The wild ancestor of modern cattle is the aurochs. This nearly seven-foot-tall beast ranged throughout North Africa and Eurasia. Domestication occurred independently in Africa, the Near East, and the Indian subcontinent between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. Humans have been raising cattle for their milk, meat, tallow, and hides ever since.
But the practice of raising large herds of livestock on extensive grazing lands didn’t begin until around 1000 CE, in Spain and Portugal. Cattle ranching, in particular, was unique to medieval Spain.
During the Spanish Reconquista, members of the Spanish nobility and various military orders received grants to large tracts of land that the Kingdom of Castile had conquered from the Moors. Pastoralists found that open-range breeding of sheep and cattle was most suitable for these vast areas of Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, and Andalusia.
It was in Andalusia that cattle ranching took hold, with cattlemen owning herds as large as 1,000 head or more. Those cattlemen oversaw the first cattle drives. Cattle could be driven overland as much as 400 miles from summer pastures in the North to winter ones in Andalusia. The vaqueros who herded the cattle were freemen hired for the year and paid in coin or in calves.
Andalusian ranchers introduced the use of horses in managing cattle – a necessity in the long overland drives to new pastures. They also began the customs of branding and ear-marking cattle to denote ownership. By the time Columbus left Spain on his first voyage, the cattle industry of Andalusia had undergone a few centuries of trial-and-error improvement. On his second voyage Columbus unloaded some stallions, mares, and cattle on the island of Hispaniola, introducing cattle to the New World.
Conquistadors who arrived in the New World in search of gold continued what Columbus began, turning Andalusian cattle loose throughout the Spanish West Indies and other parts of Spain’s colonial empire.
In 1521 Gregorio de Villalobos defied a law prohibiting cattle trading in Mexico and left Santo Domingo for Veracruz with several cows and a bull, importing the first herd of Spanish cattle to Mexico. Hernán Cortés brought horses and cattle to Mexico as well, and by 1540 Spanish cattle are permanently in North America.
Cortés had set about using enslaved Aztecs to herd cattle. Slave labor to herd cattle was overseen mostly by Spanish missions, which came to dominate ranching. Under Spanish law no Indian slave was permitted to ride horses, but this obviously impractical law was ignored. Aztec Indians became the first vaqueros of New Spain (Mexico), where conditions for raising cattle were even better than those in the West Indies.
By the 1600s there weren’t as many Native slaves, as thousands had died over time from exposure to smallpox, measles, and yellow fever, in outbreaks that began among the Spaniards and to which Natives had no immunity. As a result, the vaquero labor force came to include mission Indian converts, African slaves, and mestizos.
New Spain’s borders spread northward into what is now the US Southwest. The sparsely populated northern frontier regions of northern Mexico, Texas, and California didn’t have enough water for farming but the climate and acres of wild grass and other vegetation made them ideal for cattle ranching. Cattle and horses were now a feature of American life and were beginning to shape American identity.
Beginning in the 1820s, Anglo settlers moved to the Texas region of Mexico in search of inexpensive land. Texas was severely underpopulated, so Mexico had enacted the General Colonization Law of 1824, permitting immigration to all heads of households regardless of race, religion, or immigrant status. Anglo Texans were largely farmers and didn’t warm initially to the Spanish-Mexican concept of large-scale ranching. But ranching became popular among Anglos after immigration agents began promoting it. Texas cattle were so plentiful and cheap that most people could begin raising livestock without a large investment.
Anglo Texan cowhands and their counterparts throughout the US were the latest incarnation of the vaquero that got his start in southern Spain. The vaquero rides on, whether he’s Native, mestizo, Black, Hispano, or Anglo.