The Abeyta family has been driving sheep down from the mountains of southern Colorado for generations. But it hasn’t been easy to keep that tradition alive – they’ve had to fight for it. Through their eyes, we trace back the beginnings of the cowboy to the Mexican vaquero and find out how those adventurous roots are still very much alive in the American southwest.

 

 

Interested in this story from The Modern West? Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss an episode.

 

[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

 

The Last Sheep Drive

 

It’s only a little after sunrise. Cold. Early-autumn-by-a-rushing-river cold. We sit in the truck next to Los Pinos River, watching the mountainside on the other side. We had to get up at four in the morning and drive far into the forest to arrive here on time. Andrew Abeyta says we don’t have long to wait.

 

Andrew Abeyta doesn’t know if it was bad luck or good luck that he inherited the family sheepherding business.

 

“You won’t see them until they get by these dead trees over here. So if you’re still on this side, you might be able to see them as they come out over there with those yellow aspens. The dogs could be coming in the front sometimes, or sometimes they’re not.” Andrew rolls down his window and hollers out to his son-in-law, who’s keeping an eye from outside the truck. “You all right, Devon? Need to do some jumping jacks to warm up?”

But Devin doesn’t have to do jumping jacks because soon enough, down through the aspens they come – a flock of 975 sheep and a handful of goats. Driving them along is a sheep herder on horseback and his dogs. Watching the scene, I’m struck by how timeless it all feels. I’ve always thought of my old family friend Jim Elliot as the most quintessential cowboy I’ve ever met. But Andrew’s ancestors were the original vaqueros who started developing these cowboying techniques hundreds of years ago. For generations, the Abeyta family has spent summers up in the mountains with their flock, in the fall driving them back down and across this river. 

Or hopefully they’ll cross it. Right now, as they reach the bank, they’re getting all bunched up. They won’t ford the stream.

“Sometimes they sit there and look at the water for half an hour and then cross, no problem,” Andrew says. “Sometimes you have to get to a ewe or something to make them cross. But yeah, sometimes they do it by themselves, just depending on their mood.”

 

Sheep herd with cowboys and horse

Devin and Regal try to convince the sheep to cross Los Pinos River

 

Their mood today is… obstinate. A couple of ewes consider following the Great Pyrenees dog when he wades across but then, nah, change their minds. Devin and Andrew get out on the edge of the flock and wave their arms and shout. I’m worried that my photographer, Ana, and I are discouraging them. We back up into the willows. The sun is out now and it glows in the autumn leaves and twinkles off the water. Finally, Regal, the sheepherder uses his lasso to catch one of the goats by the horns. He shouts, “Chivo! chivo!” which means goat in Spanish. He pulls her out into the river and across. It does the trick. The sheep follow the goat and start crossing in one torrential surge. 

 

 

This dramatic scene on the banks of Los Pinos River, it’s been happening for generations. Andrew’s family came here in the mid-1800s as part of a Catholic missionary expedition, one of the early ways that the cowboy lifestyle spread north across the Americas from Mexico. There used to be lots of family ranches that made this sheep drive from the San Juan mountains to the San Luis Valley but now, this one that we’ve witnessed today – the Abeyta family’s– it’s the very last one. And over the generations, it’s taken a lot of fighting to protect it. 

 

Black and white image of a man in a cowboy hat

Devin says this year’s river crossing went pretty smoothly compared to last year’s.

 

After the river crossing is over, Devin says this year’s really wasn’t that bad.

“It actually went pretty smooth,” Devin says. “Last year, it took us quite a while longer.

“Okay, I was very worried that we were holding things up,” I say.

“No, last year we fought and fought and fought. We fought,” says Devin. “They did not want to come across. It was just the goats weren’t here last year so that’s what made it work.

 

Black and white photo of a man on a horse

Sheepherder Regal is greeted with provisions after a long summer in the mountains.

 

Now it’s time for Regal to herd the sheep up the other side of the ridge. We drive up the steep 4-wheel drive road to meet him at the top with provisions, some spam and egg burritos and some cold beers. 

