cowboys of the West. Nelson is currently working on a documentary of the same title, capping an eight-year documentation of the last cowboys.

The story of Nelson's photos and Costner's Open Range really begins in the Southwest, two decades before the pilgrims landed in 1620 on Plymouth Rock, when adventurous criollos (Spanish-born Americans) and mestizos (mixed Spanish and Indian settlers) pushed past the Rio Grande River to take advantage of land grants in the kingdom of New Mexico, which included most of the western states.

They were called caballeros, says Donald Gilbert Y Chavez, a historian of the cowboy's Spanish origins.

"One of the highest stations you could have in life was to be a caballero," said Chavez, a resident of New Mexico whose lineage can be traced to the Don Juan de Oñate colony, the caballero who was among the first cowboys in the U.S.

"Even the poor Mexican vaqueros were very proud and there were few things they couldn't do from a saddle."

Caballero is literally translated as "gentleman." The root of the word comes from caballo—Spanish for "horse." For every caballero there were perhaps dozens of independents—the true "drivers" of cattle: vaqueros.

"All of the skills, traditions, and ways of working with cattle are very much rooted in the Mexican vaquero," Nelson told National Geographic News. "If you are a cowboy in the U.S. today, you have developed what you know from the vaquero."

Continued on Next Page >>


SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.