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From Vequero to Cowboy

What’s the difference between Vequero or Cowboy?

Cattle handlers were called many names with various meanings through out the past 150 years, beginning with the great cattle drive era to present day. Today cowboy is the most familiar term, but in the old days it meant something entirely different.

During the period of the great cattle drives, cowboy literally meant a “boy” who tended the herds. Just barely in their teens, they were hired from the towns and farms to spend the next three to six months on the trail driving the valuable beef to northern markets. Some were second sons from European families whose first born had inherited the family estates, coming over with big dreams of western adventure. Townspeople who lived at the end of the northward shipping points were not impressed when this rowdy, trail-worn bunch hit town although they were happy to sell them everything they desired. During the winter months, these young cowboys found odd jobs where they could. In the book WE POINTED THEM NORTH, “Teddy Blue” Abbott points out that all of the trail driving hands were Texans because that is where the cattle were and where they first learned their skills.

Used in older literature, Cowman is the boss or the man who owns the ranch, and the term cattleman is heard today.

The Mexican vequero, meaning cowhand, stood at the top of the heap in the 1800s, contributing much to the tools and practices of the profession today. To be called a vequero in South Texas, no matter your heritage, was the highest honor.  It was the vequero who trained the Americans in the handling and cattle raising business. Historian J. Frank Dobie records that south Texas cowhand John Young preferred the term vequero because of the reputation of being so good at what they did. The highly skilled vequeros or cowhands stayed home to watch over the ranch operations, although a few went on the trail drive to lead the way.

The worth of a good cowhand was based on a proficiency of riding and roping. In the old west, the color of your skin made no difference.

Cowpuncher referred to the men who loaded the cattle from the use of a cow prod to herd the steers on or off the railroad livestock cars.



Today, the term cowboy seems to define all levels of livestock workers from feedlots to ranching, and even in the rodeo arena. They aren’t just boys, but highly skilled professionals who are proficient in roping, riding, and managing livestock. Cowboy stands for work ethic, loyalty to the ranch or brand,  integrity, and faith. And even these 150 years later, they still hold the fascination of the world.

Sanford Ranch Spring Gathering. Photo by N. Bright.