Pages Navigation Menu

From Vequero to Cowboy

What’s the difference between Vequero or Cowboy?

Cattle handlers were called many names with various meanings over 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.

The great cattle drives as we know it really took off in 1866 when Texas pioneer and cattleman Charles Goodnight drove a herd to Fort Sumner and then on to Colorado thus establishing the Goodnight-Loving Trail. 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. Much of the labor pool 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.

At the time, Cowman was the boss or the man who owns the ranch.

The Mexican vaquero, 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 vaquero in South Texas, no matter your heritage, was the highest honor.  It was the vaquero 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 vaquero because of the reputation of being so good at what they did. The highly skilled vaqueros usually stayed at the ranch, although a few went on the trail drive to lead the way while other outfits hired professional trail bosses.

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. Although in some first hand accounts, many who wrote about the days they “punched cows on the trail.”



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.