“I take Regal a 15-pack of beer,” Andrew says. “Nine o’clock in the morning, we’re already…” He makes a drinking motion and we laugh. “Only drink two of them though because I’ve got to drive home. I stay with him an hour, hour and a half, visiting with him. Because I think it’s a little lonely up there.”

Driving up, I ask Andrew how of all siblings he ended up taking over the sheepherding. 

“I don’t know if you want to call it bad luck or good luck,” he says. “Since I was a little kid, I was always hanging around with my grandpa – you know, because the sheep were his –and I’d take care them during the lambing season when I wasn’t in school and on the weekends. My grandpa got up in age and he gave me the opportunity to buy them and I said, well, alright.”

The bad luck side of inheriting this job is how wildly the sheep market fluctuates, Andrew says.

“It seems like everything else, the price goes up and the prices of your commodity goes down. And that’s when it’s kind of sad,” Andrew says. “But this year, it’s actually pretty good. And like I tell my son, we used to sell these lambs where if we even made $75 a lamb, we were happy.”

“Now what are you making?” I ask.

“Well, I sold them the other day for $250 bucks a lamb,” he says.

“Really? That’s much better.”

“Much better is right. So you know, last year was only $150. So making $110 more this year than I did last year.”

Andrew says all these sheep have already been sold to a feedlot in eastern Colorado. He says locals aren’t willing to pay those prices for lamb but right now it’s selling well globally for the Middle Eastern and African diets. Goats sell for even more. He’s crossing his fingers that this trend continues because over the last few decades, he’s seen the downside.

“Sometimes it’s not an easy life,” he says. “You know, I guess the only good thing about it is, it’s so independent. You can come and go as you please and you don’t have to answer to no one.”

Just like Judy and Jamie last episode, the allure of ranching always comes back to the freedom of living close to the great outdoors. Even if it is lonely. The Abeyta’s run cattle too. But Andrew doesn’t like that work as much because he doesn’t get to be in the mountains. We get out of the truck and watch for the sheep to crest the hill.

How long is it gonna take to get all the sheep to get down, the rest of the day?” I ask.

“Yeah, we should be there by this evening.” 

“Really? That was a long drive,” I say. 

“They do move pretty quick. There they are now. Got to open the fence there now. Then they go over the top and then straight down the road.”

The flock doesn’t stop to graze, quiet in their determination to get off the mountain. Once the sheepherder has recharged with a beer and a breakfast burrito, it’s time to get going.

“We better take off. I think them sheep want him to go.” 

“Muchas gracias!” Photographer Ana shouts to Regal on horseback who’s already disappearing into the pines, sheep and goats swirling all around him. 

Again, I feel transported back in time. It’s an iconic image, one that Jim Hoy, the cowboy folklorist we met last time, says hearkens back to an era before the cowboy even existed, back to the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the era of the vaquero.

 

The Beggars Ride

 

“The vaquero is the result of the Spanish conquest,” Jim says. “1529, Cortez brought horses to American continent and what’s now the mainland of Mexico. Actually, Columbus on his second voyage, brought cattle with him. Three different breeds, one of which is Andalucian.  Over the centuries, those breeds developed into the longhorn and the longhorn, of course, is the type of cow that we equated with the cowboy and rightly should.”

Even the name “cowboy” is taken from vaquero. Vaca means cow in Spanish. Jim says, those Spanish conquistadors arrived with extraordinary horse riding skills they’d picked up from their contact with the Moors. But Jim says an interesting transformation happened in who could ride a horse in the Americas.  

“The ruling class, and all those countries over in the Old World, are horsemen and peons weren’t allowed to ride horses in those countries. They could ride a donkey maybe but they couldn’t ride horses. A knight rode a horse, not the surf on the land there,” Jim says. “But in the New World, there’s a saying in Uruguay, ‘In Montevideo, the beggars ride.’ In the New World, we go by, not by birth, but by your abilities. If you’ve got the ingenuity and the ability to catch a wild mustang, you can be a rider.”

These free-spirited horsemen were hired on to bring livestock to a landscape that was totally unlike Europe’s. They were tasked with feeding cattle and sheep on the enormous arid open range of the Americas. 

