Black And Mexican Cowboys Made Up At Least 25% Of The American West

By | September 12, 2020

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Group portrait of American cowboys. Undated photograph. (Getty Images)

When you think of the Wild West, you probably think of a lonesome cowboy who maybe looks a bit like John Wayne, out on his own, fighting the elements and struggling to survive the harsh conditions and brutal lawlessness of a vast and desolate countryside. While this image isn't exactly wrong, it's only a tiny fraction of the true picture of the West, which was a much more complex and diverse place than most modern cowboy tales depict. To really understand the cowboy's place in history, we first have to separate the cowboy as the literary hero archetype from the true cowboys who played a pivotal role in shaping the future of America.

Beyond Spaghetti

The cowboy hero trope exists in America today largely due to the hugely successful Western genre of film and television throughout the first half of the 20th century, it’s heyday finally closing out with the 1960s spaghetti Westerns of director Sergio Leone and actor Clint Eastwood. Over the decades, these films drew inspiration for their story lines and characters from a kind of pulp novel known as "dime novels," which were cheap and often inaccurate stories of true Western folk heroes. One popular literary star was, of course, "Buffalo" Bill Cody, who went onto popularize the genre further with a traveling theater show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Buffalo Bill has been criticized over the years for likely fudging some of the details of his past (like the fact that he was way too young to have ever ridden for the Pony Express), but he was a showman, after all. It's safe to say that, although compelling, these novels, shows, and movies were designed to entertain, not to depict a true picture of the American cowboy.

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W.F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, ca. 1875. (George Eastman House Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Mexican Cowboys

Who were the real cowboys, then? To find the true originals, we have to go all the way back to the turn of the 16th century, when the Spanish brought all the staples of the future Wild West—horses, cattle, and ranching—to the Americas. That's right, folks: Cows came from Europe, and while horses likely originated in North America, they died out in the region over 10,000 years ago and wouldn't step back onto their ancestral homestead until the Spanish reintroduced them in 1519. In light of that fact, it should come as no surprise that the original cowboys, known as the Vaqueros, were of Mexican origin. "Vaquero" would later become anglicized as "buckaroo," but most English speakers simply translated it to "cowboy."  In fact, most words associated with cowboys are rooted in Spanish: "rodeo," "corral," "stampede," etc.