Los Vaqueros. Much has been written about the great Native Americans as vaqueros in California, but from whom did they learn their skills? Cattle were not indigenous to California until they, like horses, pigs, and sheep, were introduced by Spanish colonists, beginning in 1769 with the secular-military expedition of Gaspar de Portola and Fray Junipero Serra.
It was the experienced soldados de cuera (leather jackets) who introduced all of the skills later made famous by California vaqueros. Having learned much of their horse skills as troops in Mexico on campaigns against the Piri, Apache, and other native Mexican tribes, the soldiers of New Spain taught these skills to the Native California indians.
Herding, branding, roping, and controlling the growing cattle herds of the missions and early pueblos, the soldados were the first vaqueros and later, when the ranchos were distributed by California governors, these early settlers employed native indians to work their own herds. Local natives eventually started their own rancherios and cattle herds, though never as large or commercially used as those on the ranchos of the Spanish-Mexican era, from the early 1800s through the 1860s when extensive droughts decimated the rancho cattle herds as thousands of cows and steers died from thirst.