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Regional Cowboy Traditions within the United States

Geography, climate and cultural traditions caused differences to develop in cattle-handling methods and equipment from one part of the United States to another. In the modern world, remnants of two major and distinct cowboy traditions remain, known today as the "Texas" tradition and the "Spanish", "Vaquero", or "California" tradition. Less well-known but equally distinct traditions also developed in Hawaii and Florida.

Today, the various regional cowboy traditions have merged to some extent, though a few regional differences in equipment and riding style still remain, and some individuals choose to deliberately preserve the more time-consuming but highly skilled techniques of the pure vaquero or "buckaroo" tradition. The popular "horse whisperer" style of natural horsemanship was originally developed by practitioners who were predominantly from California and the Northwestern states, clearly combining the attitudes and philosophy of the California vaquero with the equipment and outward look of the Texas cowboy.

California tradition
The vaquero, the Spanish or Mexican cowboy who worked with young, untrained horses, arrived in the 18th century and flourished in California and bordering territories during the Spanish Colonial period. Settlers from the United States did not enter California until after the Mexican-American War, and most early settlers were miners rather than livestock ranchers, leaving livestock-raising largely to the Spanish and Mexican people who chose to remain in California.

The California vaquero or buckaroo, unlike the Texas cowboy, was considered a highly-skilled worker, who usually stayed on the same ranch where he was born or had grown up and raised his own family there. In addition, the geography and climate of much of California was dramatically different from that of Texas, allowing more intensive grazing with less open range, plus cattle in California were marketed primarily at a regional level, without the need (nor, until much later, even the logistical possibility) to be driven hundreds of miles to railroad lines. Thus, a horse- and livestock-handling culture remained in California and the Pacific Northwest that retained a stronger direct Spanish influence than that of Texas.

Cowboys of this tradition were dubbed buckaroos by English-speaking settlers. The term officially appeared in American English in 1889 and is believed to have originated as an anglicized version of vaquero, though there is a folk etymology that the term derived from "bucking", a behavior seen in some young or fresh horses. The words "buckaroo" and Vaquero are still used on occasion in the Great Basin, parts of California and, less often, in the Pacific Northwest.

Texas tradition
In the early 19th century, the Spanish Crown, and later, independent Mexico, offered empresario grants in what would later be Texas to non-citizens, such as settlers from the United States. In 1821, Stephen F. Austin and his East Coast comrades became the first Anglo-Saxon community speaking Spanish. Following Texas independence in 1836, even more Americans immigrated into the empresario ranching areas of Texas.

Here the settlers were strongly influenced by the Mexican vaquero culture, borrowing vocabulary and attire from their counterparts, but also retaining some of the livestock-handling traditions and culture of the Eastern United States and Great Britain. The Texas cowboy was typically a bachelor who hired on with different outfits from season to season.

Following the American Civil War, vaquero culture diffused eastward and northward, combining with the cow herding traditions of the eastern United States that evolved as settlers moved west. Other influences developed out of Texas as cattle trails were created to meet up with the railroad lines of Kansas and Nebraska, in addition to expanding ranching opportunities in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain Front, east of the Continental Divide.

Thus, the Texas cowboy tradition arose from a combination of cultural influences, in addition to the need for adaptation to the geography and climate of west Texas and the need to conduct long cattle drives to get animals to market.

Florida Cowhunter or "Cracker cowboy"
The Florida "cowhunter" or "cracker cowboy" of the 19th and early 20th centuries was distinct from the Texas and California traditions. Florida cowboys did not use lassos to herd or capture cattle. Their primary tools were bullwhips and dogs. Since the Florida cowhunter didn't need a saddle horn for anchoring a lariat, many did not use Western saddles, instead using a McClellan saddle. While some individuals wore boots that reached above the knees for protection from snakes, others wore brogans. They usually wore inexpensive wool or straw hats, and used ponchos for protection from rain.

Cattle and horses were introduced into Florida late in the 16th century. Florida cattle and horses were small. The "cracker cow", also known as the "native cow", or "scrub cow" averaged about 600 pounds, had large horns and large feet. The cracker cow type persists today in two rare breeds: Florida Cracker cattle and Pineywoods cattle. The Florida Cracker Horse descended from smaller Spanish horses of Barb, Sorraia, and Spanish Jennet breeding, but adapted further through natural selection to the environment of the region.