“If they’re out there covering tens of thousands of – maybe not even acres – of square miles you need something that needs doctoring, need something that needs work, need to brand calves, if you don’t want to have to drive them 50 miles to get them into a pen. So you rope them. That’s how I think the Mexicans vaqueros developed that, out of necessity, that need to rope an animal.”

Roping animals made it possible to keep them on the wide open plains. But not just any rope would do. So they invented the braided-hide lariats. And lots of other equipment we associate with cowboys now too.

 

Cowboy and dog crossing a river

The cowboy adapted most of his techniques and equipment from the vaquero.

 

“The American cowboy adapted the chaps, the style of boots he got from them, the saddle he got from the vaquero, the method of working cattle, rounding up, having round ups in the spring and fall,” says Jim.

Jim says the original rodeo wasn’t a roping contest; it was just a roundup. It came from the Spanish verb rodear, which means to surround. And that ten-gallon hat?

“The wealthy owners wore felt hats that had a hat band adorned with gold pieces, and those gold pieces were galleons, which is where we get the notion of the ten-gallon hat.”

Galleons were Spanish coins. 

They needed pointy boots to go into the stirrups they invented. Leather chaps to protect them from the cactus of the Americas. These amazing innovations of the vaquero were a well-kept Mexican secret until the 1800s when ranch owners in what is now the U.S. became interested in not only Mexican cattle but their cattle handlers as well. These Mexican workers were so good with cattle management, they promoted them to all their ranches – from Montana to California and across the West. Then, after the Civil War, the cattle drive era came along, moving huge herds of cattle over hundreds of miles before there were fences. Hoy says drovers used vaquero techniques and equipment for those drives.

“And estimates are that a third of the 35,000 men and boys who worked as drovers, as cowboys, drovers in those trail drives were Black and about a little under 20 percent were Mexican. They had a large number of Black and vaquero trail drivers,” says Jim. “Now the problem is, of course, that we’ve always thought of the cowboy as white. Any Black on the range was a cook. Mexicans were bandits. I mean, that’s just the terrible stereotypes.”

It was the ultimate whitewashing, taking the very way of life of the vaquero and appropriating it as something new: the cowboy. But Jim says there was a backdoor migration taken by some vaqueros that circumvented the era of the big cattle drives: Catholic missions working their way north to convert and colonize the Indigenous. Some of these missions were genocidal in their approach, killing or subjugating any who resisted. Other missions were an attempt to escape that violence. But Hoy says, both varieties had one thing in common.

“When priests would start a nation, they would bring along with them cattle, sheep, hogs,” says Jim. “They had to have a way to feed the Indians they were converting, who would no longer have a way of making a living in a traditional way, they had to have a way of feeding them and had to have someone to look after the cattle, the sheep.”

 

The Story of the Burro

 

A black and white image of an elderly hand on an organ

Martha Abeyta’s ancestors settled in the San Luis Valley in the mid-1800s.

 

This reminds me right away of a story that Andrew’s mom Martha Abeyta tells me during a tour she gives us of the mission church in her hometown of Antonito in the middle of the San Luis valley of southern Colorado. This church is where she got married to her husband Alfonzo. It’s the story of how her ancestors decided to settle in this spot on the Conejos River.

“So they stopped in Guadalupe to rest,” Martha says. “And when they were getting ready to continue their journey, one of the burros wouldn’t go. And no matter what they did to it, he wouldn’t stand up, the burro wouldn’t stand up. So they emptied all of his packs and everything, and inside one of the packs, they found a little statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And so they took it as a sign that Our Lady of Guadalupe wanted them to build something there in her honor. And once they decided to stay there, then the burro got up and everything was fine.”

 

The oldest church in Colorado is in the San Luis Valley.

The oldest church in Colorado is in the San Luis Valley.

 

And right near where that stubborn donkey sat down, that’s where they built their church, now considered the oldest church in Colorado. Lots of the descendants of that missionary party still live here, still speak the unique heritage style of Spanish. 

But Martha’s ancestors came to what’s now the United States much earlier than that. Martha’s son Aaron is an old friend of mine from college. We struck up a friendship when we realized our poetry had intersecting themes. Back then, I was writing a lot about all the cowboys I’d grow up around – Jake and Jim and Judy and their mystique, the threats to their way of life. And Aaron was writing about that stuff too – but the cultural history he was exploring went back way farther than the pioneer history of North Park where I grew up. Now, Aaron’s published several books of poetry and fiction. 

