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(This Q & A is a compliation of several e-mail exchanges springing from this one...)

Hi Bob.

I have a few questions. When there is a Rodeo why do the cowboys display the American flag? What I mean is the sport is all originally Mexican, along with like bullriding and other events. Even Rodeo is a Spanish word meaning to "round up," chaps is short for "chaparreras" and so on. As we all know and how history says it, "Before the American Cowboy there was the Mexican Vaquero, without the Mexican Vaquero there would not be an American Cowboy."

And also how did Stetson invent the cowboy hat if it evolved from the Mexican sombrero?

- L. W.


You raise some interesting and legitimate questions.

Unfortunately, some of your basic assumptions are not correct. Whoever wrote, "Before the American Cowboy there was the Mexican Vaquero, without the Mexican Vaquero there would not be an American Cowboy," simply didn't know much about American cowboys. As I mention in one of my other Q & A's, there were cowboys in New England long before the American War for Independence -- and before any contact with the Mexicans.

Had vaqueros never existed, it's likely that much of what we know as "rodeo" would have sprung naturally from the cowboy lifestyle -- but without the rich Hispanic flavor.

I certainly don't want to short-change the Hispanics. In your note, you just scratch the surface of the Hispanic influence on U.S. cowboys. "Lasso" is the Anglo spelling of the Spanish word "lazo," which means "snare." Tapadero, latigo, concha and corral are all straightforward Spanish words. By the way, "rodeo" is probably better translated "gathering" and can also be translated "stockyard." "Buckaroo" is the Anglo phonetic spelling of "vaquero." (The Latino pronunciation of the letters "b" and "v" is virtually identical.) "Lariat" is derived from "la reata" -- "the rope."

These linguistic adaptations should not be surprising, nor do they detract from the unique nature of the U.S. "rodeo." One of the distinctive traits of the USA. is our easy acceptance of the good elements of other cultures. The French language is held to a carefully-controlled limit of about 54,000 words; U.S. English, on the other hand, has over 250,000 words, mostly absorbed from other languages. And that number continues to grow daily. This absorbing process has given the U.S. language a "hybrid vigor" unrivaled anywhere else in the world.

Many of the words and events related to the rodeo actually originated in Europe. The word "cowboy" was first used in Britain. "A Child's History of England," by Charles Dickens, refers to a cowboy back in the days of Canute the Dane. Canute was crowned king of England in 1017 and died in 1035. The Castilian language -- which later became Spanish -- didn't emerge until the 15th century, so the Anglo-Saxon "cowboy" existed at least 400 years before the Spanish word "vaquero" could even exist. A few other examples: "Pommel" and "cantle" come from French; "stirrup" and "livestock" are Anglo-Saxon; "rein" is Latin.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, refers to a "cowboy" in some of his poems and essays. Take a look at this pair of excerpts from "Walden" (first published in 1854): "If you would know the flavor of huckleberries, ask the cowboy or the partridge." (Huckleberries grow in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, but not in the Southwest or any other areas frequented by vaqueros.) "That must be a poor country indeed that does not support a hare. Our woods teem with them both, and around every swamp may be seen the partridge or rabbit walk, beset with twiggy fences and horse-hair snares, which some cow-boy tends."

Remember that the first wave of Anglo settlers didn't arrive in what we now call "Texas" until the 1820s. By then colonial cowboys had been conducting regular cattle drives in New England for at least 150 years.

The Spanish didn't use their Barb horses for herding in Spain, nor did they in the New World until the mid-1800s. Rather, their horses were used almost exclusively for military purposes. Even the missionaries who accompanied the Spanish explorations generally used burros. There simply was no "culture of Spanish ranching and cowboying" until they adapted the Western-style saddle from the Anglo herders of the 1800s.

The earliest Spanish settlement, the San Gabriel mission, was founded in 1771. At first, the mission herds were generally tended by Native American converts. It wasn't until 1781 that the first Mexican settlers arrived to help found Los Angeles. Even then, it would be hard to describe those Hispanics as "vaqueros" since they only owned four horses and five head of cattle each.

Interestingly, there is no solid documentation of any type of "vaquero" saddle prior to the 1850s, and the early vaquero saddles appear to be modeled after the heavy war horse saddles used by the knights of France and England rather than the lightweight, short-stirruped Moorish saddles their forefathers would have seen in Spain.

