Out West

Renaissance Man of the West, Part II


Charles F. Lummis’ publication, The Land of Sunshine, gives us a glimpse of the old California vaquero, his methods and his gear.

By William Reynolds

Borein1Illustration by Ed Borein.

In Part 1, we learned about the unique and enthusiastic Westerner, Charles F. Lummis, and his many efforts to keep the American West and its indigenous cultures from disappearing in the beginning of the 1900s. He lived a life that celebrated a region, and his publication, The Land of Sunshine, spotlighted the area’s creative individuals, artists and writers who shared his views.

The artist Edward Borein and writer Flora Haines Loughead were perfect examples. What follows is an excerpt of Ms. Loughead’s story about the California vaquero and his ways, accompanied with pen and ink drawings by Edward Borein, as printed in the August 1896 issue of The Land of Sunshine.

“The Old California Vaquero” (an excerpt)

By Flora Haines Loughead

Illustrated by Ed Borein

Clad in short jacket and slashed trousers of velvet, glittering with buttons of silver or gold, broidered waistcoat, gay silken sash, steeple-crowned hat, soft leather botas embroidered in fancy patterns; with great silver spurs, a silver-mounted bridle, a Spanish bit (framed in silver) fretting the mouth of his untamed steed, silver-mounted saddle of leather wrought by hand with many a fantastic and beautiful device, on which he sat as never sat king upon his throne—the California vaquero of the olden time was a sight to rejoice the eye on fiesta days.

Yet those who saw him at his best beheld him when he had discarded his festival trappings, and in more sober but no less characteristic garb, demonstrated his superb horsemanship, his wonderful agility, his splendid courage and endurance at the rodeo. In those times great bands of wild cattle, thousands upon thousands, roamed the valleys, and twice a year vaqueros went out to round up the stock, brand the young calves, and perchance “cut out” a certain number of steers for slaughter. The world has never witnessed horsemanship surpassing that of the California vaquero. The cowboys of Arizona and New Mexico today perhaps equal him in hardihood and skill; but only one trained to sit a horse from infancy can ride with the unconscious grace, the matchless ease, of the Spanish-American. Flying like the whirlwind over the valleys, racing up and down the steep hillsides, plunging down crumbling barrancas, tearing through chaparral, wherever the maddened cattle sought to escape, there followed the vaquero. There was reason for the armas or apron of leather or hide; there was reason for the chaparrejas or legging of hide, reaching from ankle to waist, never-falling adjuncts to his working costume. No cloth ever woven in a loom could withstand the raking thorns of chaparral, in these wildest of cross-country rides.

VaqueroBoreinIllustration by Ed Borein.

When the scattered herd was finally brought together (“bunched,” in the frontier parlance) the serious work of the rodeo began. Like flying serpents the long reatas whirled through the air, settling, with unerring precision, upon their appointed victims. The terrified animal would make one fierce spring for freedom, the coil would tighten, horse and rider moving with one impulse in opposite directions; the sturdy little broncos brace themselves for the strain, the reatas pull taught, and the ensnared animal falls.

The impression has gone abroad that the California vaquero was a man set apart for this especial work. In fact, every gentleman was presumed to be able to act as vaquero. It is of course true that every wealthy old Don, in the days before the Gringo came, had upon his estate men who were more capable than their fellows in this particular vocation. But the company that set out was largely made up of volunteers, and these volunteers came from the most aristocratic families. Gay young cavaliers of the day, men who were counted well educated and accomplished, by the acquirements and opportunities of the time, were only too eager to put their physical prowess and equestrian skill to the proof on such occasions. The California vaquero was no stupid, dull-witted, uneducated peon, who worked under orders or for hire, but a daring, ambitious fellow, who no doubt welcomed this rebound from an aimless though delightful social life.

Illustration by Ed Borein.Illustration by Ed Borein.

In work of this nature, where so much depends upon instant and certain action, a rider’s equipment becomes of paramount importance. Hence it was that the vaquero’s bridle and saddle, although fashioned with the rude facilities of the day, serve still as models for the control of a spirited horse, and to insure the ease and safety of a rider. The so-called Spanish bit, in universal use by the Spanish-Californian, and which has so often been denounced for its cruelty, has in reality often saved the lives of rider and horse, and no native pony, bred to its use, is happy without it. Like all good things, its use may be abused, but employed as a severe check only in case of genuine emergency, and for the most part left to rest loosely in the animal’s mouth, the latter receiving its direction by the touch of the reins on the neck, it is no more uncomfortable than a heavy curved bar of steel sawing the mouth. Indeed, the ingenious artificer strung large metallic beads along the frame, and it was the olden custom to place in the hollow space in the center a small lump of salt, so that the untrained colt would learn to rub his tongue against the bit and roll the little copper rings in his effort to reach the delicate saline morsel. The habit, once formed, is persistent, and the bronco’s pretty custom of tossing his head and apparently champing at the bit when standing, is merely an evidence of the power of habit. The vaquero saddle is of necessity ponderous, to withstand the strain that comes upon the reata, wound around the horn, when it tightens upon the struggling steer. But they were not capable of pure utilitarianism in any direction, those light-hearted, beauty-loving old Californians! Hence it is that the old saddles were frequently masterpieces of ornamentation, exquisite devices being wrought by hand upon the leather, the horn being fashioned into fantastic and artistic shapes, while gold or silver mounters frequently contributed to the outward splendor. In one well-verified instance an old Don actually had his saddle-tree constructed of gold.

FloraHainesLThe author, Flora Haines Loughead, wrote this article for The Land of Sunshine.

Leave a Comment