 

A black and white image of a man in a white shirt with black rimmed glasses

Aaron Abeyta is an award-winning poet and the family historian, not to mention the mayor of his hometown on Antonito.

 

Aaron is also the Abeyta family historian. He says he’s traced Martha’s ancestors back to El Paso in 1598 and to the brutal conquistador Juan de Oňate who destroyed the Acoma Pueblo in 1599. 

“A lot of the people he brought with him were – Onate himself was a Mestizo –  even though he probably didn’t identify with his matriarchal side. But so many of the people that came with him they were not in the registers. They were women and/or slaves, and/or Indigenous. So they weren’t even listed, right?” Aaron says.

He says such violence complicates the reason his ancestors came north. The Abeytas themselves were Mestizo – both colonizers and colonized. 

“My great-great-grandfather came from Picos de Pueblo. He was not Indigenous, but his wife was, it would appear at least on paper, his property. That’s what the record seems to indicate. I mean, without digging any deeper and honestly, that’s the thing, right, is a person has a name, which is then literally stolen from them when they’re given a name that they’ve never even uttered in their life.”

Aaron says, so yeah, the reasons his ancestors migrated north, they weren’t simply in search of converts. 

“The ten-cent word that’s coming to mind is, we all have this longing to be wild, to be free, to find new things, to search, to seek,” says Aaron. “So I think they were looking for themselves, honestly. Think of the way that people were colonized, and the brutality of that colonization. How do you heal that? Maybe you remove yourself from it, looking for a place that’s absent those things.”

 

The Boundaries Moved

 

Aaron takes us out to see the ranch where his family found that solace. In his parent’s driveway, he points out across the valley.

“This is the original homestead. That’s the fence line and it goes all the way along the cliff. Then over here, this little yellow house over here. That’s my grandma and grandpa’s, they’re deceased. And then the property goes all the way down to that far tree line. And both sides of the river.”

We’re here to meet Aaron and Andrew’s father, Alfonzo. Inside the house, we sit down at his dining room table together. Aaron hands out Girl Scout cookies. Alfonzo says there’s now seven generations of his family on this land, all the way back to 1854, only six years after Mexico gave up Colorado in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. 

 

Black and white photo of an older man in a marine hat

Alfonzo in a marine hat: Alfonzo Abeyta’s family has been cultivating this land for seven generations.

 

Alfonzo has a comeback for that old racist trope about ‘go back where you came from.’

“Well, this was Mexico,” Alfonzo says. “So the United States came to us, we didn’t go to them. So we didn’t cross the border illegally. The boundaries moved, then we became the United States.”

When Alfonzo was old enough to inherit the family ranch, he realized something important. If he wanted the ranch to prosper, he needed to be willing to go into debt, something his dad was too conservative to do. He applied for a loan to buy 320 more acres of land but when he went to the bank, “the first time that I went to borrow money to buy this land, I went into the FHA [Federal Housing Administration] office. And I’ll never forget, the man’s name was Downing. And he looked at my application. And the first thing he said was, ‘Son, your people were born to be farmworkers, not farm owners.’ I got out of there, I was so mad but I didn’t do anything. And of course, we went to Denver because we couldn’t buy that 320 acres.”

The Federal Housing Administration wouldn’t loan him the money, they said, because he didn’t have enough work experience, even though he’d been farming his entire life. Their ancestors brought the cowboy way of life to Colorado and now the feds wouldn’t support their efforts to grow their ranch. But determined to get that loan, Alfonzo and Martha moved to Denver.

“And we left here with $13 in our pocket and we weren’t going to get paid for two weeks. I had paid the rent where we were going to stay. We didn’t have any groceries. We lived with no furniture.”

“So you guys have built everything from…” I say. But Alfonzo finishes my sentence.

“From nothing.”

For ten years, Alfonzo worked for a construction supply company to get the experience the bank wanted. Then he went back and reapplied for the loan. They turned him down again, this time on the grounds that he hadn’t been farming for the last ten years! 

Alfonzo and Martha documented this racism over decades, biding their time. Then in 1999, Black farmers successfully sued the federal government over discriminatory lending practices. The next year, Alfonzo and Martha signed up as principal plaintiffs in Garcia vs. Vilsack, a lawsuit brought by Hispanic and women farmers for those same kinds of practices. They even traveled to Washington to make their case to President Obama. Alfonzo stood at a fence to shake the president’s hand and he’d brought something with him.

“I wrote, ‘We need your help’ on a piece of cardboard that I put inside my pocket,” Alfonzo says. “And Martha was all scared because she said, ‘You shouldn’t be taking that in.’ She’s always been a scaredy-cat. But I took it anyway. So when he went and shook my hand, I went and showed him, ‘we need your help.’ But six months later, he instructed the Department of Agriculture to settle with us.”

Of the 39 plaintiffs that participated in the San Luis Valley, 35 of them were successful. Martha did a lot of the research on behalf of her community to make that happen. Alfonzo and Martha got a settlement of $250,000, well short of the $3.3 million that a forensic accountant determined they should have received, especially since it was their ancestors who brought ranching to this country in the first place. 

But still, Alfonzo says it felt like recognition by the government of the hardships they’d endured for generations. 

 

Who’s the Culprit?

 

But Aaron says there’s this other way in which he feels his community is misunderstood. A very vocal environmental movement in Colorado doesn’t like seeing the Abeyta family’s sheep and cattle on public lands at all. Even though their flocks have been grazing here for generations, they feel it’s time to change policies to protect public lands. He tells me this story about how some anti-livestock activists made an example of them.

“Our stock tanks out in the prairie were vandalized and 30,000 gallons of water just spilled out of them,” Aaron says.And then the cows got stuck in the mud and the calves got stuck in the mud. And by the time we got there, a bunch of them had suffocated. 

“And there was this calf that was just barely alive. And I remember my dad walking out in the mud and the shit up to his waist. And he pulls this calf from the mud and the shit of 30,000 gallons of water and Kelechi clay. All these other animals with their eyes picked out by the crows and the ravens and the magpies. And there’s this calf who’s just barely clinging to life, and my dad’s over there giving this calf CPR and its mouth is full of mud and gunk and crap. And he’s literally giving it mouth-to-mouth and pumping on its chest trying to save it. And I’m thinking, if they knew, if they really knew, they wouldn’t have destroyed our stock tanks.”

You’re right, this is a terrible story, I say. But overgrazing is real, water pollution, climate change, those are real effects of too much livestock on the land. Aaron concedes there’s a bad way to ranch.

“There are parcels that are overgrazed, no doubt about it,” he says. “And so who’s the culprit there? Is it the rancher? Is it the fence? Is it the loss of ownership through illegal and brokered and otherwise devious means? Where people have lost their livelihood, but they’re still clinging on to what they do have left? And they don’t have the means to raise their animals? So yeah, things do get overgrazed? Absolutely. No self respecting rancher and/or farmer would intentionally overgraze anything, because they know what it’s doing. So to me, that’s an issue of survival. And the genesis of that survival is likely loss.”

Thinking back to the Abeyta family’s long struggle to get fair bank loans to support their ranch, I can see his point. It’s hard for ranchers to treat the land well when they experience intentional and systemic discrimination. We’ll explore the environmental impacts of ranching in greater detail in future episodes. But from Aaron’s perspective, the land is a member of the family. And the kind of ranching that has been practiced here in his community is unique because of its deep historical roots.

“I think if you were to apply a pronoun to the land, in English, it would be “it,” right? And in Spanish, it would be ella, it would be like a human almost. And one thing my grandpa, I don’t remember when he said it, but I remember he said it, and he was talking about how we need to take care of our property. ‘When you take care of our homestead, take care of the ranch, take care of the land.’ And he goes, ‘que se benefician de ella.’ That always stuck with me. ‘So we benefit from her.’”

 

The Great Individualist photography by Ana Paola Castro-Coupal

This season of The Modern West is sponsored by the LOR Foundation

Music
Blue Dot Sessions