Whether among working cowboys, at a rodeo, a scene from a movie, or in a magazine advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes— most of us have seen a cowboy on horseback chasing down a steer, casting a lasso over its horns, and forcing it to crash to the ground. That iconic scene of the West brings to life such abstractions as rugged individualism and is so foundational to American culture that we usually take its origins for granted.
When we do ask who first came up with the practice—and where, when, and why?—detailed answers remain elusive. Historians long believed that the cowboys from Spain, called vaqueros, who introduced the first cattle into what is now Mexico in the sixteenth century developed lassoing from horseback and that it spread northward to Texas and California by the eighteenth century before diffusing throughout much of the West and northward into Canada over the nineteenth century. That vague account certainly explains why only cowboys in Canada, the United States and Mexico do it.
Yet historians never figured out how the vaqueros first got the idea to modify their saddles by mounting a horn on the pommel. That saddlehorn is essential because a cowboy cannot hold onto the tailend of the rope once the running noose tightens around the fleeing steer. Tying or winding the rope around the saddlehorn transfers the jolt to the horse. Although Spanish vaqueros do herd cattle from horseback, they use lances to do so, do not use lassos while riding, and do not have saddles with horns. Spaniards, therefore, did not simply transfer the practice across the Atlantic to Mexico.
Moreover, historians never discovered any archival documents to indicate why vaqueros would even have bothered to develop lassoing from horseback when they had an existing method for stopping cattle. During the sixteenth century they used a lance with a crescent blade, called a desjarretadera, to pursue cattle until able to sever their hamstrings and drop them in their tracks.
One section of my book details both how and why enslaved vaqueros of African origin invented lassoing from horseback in Mexico. Looking beyond the archival documents, at material artifacts like saddles and the statistics of the slave trade, reveals that many enslaved vaqueros came from West Africa and that West African cattle herders used lassos and knew about saddlehorns. West African herders did not ride horses, instead casting the lasso while running and using a log tied to the tailend to tire the cattle.
The social elite and their cavalry, however, rode horses and used saddlehorns to rest their rein hands and hang saddlebags. In the late sixteenth-century the Mexican viceroy imposed a penalty of one hundred lashes for blacks caught with a desjarretadera and thereby strongly motivated them to recombine that antecedent knowledge into an alternative method for catching cattle. By the late eighteenth century, the desjarretadera had become an anachronism and all vaqueros, as far north as the Texas-Louisiana borderlands, used saddles with horns and the lasso to round up cattle.
Associate Professor, Geography & Anthropology
On October 29, Yale University released Andrew Sluyter’s latest book—Black Ranching Frontiers: African Cattle Herders of the Atlantic World, 1500-1900. Readers will find chapters on how people of African origin contributed to establishing ranching in Louisiana, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean.