The origin and development of New Mexico cattle raising is a subject that I have been following for years. It’s a story not easily learned, since the details are buried in old Spanish documents preserved in our state archives.
We know that Coronado introduced a small herd of cattle when he explored the Southwest in 1540. But those animals were intended as a food supply for his expedition and none survived the butchers’ knives.
Another herd arrived with the first permanent settlers at the close of the 16th century. These “seed cattle” became the foundation for New Mexico’s livestock industry. Soon large ranches, or estancias, were flourishing on lands bracketing the Rio Grande.
In the decades prior to 1680, cattle seem to have outnumbered sheep, although herds of both animals could usually be found on the estancias.
After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the opening of the 1700s, sheep raising began to expand at the expense of cattle ranching. That was in sharp contrast to Spanish Texas and California where cattle remained predominant.
Still, most rural New Mexicans had at least a few head of cattle for draft stock, needed to pull their plows and carts. And some wealthy ranchers developed respectable beef herds.
One aspect of colonial ranching that goes unmentioned in the history books has to do with the breeds of cattle introduced or that evolved here in New Mexico.
The earliest colonial New Mexicans raised only two recognizable breeds of cattle. Most numerous was the Criollo, a Native American type that emerged in the Western Hemisphere with the mixing of original breeds from Spain.
Many Criollos had hair of solid colors, particular Jersey tan or red. But spotted or piebald coats, most of them black and white, were common too.
Curiously, southern Plains Indians, living adjacent to New Mexico, held European bovines to be sacred, in the same manner as buffalo. As a result, they painted spotted Spanish cattle on their shields and tepees.
The second early breed that appeared on the upper Rio Grande was the Black Andalusian, native to southern Spain but probably with roots in North Africa. The royal contract providing for the initial settlement of New Mexico required that 50 percent of the beef animals be “Black cattle.”
These Blacks sometimes had a stripe down their backs from neck to tail. Their horns were set forward on the head to kill like the buffalo, according to one account. And they were very dangerous to a man on foot.
The Hopis were said to own a herd of Andalusian purebreds as late as 1782. And probably other Pueblo groups did as well.
But soon after that, references to Black cattle dwindled, and by the mid-1800s, the breed seems to have disappeared from New Mexico. Its blood in part had been assimilated by the Criollo.
In the last quarter of the colonial era, we begin to hear mention of huge herds of wild cattle roaming the eastern plains. These were mongrel animals whose ancestors had escaped and in their freedom had interbred to form a new type.
These cattle were mainly brown with a light stripe down the back and what were described as “long, slim blue horns.” They must have presented quite a picture.
The U.S. Government published a report on New Mexico cattle in 1880. It noted that “the so called ‘wild cattle’ are no longer in the territory, but are frequently spoken of.” These blue horned oddities had become extinct.
The document identified only two types of cattle then being bred on New Mexican ranges. One was the “Texan,” the distinctive breed that had originated in the thorny cactus country below San Antonio and spread, via trail drives, from there throughout the West.
It was described as being wild, gaunt and having horns enormously long with a half twist back. This animal became legendary and emblematic of the cowman’s frontier.
The second type in the 1880 government report was referred to simply as “Spanish cattle,” meaning the old colonial Criollo breed.
As of that date, it was most abundant in Taos County. But today, like the Andalusian Blacks and the wild cattle of the plains, it too is gone and unremembered.