In the Great Basin range cattle industry, the vaqueros came first--not Anglo or black cowboys, but Hispanic California horsemen. In the Spanish colonial days before the cattle business developed, vaqueros worked mostly for hide and tallow companies in California. Later, as Anglo ranches and herds were being built up, the European-American pioneers employed Mexican vaqueros, and the vaquero traditions of horsemanship, equipment, and language greatly influenced other working cowboys. By the time the open-range cattle business reached its heyday in the generation after the Civil War and family and corporate ranches were thriving in northern Nevada, vaquero was the word used for cowboy. The legacy of expertise imparted by the oldtime vaqueros lives on in Paradise Valley, in the riatas and horsegear made by traditional "rawhiders" like Frank Loveland and the everyday use of Hispanic California-style, center-fired saddles with "taps" covering the stirrups.
Vaqueros were probably not a year-round fixture of the local scene in the early days in northern Nevada. They drove herds into the territory, providing breeding stock for ranchers, but the earliest farmer-ranchers did not or could not use many hired riders.
Families helped neighboring families with cooperative labors, and the community's different herds of cattle "ran in common" on the open range. The first full-time, wage-earning vaqueros were probably employed by the big companies that for different reasons bought out small ranches in the county, slowly acquiring title or control of huge tracts and many small ranches that became "headquarters," foreman's homes, or buckaroo camps. Outfits like the Milpitas Land and Live Stock Company (with holdings in California, Nevada, and Idaho), Miller and Lux, and the butchering firm of Godchaux and Brandenstine (with headquarters in the San Francisco area), typified the large corporations that were influential alongside the family ranches in Nevada's growth. In time, the absentee-owned companies of the early days and later locally run corporations like the McCleary Cattle Company were bought out by corporations like today's Nevada Garvey Ranches, Inc., with head offices in Wichita, Kansas.
Vaqueros who began the buckaroo trade in the old Spanish times began the trade in Nevada, too, as the essential core of working men employed by the big companies. As these itinerant vaqueros from California and northern Mexico got acquainted in Nevada, they gradually became employees of local family ranches and remained in the region. Many of the early vaqueros were Anglos, of course, and several were black men.
Along with the rotating, changing population of wage-earning vaqueros who gradually became semipermanent in Paradise Valley, the pioneer family ranchers solved the problem of locating hired hands in a way that by the late nineteenth century had become a venerable American custom. They wrote letters home--whether to Illinois or Italy or Germany--and invited cousins, nephews, and brothers to come join them. Many young men got their start working for wages for a family member, gradually learning the business, saving up money, and then putting a payment down on a small spread of their own. Some of the young men "sold their saddles" and went into some sort of business enterprise.
In this essay, the three terms vaquero, buckaroo, and cowboy mean roughly the same thing. The term of preference in the early days in northern Nevada was vaquero, and the preferred word today is buckaroo. The term cowboy has never been used much in northern Nevada, where "cowboys" are from Texas, Montana, or some other place. Some scholars believe buckaroo comes from bukra (boss or white man) in the Gullah dialect of the Georgia and Carolina Sea Islands, and that the word was carried west and introduced into the cowboy's lexicon by black cowboys in Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. In northern Nevada, though, our research supports a Spanish derivation for the etymology of buckaroo. Vaquero (from the Spanish vaca for cow) is the obvious source for buckaroo, and the oral testimony of ranchers adds significantly to the understanding of how buckaroo was Anglicized from vaquero. Reinforcing conversations at his ranch over two years' time, Leslie Stewart (grandson of William Stock, the German who developed the 96 Ranch) wrote me a letter in February 1980 summarizing his own experience this way:
The word "Buckaroo" sprang from the Spanish word "Vaquero," as you know "V" is pronounced "B." Even in the time I can remember the word Vaquero was used much more than Buckaroo, finally it was corrupted to Buckaroo. The word was not brought in by any specific group of early settlers as the Spanish word originated many, many years before this country was settled. The early Spanish Grant owners in California used the word for their herdsmen and horsemen in the time of the first settling of California and when it was still owned by Mexico. . . . The Spanish style and custom of working cattle spread into Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. Hence the Vaqueros or Buckaroos came with them. Even in this area in early days a large percentage of the riders were Mexicans or California Mexicans, especially on the larger outfits. One of my early, and fondest memories, is of the Circle A round-up crew annually coming up through our meadows on the way to the fall round-up. They had a Chuck Wagon drawn by six mules, a "Caviada" of many horses and 8 or more Mexican riders. They would generally stop here to get some eggs, potatoes, any other fresh garden produce that might be available and especially as much fresh homemade bread that my Mother might have for them.
Stewart remembers a period in his youth, around 1935, when buckaroo became more popular in Nevada than vaquero, and today buckaroo is the word of daily use. The use of buckaroo by a cowboy, like the style of hat he wears and the kind of saddle he prefers, is a sign of origins and traditions. Knowledge and use of buckaroo separates insiders from outsiders.
Community language functions in different ways, from simply getting work done to providing insiders with a sense of identity and pride. The buckaroo's lexicon is distinguished by its deep bilingualism.
Hispanic California vaqueros provided not only the way of work but the words of the trade. Oreanna, corresponding to maverick elsewhere, is the term for an unbranded cow running loose in Nevada; in earlier times a rancher could get started in the business by collecting oreannas and branding them. A buckaroo's long rope of braided rawhide used for catching animals is called a riata in northern Nevada; lariat is more familiar to other Americans.
Other terms of Spanish origin in northern Nevada, some of which are also used outside the Great Basin, include bosal (a small hackamore), canyon, chapparal (tough, thick brush), caviata or cavvy (the group of saddle horses used during roundup as the pool of mounts for buckaroos, called remuda elsewhere; each rider is assigned several specific horses which make up his "string"), corral, chaps (protective leather leg coverings of various styles; Nevadans prefer the short "chinks" variety or the "shotgun" variety), dally (as opposed to the "hard-and-fast" or "solid" roping style, the dally method loops the long riata or rope around the saddle horn so it can run or hold tight when a roped cow is being caught and held), 'dobe (a building of local adobe bricks), fiador (or "theodore," a device consisting of a halter or a hackamore and a rope, knotted to the romal, that forms both a lead and a pair of closed reins), hackamore (a headstall or a halter for a horse, usually made of braided rawhide), macardy (long rope of twisted horsehair pulled from the mane or tail), mustang (wild horse), savvy (to comprehend another person's statement), and taps or tapaderas (leather covers or hoods over the stirrups). Many Anglo buckaroos command a working conversational ability in Spanish. Spanish words, and phrases like "mucho caliente!," pepper everyday speech. But the vaqueros themselves are almost completely absent from the trade today.