Throughout the 17th century, cattle ranches owned by Spanish officials and missions operated in northern Florida to supply the Spanish garrison in St. Augustine and markets in Cuba.  These ranches brought in some vaqueros from Spain, but many of the workers were Timucua Indians. Diseases and Spanish suppression of rebellions severely reduced the Timucua population. By the beginning of the 18th century, raids by soldiers from the Province of Carolina and their Indian allies reduced the Timucuas to a remnant and ended the Spanish ranching era.

In the 18th century, Creek, Seminole, and other Indian people moved into the former Timucua areas and started herding the cattle left from the Spanish ranches. In the 19th century, most tribes in the area were dispossessed of their land and cattle and pushed south or west by white settlers and the United States government. By the middle of the 19th century white ranchers were running large herds of cattle on the extensive open range of central and southern Florida.

The hides and meat from Florida cattle became such a critical supply item for the Confederacy during the American Civil War that a "Cow Cavalry" was organized to round up and protect the herds from Union raiders. After the Civil War, Florida cattle were periodically driven to ports on the Gulf of Mexico and shipped to market in Cuba.

Hawaiian Paniolo
The Hawaiian cowboy, the paniolo, is also a direct descendant of the vaquero of California and Mexico. Experts in Hawaiian etymology believe "Paniolo" is a Hawaiianized pronunciation of espaņol. (The Hawaiian language has no /s/ sound, and all syllables and words must end in a vowel.) Paniolo, like cowboys on the mainland of North America, learned their skills from Mexican vaqueros[citation needed].

By the early 19th century, Capt. George Vancouver's gift of cattle to Pai`ea Kamehameha, monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, had multiplied astonishingly, and were wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. About 1812, John Parker, a sailor who had jumped ship and settled in the islands, received permission from Kamehameha to capture the wild cattle and develop a beef industry.

The Hawaiian style of ranching originally included capturing wild cattle by driving them into pits dug in the forest floor. Once tamed somewhat by hunger and thirst, they were hauled out up a steep ramp, and tied by their horns to the horns of a tame, older steer (or ox) that knew where the paddock with food and water was located. The industry grew slowly under the reign of Kamehameha's son Liholiho (Kamehameha II).

Later, Liholiho's brother, Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), visited California, then still a part of Mexico. He was impressed with the skill of the Mexican vaqueros, and invited several to Hawai`i in 1832 to teach the Hawaiian people how to work cattle.

Even today, traditional paniolo dress, as well as certain styles of Hawaiian formal attire, reflect the Spanish heritage of the vaquero. The traditional Hawaiian saddle, the noho lio, and many other tools of the cowboy's trade have a distinctly Mexican/Spanish look and many Hawaiian ranching families still carry the names of the vaqueros who married Hawaiian women and made Hawai`i their home.

Other
Montauk, New York, on Long Island makes a somewhat debatable claim of having the oldest cattle operation in what today is the United States, having run cattle in the area since European settlers purchased land from the Indian people of the area in 1643. Although there were substantial numbers of cattle on Long Island, as well as the need to herd them to and from common grazing lands on a seasonal basis, no consistent "cowboy" tradition developed amongst the cattle handlers of Long Island, who actually lived with their families in houses built on the pasture grounds.

The only actual "cattle drives" held on Long Island consisted of one drive in 1776, when the Island's cattle were moved in a failed attempt to prevent them from being captured by the British during the American Revolution, and three or four drives in the late 1930s, when area cattle were herded down Montauk Highway to pasture ground near Deep Hollow Ranch.

On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the "Salt Water Cowboys" are known for rounding up the feral Chincoteague Ponies from Assateague Island and driving them across Assateague Channel into pens on Chincoteague Island during the annual Pony Penning.

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More US History

History of the Old West
Frontier Begins
Settling the West
Before the Civil War
Civil War in the West
After the Civil War
Frontier Life
Frontier Warfare
American Cowboy
People of the Old West
 




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