Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range

Cowboys make a Hollywood comeback in Kevin Costner's new movie, opening today. Open Range focuses on the struggle between free-grazers and landowners, spotlighting the West's original cowboys, the tough vaquero.

"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."

Vaqueros were proverbial cowboys—rough, hard-working mestizos who were hired by the criollo caballeros to drive cattle between New Mexico and Mexico City, and later between Texas and Mexico City. The title, though denoting a separate social class, is similar to caballero, and is a mark of pride."Vaquero is a transliteration of the words 'cow' and 'man.' Vaca means 'cow,'" said Chavez. "Interestingly enough, in Spanish, we call ourselves cowmen; in English, it was demoted to cowboys."

Texas Longhorn for the Taking

In 1821 Anglo settlers arrived in Texas and became the first English-speaking Mexican citizens in the territory. Led by Stephen F. Austin, they arrived in San Felipe de Austin, Texas, to take advantage of the vast expanse of cattle, free for the taking.

"There were millions of longhorn cattle in the brush country of Texas that were loose, strayed, and had multiplied," says Nelson. All the new settlers had to do was round up the cattle.

It was something the vaqueros had been doing for 223 years, since 1598, when Don Juan de Oñate, one of the four richest men in New Spain (present-day Mexico) sent an expedition across the Rio Grande River into New Mexico.

Oñate spent over a million dollars funding the expedition, and brought some 7,000 animals to the present-day United States. It eventually paid off; the first gold to come from the West was not from the Gold Rush, but rather from its wool-bearing sheep and then its long-horned livestock.

Modernization and Civilization: A Cowboy's Culprits

By the conclusion of the Civil War the cattle-driving industry was at its apogee. But the top was about to spiral downwards with the invention of barbed wire in 1873, inciting a rapid rise in large private landholdings.

In Open Range, the battle between private landowners and "free-grazers"—one-third of which were vaqueros, one-fifth African American—serves as the central conflict of the plot.

"[Cowboys] don't understand why there's a traffic light. They don't like the idea of being told when to stop and go—literally," said Nelson. When barbed wire was posted across the plains, it was an eyesore to many cowboys, and the closing off of what they believed to be in the public domain. Conflicts inevitably ensued, which gave rise to the Hollywood portrayal of the gun-slinging, lawless cowboy.

"The first thing historians will tell you is that Hollywood has completely sensationalized the Western cowboy," said Nelson. "But the movies have also portrayed the cowboys in positive ways. The hardworking, rough-riding, individualistic characteristics…those are all basically true."


It's been four centuries since the vaqueros first roamed the plains of Texas and New Mexico. Many say that the culture is dead, or on the verge of dying—along with the cattle-driver culture in general. Nelson disagrees.

"In doing this film [her documentary] one of the questions that I always ask the cowboys is: 'Is it disappearing?'" Nelson said. "They all say that there will always be cowboys as long as there are cattle, because they all claim that the most efficient way to work cattle is from horseback."

And the vaqueros?

"Compare the cowboy culture to a car," said Chavez. "If the vaqueros invented the car, the styles change a little bit, but you still have the basic chassis, four wheels, and a motor. I think it will stay very much the same."

Though there may be optimism about the preservation of the culture, there is pessimism about outside influences.

"When I first started photographing the cowboys, nobody had a television in the bunkhouse." Nelson said. "But now I actually walk into the bunkhouse, and there's a TV in there…I have to admit, I've gone in, and they're watching John Wayne movies.

"But they're very proud of who they are. They are very much interested in keeping their culture alive and viable."

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