They herded cattle from Texas to New Orleans to support the Revolution.

The Spanish Cowboys Who Fed an Army

By Karen Schwartz | Photography by Nils Ericson

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Spanish Cowboys

An unusual route…

In the 1770s, Simón de Arocha, a legendary cowboy, led his fellow Spanish Texan vaqueros on an unprecedented 500–mile trek from Texas to Louisiana to deliver desperately needed cattle to colonial soldiers fighting the British. While the efforts of early Texans like de Arocha have been largely forgotten, they remain a source of pride and inspiration for his descendants.

…traveled by an unlikely hero

Simón de Arocha was born in Texas in October 1731. Just months earlier, his parents, Francisco de Arocha and Juana Curbelo, migrated from the Spanish Canary Islands with 16 other families to settle in San Antonio. By the 1770s, de Arocha had become a prominent member of his community and was one of group of Spanish cowboys known as vaqueros.

In 1776, de Arocha and his fellow vaqueros were pressed into service to come to the aid of Spain’s new ally—the fledgling United States. When it comes to foreign assistance in the Revolutionary War, the focus has always been on France, but the lesser–known contributions of men like de Arocha also helped turn the tide. “I am so proud to have had a family who contributed to the American Revolution,” says de Arocha’s descendant Antony Delgado.

Spanish immigrants to the Southwest introduce cattle to the Americas, and within decades more than 3 million longhorn roam Texas.

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Unlikely Allies

When war broke out between Britain and its soon–to–be former colonies, Spain saw an opportunity to regain territory along the Gulf Coast they had recently ceded to Britain following the Seven Years’ War—and to put a check on British power. “The American Revolution was an opportunity for Spain, as it was for France,” says Ben Wright of the University of Texas’s Brisoce Center for American History.” The Spanish soon aligned themselves with those fighting for America’s independence.

With colonial troops and their allies off fighting, farms that might have provided sustenance lay fallow. Food supplies ran dangerously low and the risk of starvation rose. When Spain’s King Carlos asked Bernardo de Galvez, the governor of Louisiana, to boot the British out of the Gulf Coast, Galvez knew this was a difficult task.

“One of the most important things you can do when making military progressions is making sure your army is well provisioned,” Wright explains. “You need to feed your army, it’s one of the things that keeps your army fit in the field and it’s one of the things that keeps your army out of trouble with local populations.”

Spanish Cowboys

A Novel Solution

Introduced to the Americas by arriving Conquistadors centuries earlier, cattle are an ideal source of nourishment. “You’re talking about a mobile source of food, a source of food that can more or less feed itself on the way from A to B, a source of food that really, for all practical purposes until it’s slaughtered is refrigerated, and it’s also a multiplying source of food,” Wright explains.

But with Louisiana recovering from the effect of recent hurricanes, Galvez looked west for help—to Texas, with its droves of wild longhorns. Texas’ governor was initially reluctant to intercede, though. “He protested, saying ‘this isn’t really practical, this is going to lead to inflation of cattle prices, this touches on certain free trade issues that we really don’t want to get into, there’s problems in remuneration, there’s problems with communication, and not to mention that it’s actually very difficult to transfer across six, seven hundred miles, thousands of cattle, through hostile territory, native American territory,’” Wright explains.

Spanish Cowboys

Old world skills, new world setting

Texas’ governor finally relented, but there was one problem. Texas was sparsely populated, and driving large herds of cattle took manpower. “It’s worth taking a moment to think about how walking from San Antonio to New Orleans is tricky enough,” said Wright.

Tasked with leading the expedition, de Arocha and his vaqueros use methods of herding cattle brought from Spain and honed in America. “Walking that distance with thousands of animals, herding them, this is an enterprise that is not easily accomplished. These are the first organized cattle–droves out of Texas.”

Spanish Cowboys

Turning the Tide

The desperately needed resources helped tip the balance of the War. During the period from 1779 to 1782, somewhere between 9,000 and 15,000 head of cattle were provided by ranchers living along the San Antonio River between San Antonio and Goliad. In addition, this area sent several hundred head of horses and many bulls to perpetuate the herds. Some of the vaqueros stayed and fought with Galvez’s Spanish army against the British.

It’s an impressive feat. “I can only imagine what it must have been like,” says de Arocha descendant Anthony Delgado. “The fortitude they must have had. It’s just absolutely fascinating.”

Spanish Cowboys

Today, the contributions of men like de Arocha have been forgotten. But there are tantalizing traces that remain.

Like the 1836 map of the Texas territory in the collection of UT’s Brisoce Center. “It’s almost like a treasure map,” Wright says. Markings include large patches of wild cattle, just like the longhorns herded by de Arocha and his fellow vaqueros to aid the war effort.

There are no roads or trains marked, just the river that would have been used for passage. But what has already happened is the Anglicization of names. There’s no better example of this than the spot honoring the Louisiana governor who played a central role in the saga. Instead of de Galvez, the land has already become what it remains to this day—Galveston.

Spanish Cowboys

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