Unfortunately, many writers who never bother to look at the actual facts continue to spread romantic -- but totally false -- myths about the Old West. Look at this bit of fiction, for example: "The first American Rodeos which took place in the early 1600's were conducted by the first American cowboys, the Spanish vaqueros." Those events -- if they had ever actually occurred -- would have been very interesting to watch, with the vaqueros running around on foot and using their long cattle prods to move the cows!

There is also a lot of confusion about the first "rodeos." There were "rodeos" -- as in gatherings of cattle from the open range; and there were "rodeos" -- as in competitions among cowboys. Both types of rodeo are unique to the U.S. cowboy.

That first type of "rodeo" began after the Anglo ranchers started running cattle on the wide open spaces. The early Hispanic cattle owners rarely owned more than a dozen or so head of cattle, and usually pastured them. (Again, the average at the time Los Angeles was founded was five head of cattle per family.) It is true that there were some fairly large Southwestern ranchos as early as the late 1700s, but the livestock was primarily sheep (which were herded on foot) until the large-scale arrival of Anglo immigrants in the 1840s -- and the saddles that came with them. Some of the early Anglo arrivals in the Southwest, in fact, saw that there was a lot of money to be made in manufacturing and selling affordable saddles and tack to those who were there before them. Prior to the 1850s, the only Spanish-style saddles in Southern California were heavy, ornate contraptions -- complete with ornamental swords -- that were designed for show and of little use as work saddles. They also cost thousands of dollars and were as far out of the average herdsman's price range as a private jet plane would be for you and me today. After the Anglos started marketing the classic Western-style saddles, the prices dropped to something similar to the cost of a new car today.

It's fun to picture the second type of "rodeo" originating on some large hacienda in the 1600s or 1700s, with colorful vaqueros twirling their riatas. Unfortunately, the only thing missing in that picture is any evidence that it ever happened. What we now think of as a rodeo really originated with the "cowboy contests" that some of the large ranches in the Southwest organized in the mid to late 1800s. Over time, they began using the more picturesque name, "rodeo." According to the Library of Congress, the first "rodeo" with paid attendance was held in Prescott, Arizona, during the Fourth of July celebration in 1888. It was initially called a "Cowboy Tournament." 1888 was also the year of the first "rodeo" in Texas, which took place in the town of Canadian. The first professional "rodeo" -- organized by the Miller's 101 Ranch -- was initially called a "roundup" and wasn't organized until 1905.

Bulldogging was invented by Willie M. "Bill" Pickett, an African-American who didn't have a drop of Hispanic blood in his veins. He devised the event as the human equivalent of a British "sport" in which a dog was pitted against a bull. Penning and reining events such as pole bending and barrel racing also originated in the USA. Roping has its deepest roots in what is now the U.S. state of California. In "Old Mexico" the vaqueros were as likely to use a bola as a reata.

The bottom line is that the cowboy and rodeo did not have Mexican or Hispanic origins. Rather, the "vaqueros" of the Southwest learned the "cowboy" methods from the Anglo riders. (By the way, in Cuba "vaquero" means "milkman.")

So why shouldn't the U.S. flag fly proudly over this distinctive product of the U.S. cultural melting pot? It's not like The U.S. is trying to take credit for something it didn't create. You can travel all over Mexico and you're not likely to find anything close to a U.S. rodeo (except as an imitation). (Come to think of it, television started in the U.S.A. Does that mean that all Mexican TV stations should begin their broadcast day by displaying the U.S. flag?)

As for the Stetson, I don't recall ever hearing anyone claiming that Stetson "invented" the cowboy hat. The cowboy hat is most closely related to the felt U.S. military campaign hat (which many cowboys wore). Mexican sombreros aren't usually made of felt. If Stetson were trying to steal the credit from the Hispanic world, wouldn't their products have wider brims and be called "sombreros"? The Stetson name became firmly attached to their style of hat simply because that firm manufactured a superior -- and unique -- product.

Oh, and for the record, all residents of the New World are technically "Americans." Mexico is part of North America -- along with the United States of America ("Los Estados Unidos") and Canada. The other Western Hemisphere countries are located in either Central or South America.

As I've said before, there's lots to learn about the West!

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