Monday, July 19, 2010


So what came first – the chicken or the egg or the horse or the cowboy? A Friend recently pondered the latter question so this post is dedicated to simplistically answering that complicated query and even defining who the first cowboys were. Most folks out here in Texas don’t appear motivated or compelled to look much beyond our current borders to ponder that inquiry. If we were just talking about Texas Cowboys then we could wax eloquent about some real heroes whose presence and work ethic was critical to expanding and defending our borders and perpetuating our way of life in what we now know as the American Southwest. Our question is much more macro and predictably takes us well beyond the shores of North America and surprisingly to some ancient shores.

It would follow that those who were the first to domesticate the horse for the purpose of droving - and not just as beasts of burden and a source of food - may have been the first cowboys? Well, that remains a somewhat controversial question that is still being debated. Up to a millennium appears to have transpired from the domestication, breeding and the ultimate use of the horse to drive stock. Bottom line: the horse came first.

We need note that the horse originated on what is now the North American continent some 55 million years ago. They evolved and migrated across the Bering land bridge into what is now Siberia and spread across Asia and then into Europe, south to the Middle East and into Africa. During a time line from those 55 million years to roughly two million years ago and the Pleistocene Epoch (The Ice Age) when Hyracotherium transformed into what we now know as Equus – the modern horse (browsers to grazers).

The advent of Humans in recent times (roughly 10,000 years ago) resulted in the demise and extinction of Equus in North America who - as current theories appear to correctly postulate – was hunted for food. Boy did they miss the boat and validates once again that cultures evolved at substantially different rates based on their environment, natural resources and motivation.

The images of horses appear in Paleolithic cave art as represented in the caves of Lascaux (a series of caves in southwestern France near Montignac as represented in the painting above my mantle) as early as 30,000 BCE. Now these animals were truly wild horses which as we have noted were more than likely hunted as food by Cro-Magnon (Early Modern Humans) and Neanderthal before they were ever used as a work animal. The occupants of what is now North America had to wait for the Spanish to reintroduce the horse (our first nations called them big dogs) to our continent in the sixteenth century in their ultra successful attempt to create a new world order (colonization) – a la Francisco Vásquez de Coronado y Luján and Hernando de Soto.

At any rate, while the horse was extinct in North America, horses were fast becoming a mainstay of many ancient civilizations including the Sredny Stog culture, the Botai people of Kazakhstan, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Scythians, Parthians, Mongols and others. The horse properly established their significant place in history and, hence, our inquiry today. We are certain that the first horses were domesticated as well as used for food and then transportation of both humans and cargo somewhere around 4,000 to 3,500 B.C.E.

There is no doubt that cultures which used the horse for a variety of tasks, including agriculture, war, hunting, transport, recreation and, yes, food would have out of necessity had to develop a way to control what had to be herds of horses and livestock and someone to direct this resource – someone on horseback.
Aha! We know now that the wheel was also part of this equation.

The solid two or four wheeled Mesopotamian (Sumerian) chariots pulled by as many as four Onagers or asses before the introduction of the horse were first used around 3,500 to 3,200 BCE for transportation and war though some archeologists speculate that the wheel may have been invented far earlier in Asia. In a great irony, we need note that the wheel already had some manufacturing applications i.e. the potter’s wheel before it was remotely thought to aid in transportation.

The Egyptians invented the spoked wheel around 2,000 BCE and took the chariot and the role of the horse to the next level in Africa. By around 1435 BCE the Egyptians were mass producing the chariot. But there had long been a horse culture in Iberia which suggested by acclaimed Portuguese historian, zoologist, anatomist, horse breeder and paleontologist Dr. Ruy D’Andrade dates from the Neolithic period (5000 – 4000 BCE) when native tribes of what is now Portugal and Spain may have even used horses in war.

Though their origins are unclear it would appear that the less than homogeneous Iberians were soon influenced by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians and yes, ladies and gentlemen - the Celts (among others) who apparently in several successive waves were a major factor in the development of their culture. From these roots sprang the great horse culture of Spain and one of the primary sources of the modern Cowboy.

