Friday, January 23, 2015

Los Vaqueros Errantes de California, or, The Wandering Vaqueros of California

I’m hard at work on a two-volume history of the clothing worn in California during the Mexican and early American eras (1822-1860).  It’s a big job, so I’m not able to post long articles for a while.  What I plan to do is to post bits of my research that I hope will interest you until I can find time to write longer pieces.  Most of these will follow the work I’m doing on the book, but there should be some variety.  California has long been a place where many cultures come together and just in the years 1822-1847 there were Mexicans, Russians, merchant seamen, mountain men, Hudson’s Bay Company trappers, Nez Perce Indians, overland settlers and the American Navy, Marines and Army.  I’ll also post on other subjects as they come up.  I hope you'll find it interesting. 

One of the things I love about the American West is how cultures met and mingled there in what were sometimes fantastic combinations.  One example of this were the vaqueros, cowboys, from then-Mexican California, who ended up in Hawaii, hunting cattle.  Think of it, these vaqueros from the coastal hills of California, who had grown up staring at the immense expanse of the Pacific, one day boarded a ship and ventured out upon that ocean to travel more than 2,000 miles to an unknown land.  Some of these vaqueros stayed in Hawaii, continued their ranching life and taught their skills to Native Hawaiians.  There are still cowboys in Hawaii who honor this tradition and are known as Paniolo, which was the local way to pronounce "Español" - Spaniard.

In 1839, Francis Allyn Olmstead, a twenty year old graduate of Yale University, traveled for his health aboard a whaling ship to Hawaii – then known as the Sandwich Islands.  After a long voyage his ship arrived at Oahu and he and some companions set out on a hike into the Waimea Valley.  Olmstead writes,

“About eight o’clock, we came up with a collection of thatched houses, towards the principal one of which we directed our steps, which was a store belonging to Mr. French of Honolulu.  Here a novel scene presented itself to us.  In front of the door, a bright fire was blazing in a cavity in the earthern [sic] floor, displaying in strong light the dark features of the natives congregated around it in their grotesque attitudes.  Immediately back of these, a group of fine looking men, in a peculiar costume, were leaning against the counter of the store.  Some of them were Spaniards from California, and they were all attired in the poncho, an oblong blanket of various brilliant colors, having a hole in the middle through which the head is thrust.  The pantaloons are open from the knee downwards on the outside with a row of dashing gilt buttons along the outside seam.  A pair of boots armed with prodigiously long spurs completed their costume.  They were bullock hunters, employed in capturing the wild bullocks that roam the mountains, and had just returned from an expedition of eight or ten days, in which they had been very successful.”


From,  Francis Allyn Olmstead, Incidents of a Whaling Voyage. To Which are Added Observations on the Scenery, Manners and Customs, Missionary Stations, of the Sandwich and Society Islands. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1841.

A. "Waimea Valley Audubon Center - general view" by Daderot.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

B. Though drawn in California and some fifteen years after Olmstead met the vaqueros on Oahu, this print captures much of how that group of cowboys must have looked that evening in the Waimea Valley.  "California Vaqueros Returned from the Chase," Anonymous, c. 1855. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 

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