John Ryan Fischer: Indian Cowboys in California

fischer_cattleWe welcome a guest post today from John Ryan Fischer, author of Cattle Colonialism: An Environmental History of the Conquest of California and Hawai’i. Environmental historians have too often overlooked California and Hawai’i, despite the roles the regions played in the colonial ranching frontiers of the Pacific World. In Cattle Colonialism, Fischer significantly enlarges the scope of the American West by examining the trans-Pacific transformations these animals wrought on local landscapes and native economies.

In a previous post, Fischer connects recent disputes over the Mauna Kea landscape to a long history of colonial conflict on the islands. In today’s post, Fisher examines the little-known history of California’s Indian cowboys, or vaqueros.


As I researched the spread of cattle into Pacific regions and the reactions of indigenous people to the new animals in those regions for my book Cattle Colonialism, I was struck by one modern difference between the two main regions of my research, California and Hawaiʻi. The traditions and history of Hawaiian cowboys, known as paniolo, are widely celebrated in Hawaiʻi today. This indigenous cattle culture began in the 1830s when Spanish-speaking vaqueros from the North American mainland trained native Hawaiians to harvest the longhorn cattle that roamed wild on the islands after explorers had brought a small breeding population. On my research trips to Hawai’i, I would often see paniolo in parades, I could eat a beef “paniolo pizza” at a brewery, and there were tourist sites dedicated to the tradition. The Paniolo Preservation Society helps to keep the history of the tradition alive and visible.

In contrast, the important history of California Indian cowboys is far less visible in California. While California does celebrate an often romanticized past of the Spanish missions and ranchos, Indians often take a background role in favor of Spanish missionaries and colonists. In my own experience touring several of the missions, I noted that few concentrated on Indian life, and even fewer on Indian labor. The stories of Indian laborers often feel secondary to the spaces and stories of the Franciscan fathers, despite the fact that the missions were primarily centers of Indian work. The fathers hoped that productivity would lead to a surer conversion while they also made a profit, especially from the products of cattle in the form of hides and tallow that they sold to British and American ships along the Pacific coast. There are certainly signs of this work throughout the missions—from tallow vats to tanneries—and La Purisma stands out to me as a site that focuses on the type of work that its mostly Chumash inhabitants did on a daily basis. Beyond the missions, Indians as workers are even less visible in public presentations of California’s historical memory. Vaquero parades, rodeos, and festivals are rare, and the role of Indians in those festivals is small to nonexistent.

There are a few likely reasons for this omission. First of all, California Indians are less visible overall in American history than Plains Indians and some eastern groups, despite the dense pre-Columbian population in California. This is partially due to the tremendous diversity of California Indians—there is no single culture or image to present, and so key makers of historical memory like Hollywood have gravitated to Indians who dominated a large territory, like the Lakota and Comanche.

California history also has the legacy of the Gold Rush-era genocidal actions against California Indians. Widespread, locally organized aggression led to devastating racial violence in the late 1840s and for decades thereafter. As settlers erased Indians from California’s geography, they also erased them from historical memory while creating a terrible legacy that many Californians may be reluctant to acknowledge.

More specifically, the lack of visibility of Indian vaqueros also results from the fact that wage work doesn’t always fit into the common image of American Indians. Mythmakers from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to rodeos to Hollywood films have defined cowboys as white bearers of civilization, while Indians seemed to exist outside of the American economy. These ideas have little basis in reality, but they persist in the face of recent efforts of historians to contest them.

The reasons that the story of California Indian cowboys remains in the background of Californian historical memory also suggest why it is so important to highlight this history. As Indians herded and harvested the cattle for the nineteenth-century hide and tallow trade, Indian work established California’s place in the global economy, a fundamental part of modern California’s self-image. Foregrounding this work can re-center Indians in the history of Spanish California, force Americans to re-evaluate the mythic American figure of the cowboy, and lead to a more serious confrontation in historical memory with the violent destruction of Indian communities in the mission period and in the Gold Rush.

John Ryan Fischer is visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His book Cattle Colonialism: An Environmental History of the Conquest of California and Hawai’i is now available. Follow him on Twitter @RyanFischer1050.