Hispanic Cowboy Heritage

“Waiting for their stars…”


Bring Hispanic Heritage Month to your cowboy classroom by learning about the connection between cowboys and the Hispanic Heritage of the United States.

In the picture above, the Territories of New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma are waiting for Columbia, the spirit of the United States, to sew their stars onto the U.S. flag. The stars symbolize statehood.

The tools being held by the men symbolizing the territories show them as a farmer, a miner, and a cowboy. Udo Keppler drew this political cartoon for Punch magazine in 1902, when all three of those territories were still waiting to become states.

New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma were all bought from Mexico by the United States.

At the time, the priority for the United States was to build a railroad across the continent. The only routes that would work went through Mexican territory, so the United States agreed to buy some suitable land from Mexico.

These parts of the country were already settled with large ranches, which had been stocked with horses and cattle imported from Spain as early as the 1500s. The workers, called vaqueros from the Spanish word vaca, meaning “cow,” drove the cattle to Mexico City to sell them.

Once the United States took ownership of New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma (and the rest of the states that used to belong to Mexico at least in part, including Utah, Texas, and California), settlers began moving in from the states. They took up many of the characteristics of local life, adopting words, clothing, foods, and the Mexican style of ranching..

Vaqueros drove cattle from ranchos to the railroad depots to move them from formerly Mexican territory to the cattle markets of the United States. We get the word “buckaroo” from”vaquero” and “ranch” from “rancho.” 

The American cowboy became a legend around the world, but never lost the influence of Mexico and Spain.


Online resources

  • Smithsonian lessons From Vaqueros to Cowboys
  • The Social Studies Blog has more vaquero vocabulary and a list of famous vaqueros.
  • Read about cowboys, including some clues about the end of the cowboy era. We like this as a starting point for further research.
  • The Bullock Museum has a fun presentation on vaqueros with a timeline. Add the dates to your classroom timeline.
  • A PDF lesson plan from Denver Schools
  • Teach Rock looks at vaqueros and western expansion, touching on Manifest Destiny, American imperialism, and how the cowboy way of life affected underrepresented groups of people.
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