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Digital History ID 3249

 

When white Americans ventured westward, they did not enter uninhabited land. Until 1821, Spain ruled the area that now includes the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. Spanish explorers, priests, and soldiers had first entered the area in the early 16th century, half a century before the first English colonists arrived at Jamestown.

Unlike England, however, Spain did not actively encourage migration or economic development in its northern empire. Spain restricted manufacturing and trade and discouraged migration. In 1821, the year Mexico gained its independence, Spanish settlement was concentrated in just four areas:

  • southern Arizona
  • the California coast
  • New Mexico
  • central Texas

Santa Fe, Spain's largest northern settlement, had just 6,000 Spanish inhabitants, and San Antonio a mere 1,500.

Nevertheless, Spain left a lasting imprint on the region. Such institutions as the rodeo and the cowboy had their roots in Spanish culture. The American cowboys borrowed their clothing, customs, and even the songs of earlier Mexican vaqueros. Like the vaqueros, the cowboy used a rope known as a lariat (reata) to corral cattle and utilized a special saddle (now known as a "western" saddle) with a horn. The cowboys also borrowed the vaqueros' clothing, including the wide-brimmed hat, the high-heel pointed toe boots, and leather leggings, known as chaps (short for chaparreras), that protected the cowboy's legs. Their nickname, wrangler, came from a Spanish word, catallerango. Many cowboy songs, like "The Streets of Laredo," were actually translations of Mexican ballads.

Such place names as Los Angeles and San Diego also reflect the region's Spanish heritage. To this day, Spanish architecture--adobe walls, tile roofs, wooden beams, and intricate mosaics--continues to characterize the Southwest.

By introducing horses and livestock, Spanish colonists and missionaries transformed the southwestern economy and the area's physical appearance. As livestock devoured the region's tall, native grasses, a new and distinctly southwestern environment arose: one of cactus, sagebrush, and mesquite.

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