Thursday, March 31, 2011

In the Days of the Vaqueros: America's First True Cowboys by Russell Freedman

Oh American History class, how I do shake my head when I look back on you. I love American history (I ended up teaching it for five years to soldiers at one point) and yet I have never been able to shake my frustration at how one-sided our study of history is. Yes, yes, yes - the victors write the story but what has driven me nuts about history textbooks and teachers my whole life is all the stories that have nothing to do with winning or losing that get left out anyway. Case in point: cowboys. I grew up on John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. And Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, Wanted: Dead or Alive (Steve McQueen!!!!)

I've got a dog named "Hondo", people. I thought Louis L'Amour was everyone's idea of leisure reading in junior high.

The problem with all this western wonderfulness (and it is all wonderful) is that the heroes were Caucasian thus providing us all with yet another skewed version of our nation's past. Russell Freedman (the great Russell Freedman) makes an attempt at setting yet one more record straight with his outstanding In the Days of the Vaqueros. In this amply illustrated volume readers learn about the cowboys in Spanish Mexico who were there when American settlers first showed up. Cowboys took "their clothing, saddles and lingo from the vaqueros". You could even argue that cowboys took their image as well. But the vaqueros were first and there is a solid record testifying to their achievements. They just didn't make it into the books (or tv shows) and so, like a lot of other great American stories, we have forgotten they every existed.

Can I say again how much I love Russell Freedman?
As expected if you are familiar with Freedman's work, the narrative unfolds in a straightforward chronological manner starting with the arrival in North America of the Spanish Conquistadors and their enslavement of local Indians who became the "vaqueros" or first cowboys. Their jobs (unpaid) were to take care of the cattle herds owned by the conquerors that were awarded by the Spanish government with vast tracts of land after Mexico was conquered. Over time the vaqueros became indispensable parts of the Mexican way of life and began to create their own tools, clothing and slang. They also began to move up from what had originally been a lowly position in society to one that was respected and admired. As Freedman points out, many of the words borrowed from the vaquero language by cowboys included "rodeo, lariat, lasso, chaps, mustang and bronco."

Right now I wish Louis L'Amour was alive so I could write him a letter about all this.

There are many many wonderful illustrations here, from paintings to photographs to several illustrations by Frederick Remington drawn when he toured Mexico and Texas. The pictures perfectly complement the text and more importantly show how prevalent the vaquero lifestyle was, proving how significant it was long before cowboys arrived. But Freedman really gets readers with the easy way in which he drops trivia into the text, such as when he writes:

The word "vaquero" as pronounced by American cowboys, became "bukera" and finally "buckaroo". And for a time, anyone working cattle, whether in Texas, California, or elsewhere, was known as a buckaroo. It wasn't until the late 1860s, when the Texans began to drive the cattle north to new railroads in Kansas, that the term "cowboy" cam into widespread use.

So basically, the vaqueros were scrubbed out of our history along with all they contributed to the myths and legends of the west. John Wayne owes them big time and so does Henry Fonda and Montgomery Clift and holy crap - Clayton Moore! American history is waaaay more messy and complicated then the textbooks and wikipedia teach us. You have to go looking for the small stories that had a big impact if you want to appreciate all the drama.

NOTE: In the Days of the Vaqueros is laid out very well - short chapters, great illustrations. I would especially recommend it for teen reluctant readers.

[Post pic of "Mexican Vaquero" by Frederick Remington]

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