Though the origin of the early name of Spain, “Iberia" continues to be debated, some scholars attribute the name to the Greeks while some even allow for a Celtic influence. While the real origins of the name will probably remain unknown relative to our post we do have substantial evidence of Celtic weaponry, horseshoes, bridle bits and even spurs evidenced around 500 B.C in Iberia. We also see riders in saddles portrayed in Iberian stone carvings, bronze castings and paintings.

While the Celtic influence is undeniably substantial and while this writer would love to attribute one of the fundamental origins of the cowboy as Celtic, alas that conclusion will never come. It is apparent that the cultural input was from many disparate sources and out of this rich mélange evolved the Vaquero/Caballero/Cowboy of the Americas.

If we are objective (my reward for this effort) we have to give due credit to the Scots for their prodigious influence especially in the American West for the evolution of the modern cowboy. You see, the cattle industry had long been a staple of the Scottish culture and even to the degree of elevating reiving (rustling) as an honourable rite of passage akin to counting coup by our own First Nations.

When Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples arrived in Scotland some five thousand years ago they brought the Celtic Shorthorn with them which bred with the native wild cattle and voila – you have an industry where cattle were routinely driven and pastured in alternate mountain and lowland locations and then eventually with the development of the cattle industry driven to market by drovers – both on foot and on horseback. This became an established profession from the 16th century in Scotland, a skill that migrants to the Americas (US and Canada) took with them – along with their culture. All this activity was concurrent with the initial Spanish activity in the Americas. The Scots émigrés became a substantial component of what we now know as Cowboys of the American West.

The archeological record has not revealed whether wild horses spread into Scotland after the end of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago or if horses came with those first settlers. We are certain that horses have been in Scotland since at least the 8th century BC and were ultimately used later to great advantage by both the Picts and the Scots.

Ron Gibson, Scottish Member of Parliament (SNP) and historian in his, In Plaids and Bandanas: from Highland Drover to Wild West Cowboy establishes clear and coherent links between the Highland cattle drovers of 16th century Scotland and the North American West.

The Scottish connection and legacy is well documented in the record and seems highlighted by the seventy year ownership (1882-1952) of the iconic Matador Land and Cattle Company by a Dundee, Scotland group. Matador, located on the high plains at the caprock of the Texas Panhandle was once one of the largest ranches in the world reinforcing Scotland’s transatlantic relationship with Texas.

Matador and Texas history resounds with the names of folks like Alexander Mackay of Dundee and Murdo Mackenzie who was characterized by then US president Theodore Roosevelt as "the most influential of American cattlemen."

In the end there is no doubt that the Modern Cowboy is the composite of the great horse cultures of Europe, Asia and Africa embellished with our own American brand. The very existence of the Cowboy validates once again that we are everyman and the product of a back and forth cross cultural pollination. The world was getting smaller even then…

When all is said and done it took the Spanish to facilitate all this by contributing/importing their culture and the horse back to the Americas/New World ultimately to New Mexico and Texas where an increasingly homogenized though equally disparate group out of necessity prompted the creation and evolution of our modern cowboy
decades before my forefathers landed at (or somewhat near) Plymouth Rock.


Ned Buxton

One of the inspirations for this post and an excellent source of information on this topic is the book, Origins of the First American Cowboys by Donald A. Chávez y Gilbert. Donald is an educator, historian and writer from Belen, New Mexico where he teaches in the Los Lunas Public Schools and also operates the Terra Patre Farm. You can gain some of the interesting details of this great adventure by reading his revealing book in its entirety, online at: This gentleman has his act together and we strongly recommend this undoubted future member of the Buckaroo Hall of Fame for his objective and well written works.

Might of Right also recommends Highland Cowboys: From the Hills of Scotland to the American Wild West and Plaids and Bandanas: From Highland Drover to Wild West Cowboy both by historian and Scottish MP Rob Gibson who recounts the connection between the cattle cultures of Scotland and those of the iconic Texas cattle industry. Boots and kilts, aye.


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