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The original California cowboys

A vaquero ropes a longhorn steer using a figure 8 toss of his lariat. Courtesy of The American Cowboy

A vaquero ropes a longhorn steer using a figure 8 toss of his lariat. Courtesy of The American Cowboy


During his 56 years, John Marsh proved there wasn’t much he couldn’t do. But without vaqueros, Rancho Los Meganos could never have happened.

Cattle were money in Alta California in the 1850s, and Marsh was often paid in cattle or horses for his medical services. General Mariano Vallejo, Marsh’s friend, paid him 1,000 head for attending the birth of a granddaughter. Marsh amassed as many as 6,000 head of cattle, some of which had been wild, left behind by early Spanish and Mexican ranchers. Fortunately, they also left vaqueros.

“It didn’t take these early ranchers long to find out there was a lot more to it than meets the eye and the only people who knew anything at all about handling the huge herds of wild, mean, feral long horned cattle and wild horses was the Mexican Vaquero. The result was that nearly everything the early American ranchers and cowboys learned about open range ranching and livestock handling was learned from the Mexican Vaquero.” Courtesy of cowboyhistory.wordpress.com

Here’s a great piece on vaqueros from The American Cowboy

Evolution of the Californio Vaquero

1519–1700s. After the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519, ranches were established and stocked with cattle and horses imported from Spain. Largely ex-military landowners mounted Native Americans on well-trained horses and taught them to handle cattle, using a riding style inherited from Spanish cavalry and influenced by the Moorish Jinete. By the early 1700s, cattle ranching had spread north into what is now Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, and south to Argentina. The native cowboys were called vaqueros (from the Spanish word for cow) and developed roping skills*, using braided rawhide reatas (the root word for lariat). Starting in 1769, a chain of 21 Franciscan missions eventually stretched from San Diego to San Francisco, marking the beginning of California’s livestock industry.

Mid–1700s to 1820s. Livestock production flourished in California and the Southwest, but few markets existed for end products such as meat, hides, and tallow (for making candles). By the mid-1700s, long trains of pack mules would transport these products to Mexico City and return with supplies. American ships began servicing California ports in the early 1800s and traded for the same materials. For the first time, ranchers had local markets for their animals. Huge roundups were held to collect cattle, and the hard-riding vaqueros controlled the chaos, known for expert horsemanship and roping skills. Vaqueros were said to dismount only for a chance to dance with girls.

A vaquero drives cattle using his serape. Courtesy of The American Cowboy

A vaquero drives cattle using his serape. Courtesy of The American Cowboy


Early and mid-1800s. Ranching ceased to be a strictly Hispanic profession as more Americans poured into the Mexican lands (especially after the Mexican/American War, 1846–48). The Anglo newcomers adapted to the vaquero style, and many settlers intermarried with the old Spanish ranching families. The 1849 Gold Rush brought even more people to California, which increased the demand for beef. Californios rode ponies that had been trained in a hackamore, swung a big loop with their hand-braided rawhide reatas, and took a wrap called a dally (from the Spanish dar la vuelta, to take a turn) around high saddle horns for leverage when roping cattle.

Late 1800s. As the livestock industry expanded, these horsemen found work in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii, taking their foundation, equipment and livestock-handling techniques with them. Cowboys in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada remained strongly Hispanic (“buckaroo” comes from vaquero), including the use of a center-fire rigged saddle, in which rigging is situated below the centerpoint of the saddle; a long reata; and silver-mounted spade bits. Trail-driving Texans adopted many of their techniques from Mexican vaqueros, carrying their methods with them north through the Plains states.

Today. As long as cattle are raised in big American pastures, the legacy of the vaquero will endure. The early Mexican techniques for handling cattle can be seen throughout the modern livestock industry, like whenever a cowboy cinches a saddle on his horse, straps on chaps (from chaparreras, Spanish for leather leggings), competes in a rodeo (from rodear, Spanish for to surround), or ropes a horse from his remuda (from remudar, Spanish for exchange). Even branding migrated north from Mexico. On the Pacific Coast and on Nevada ranches, buckaroos still carry long ropes (nylon these days), ride slick-fork saddles, and use silver-mounted spade bits and spurs.

Field Trip to Rancho Los Meganos

Volunteer Tim Karlberg welcomes Oakley 4th graders to the Marsh Creek State Historic Park for a morning of activities.

Volunteer Tim Karlberg welcomes Oakley 4th graders to the Marsh Creek State Historic Park for a morning of activities.


Fourth Graders from Ironhouse Elementary School in Oakley recently visited the Marsh Creek State Historic Park to take part in a new field trip program put on by the Trust.
Created with the help of the East Contra Costa Historical Society and State Park Interpreter Sharon Pederson, the Trust’s “Life on Rancho Los Meganos” is aimed at providing local fourth-graders the kind of hands-on, experiential learning they now get by making a 150-mile round-trip journey to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.
The program offers three activity stations centered on 1) the work of vaqueros –making rope, throwing lariats, stamping leather; 2) period medicine — a card-like game “diagnosing” illnesses from a list of symptoms, and viewing plants used in 19th Century medicine; and 3) how trade worked in the mid-19th Century — learning how goods got to the rancho from the Far East, and carrying cow hides that were traded for them.
The day wrapped up with a song and dance like those vaqueros used in post-rodeo celebrations.
“The kids loved it, and so did the volunteers who helped out,” said Trust Executive Director Rick Lemyre. “Several kids complained that they didn’t want to leave.”
The Trust is a Cooperating Association for the MCSHP, which is not yet open to the public. By providing some activities at the park, including the field trips, hikes, and community events, the Trust is hoping to raise support for opening the 3,700-acre facility.
“Once people see the potential out here, they’re all in favor of getting regular access to it,”said Lemyre.
The Trust is currently raising funds to build an Interpretive Center in the park so that programming is easier to host. It’s also hoping to provide regular open hours for drop-in park visits.
“This is exactly the kind of thing we’ll be able to do much more easily and often once we’ve completed our Interpretive Center,” Lemyre said. “If you like the idea, please consider making a donation.”
Donations can be made via the PayPal button on this page.

Students try to "diagnose" an illness at Ginny Karlberg's station on 19th Century medicine.

Students try to “diagnose” an illness at Ginny Karlberg’s station on 19th Century medicine.

Kids proved to be good with a rope at Elaine Harmon's lariat-throwing activity.

Kids proved to be good with a rope at Elaine Harmon’s lariat-throwing activity.

Kids got a chance to make a take-home bracelet after Charlene Margesson showed youngsters how rope was made.

Kids got a chance to make a take-home bracelet after Charlene Margesson showed youngsters how rope was made.

Barry Margesson explained how leather tooling was done, and the kids took home leather tags they had marked with their initials.

Barry Margesson explained how leather tooling was done, and the kids took home leather tags they had marked with their initials.