We call ’em cowboys now, but back in the days of the “real” Wild West, things were somewhat different from what many of us learned from American TV and the movies. The same is most likely true for folks growing up in China with the story of the Journey to the West — a topic I’ll take up in a separate blogPost.
A little background first. The word “cowboy” shows up in English about 1725, and people understood it to mean just what it says: a young boy who tended cows. But by the middle of the 19th century, it had come to signify pretty much what it does to us these days: a grownup who herds cattle while on horseback. Other terms we’ve probably heard are cowhand, cowpuncher, cowpoke (see “Cowpokes for Christmas“), and my favorite, buckaroo. This last term is interesting, because it’s an Anglicized form of the Spanish word vaquero, cow-tender.
This brings us to the Spanish half of the equation that solves to “cowboy.” The tradition goes all the way back to Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula. For seven centuries before 1492 — when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella presided over the expulsion of the Moors (while they were also financing some crazy Italian who thought he could get to China by taking a Journey to the West) — much of what today are Spain and Portugal had been ruled by Muslims, who inherited equestrian traditions and methods from their Arabian forebears, and some of these practices went all the way back before the Roman Empire, to ancient Persia. When Ferdinand and Isabela’s gamble paid off, and Spanish conquistadores claimed much of the “New World” in the immediate aftermath of Columbus’ “discovery” of it, they these traditions and methods of handling horses came with them — it turns out that horses had been extinct in the West since the previous Ice Age, until the Spanish re-introduced them.
The image of the drawling American cowboy with his faithful bronco and trusty six-gun actually has its origins in northern Mexico and the American Southwest; it’s interesting that many vaqueros were Native Americans, who took care of the herds of the Spanish missions there. After the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark’s expedition, an increasing number of English-speaking traders and settlers moving West began to intermingle with people of Spanish culture that had been established there hundreds of years before, especially in Texas, New Mexico, and California, and together they set in motion the transformation into what we now think of as the Old West.
But this is just what historians tell us is the “reality” of the situation. Coming soon: the Myth of the Wild West.