When the story of the Old West is told, particularly the cattle drives of the 1800s, the narrative of the Mexican vaquero must be included. The Fort Worth Herd works hard to replicate a historically accurate depiction of life on the Chisholm Trail by hiring diverse cowboys and cowgirls.
Vaquero, which is the Spanish word for cowboy, is a term that dates back to approximately 1519 (History.com). When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they built ranches to raise cattle and other livestock. Mexico’s native cowboys, the vaqueros, were hired by ranches to tend to the livestock and were known for their superior roping, riding and herding skills.
By the 1800s, ranching made its way to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. It would later spread to more areas in the West.
It's estimated that one in every three cowhands in the American West was a vaquero. The vaquero was known for his masterful skills in handling livestock as well as the clothes he wore. Ramon Alcantar, who represents the vaquero as a member of the Fort Worth Herd, shares details about the clothes he wears on the job that are replicas of the outfits vaqueros wore in the 1800s.
“Starting with the boots, we wore [something] similar to the now popular roper toe boots with a riding heel,” Alcantar said. “The toe was meant to guide the foot into the stirrups, and the heel was meant to keep the foot from going all the way through the stirrups.”
The boots were short and flat, unlike the square-toed boots the American drovers wore.
“The [American] drovers had what was called the coffin toe boots, which were surplus from the Civil War,” Alcantar added.
Another item of dress that was different from the drovers was the pants.
“The Mexican vaqueros were involved in the hide and tallow trade prior to the cattle drives,” Alcantar explains. “The hide and tallow trade would often drive cattle down around the horn of Mexico where cowboys would bring back stuff like shoes, silks and silver. If you notice on a couple of pairs of my pants, I have these nice, fancy buttons. The buttons on the pants nowadays are somewhat fancy, but back then they were actually meant to open the pant leg up for vents, almost like the modern-day shorts.”
Alcantar noted that the vaquero’s style was developed because of the hotter climate in Mexico.
“Wide leather belts were also worn by some vaqueros,” Alcantar said. “The belt was more than just fashionable. Let’s say, for example, our saddle broke and we lost our fender. Instead of having a piece of rope to mend the stirrup, you'd have another piece of leather to fix it.”
As Alcantar points out, the belt wasn’t really to keep the vaquero’s pants up but was another piece of equipment. Belt loops weren’t common back then.
“The suspenders, coupled with the cinch in the back, are what held our pants up,” Alcantar said. "The pants that the vaqueros wore were mostly one size fits all."
Much like the drovers, the vaqueros wore long-sleeved, cotton shirts. The vaquero shirt was a little bit more elaborate and fancier, courtesy of the hide and tallow trade.
"That shirt would be accompanied by what some would call brush cuffs, others would call them roping cuffs,” Alcantar noted of the piece that helped protect the vaquero’s wrists from rope burns and brush when riding through thickets.
Another multi-functional element of the vaquero’s clothes, similar to that of the drover’s, was the vest. Many vaqueros wore vests as most of the clothing in those days did not have pockets. Vests could hold items like pocket knives.
Wild rags were the most versatile item of clothing.
“Rags could be made of anything. From a curtain or table cloth to your mom’s old blouse or your old shirt, you name it. Nowadays, most of us wear cotton, but if you look at the older vaqueros, they wore silks accompanied by a scarf slide.”
The scarf slide is what held the rag in place around the vaquero's neck, which eliminated the need to tie the scarf.
Finally, the traditional Mexican sombrero, which is cone-shaped, was the original cowboy hat.
“The vaquero's hat was similar to the cowboy's hat at the time. The main difference was that the vaquero required a little more shade [protection from the Mexican sun],” Alcantar said.