Among The Cowboys


A red-tailed hawk swooped down into a stand of prickly pears in a “wasty” moonscape. “He’s got something,” Alan said. Two hundred paces away a pronghorn antelope was staring at us intently with bulging eyes that could pick up movement four miles away. It was a doe (lacking the buck’s black facial markings)—a heifer, as Alan called her. “She should have already dropped her kid by now. If you see a heifer alone, you know something’s wrong.” We stood watching this magnificent creature, perhaps the largest wild animal left in the Southwest and the fastest in the New World (and one of the fastest on the planet), capable of twenty-foot leaps and bursts of speed of up to forty miles an hour. Pronghorn antelope needed such speed to outrun the gray wolves that preyed on them, but they were killed off, like the buffalo and the grizzly bear, by trigger-happy Americanos. Coronado and his men, as they were led across the oceanic Llano Estacado by El Turco, their curved casqued helmets glinting in the sun, saw uncountable numbers of them.

The pronghorn is not a true antelope, like the gazelle, but is the last representative of its unique family, the antilocaprids. Until the Pleistocene extinctions ten thousand years ago, there were thirteen genera of antilocaprids. Pronghorns once ranged from southern Canada to the plateaus of Mexico and from the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast, performing epic migrations across the entire West. They were prime wild game, the prize trophy for “dudes” (as the cowboys called Eastern or European city boys) like Teddy Roosevelt and Lord Dunraven, and by the turn of the century their numbers had shrunk in fifty years from an estimated thirty or forty million to twenty thousand. (For a Hollywood treatment of the titled European big-game hunters, see the 1968 movie Shalako , starring Scan Connery and Brigitte Bardot, a period piece in its own right.)


I asked Alan if he had ever worked with any New Mexican vaqueros. He said he had, and they had the same outlook as, and were often even more skilled than, Anglos. The American cowboy who rapidly became such a symbol of our culture is basically a revamped vaquero. The longhorn steer, the sheep, and the mustangs that roam the Southwest’s grasslands and sagebrush steppe are of Spanish provenance, as are the wheat, barley, alfalfa, and other grains that they feed on, which were introduced by the Jesuit Father Kino and his associates.

“In perfecting the methods of ranching in the Interior Provinces [as the northern borderlands of New Spain were known after 1776], Spanish and Indian vaqueros drew heavily on Spanish techniques brought to Mexico and adapted them as they made their way northward,” Odie B. Faulk writes in his history of the Southwest, Land of Many Frontiers . “The process evolved almost all of the techniques and paraphernalia associated with the cowboy complex of the American post-Civil War period: a broad-brimmed sombrero to shade the eyes from the blazing sun, a bandana to protect the nose and mouth from dust, chaparajos (chaps) to ward off thorns, pointed boots suited to the stirrup, and spurs with big two-inch rowels; a lariat ( la riata ) for roping, a saddle with a horn for dallying a rope (very different from the type used by Englishmen); a hackamore ( jáquima ), or rope without a metal bit. The branding of livestock dated from the Roman era and had come to the New World by way of Spain; it was not in common use in England or in English colonies. The rounding up of livestock from an unfenced range became a standard procedure in the Southwest, quite distinct from the fence-pastured methods employed on the East Coast by English colonists.” A lot of Mexicanisms became the stock lingo in the Hollywood Western: vamoose (from ¡vamos! ); adios , amigos ; pronto ; desperado (a simplification of desesperado that was easier for the American tongue); hombre , not to mention ranch , rodeo , and corral and topographic terms like arroyo , mesa , and rinćon .

According to this school of thought, the American cowboy is a re-invention, a borrow. Another school emphasizes his Southern roots. The white and black cowboys who came to Texas in fact brought with them a long heritage of open-range cattle herding, reaching back to colonial South Carolina. Branding styles, the use of cow dogs, and range burning all trace to the Carolina seaboard. Buckaroo may not derive from vaqueiro but from the Gullah word buckra . Texas was a melting pot. The cowboy yodel came from Switzerland. The sub-Saharan country of Gambia, which provided many of American’s slaves, had yodeling traditions and nomadic cattlekeepers of its own, and some Gambians may have acquired riding skills from Arabs.