The story of the beginnings of New Mexico’s livestock industry is preserved in long-buried Spanish documents, found scattered in the state’s rich archives. It forms an important chapter in the region’s history of economic development.
Explorer Coronado brought the initial small herd of cattle to the upper Rio Grande in 1540. But those animals were intended as “a walking commissary,” that is, they were used as food by soldiers of the expedition.
Another herd came with the first permanent settlers, who arrived at the end of the 16th century. These “seed” cattle survived and became the foundation of New Mexico’s stock raising industry.
Soon large ranching operations, called estancias, were flourishing upon pasturelands bracketing the river. They ran, about equally, both ganado mayor (cattle and horses), and ganado menor (sheep and goats).
The colonial New Mexicans raised two recognizable breeds of cattle. The most numerous was the Criollo, a native American type that had emerged with the mixing of original breeds from Spain.
Many Criollos had hair of solid colors, particularly Jersey tan and red. But spotted or piebald coats, most often black-and-white, were common, too.
Strangely, southern Plains Indians, living adjacent to New Mexico, held European bovines sacred, in the same manner as buffalo. Therefore, it is not surprising that they painted spotted Spanish cattle on their shields and tepees.
The second early breed introduced on the Rio Grande was the Black Andalusian, native to southern Spain but probably with roots in Africa. Some of these dark cattle escaped to the wild. The Hopi Indians were said to own a herd of Andalusian purebreds as late as 1782.
Soon after that, however, the breed disappeared from the Southwest. It had been hugely outnumbered by the Criollos, which absorbed its blood.
Interestingly, New Mexico’s cattle population as a whole declined drastically in the later colonial years. It was replaced by booming sheep production.
So, why did the New Mexicans abandon their cows and become wool-raisers? Nothing like that happened in neighboring Spanish provinces.
On the cactus flats of south Texas, the tough longhorn cattle thrived in the face of thorns and predators. That was no country for sheep.
Spanish California, on the other hand, had a benign environment, suitable for either animal. But the Franciscan missionaries chose to raise cattle, which easily multiplied by the tens of thousands.
Several reasons exist to explain why New Mexico went with sheep. One is that the hostile Indians in their raids preferred to steal cattle, since they were easy to drive long distances.
Only the Navajos were interested in sheep, and while they stole large numbers to build up their own flocks, the thefts put only a small dent in the total held by New Mexicans.
At the first sign of Indian attack, the native shepherds had instructions to scatter the flock. Raiders, always in a hurry, would gather what they could and ride on.
When the owner came, he might find his shepherds dead, but he could send the dogs out to seek and round up what was left of his sheep. Had they been cattle, he would have suffered a total loss.
Another factor favoring sheep: By the 1700s the majority of New Mexicans lived, not on grand estancias, but on small subsistence farms. Their fields were unfenced and it was fairly simple to keep sheep away from the crops, since shepherds were with them all the time.
Cattle, however, were usually turned out to fend for themselves and they had a long history of getting into the farmer’s plot and eating up his winter supply of grain. For that reason, many rural folk preferred keeping sheep.
An exception, however, had to be made for draft cattle. Every family needed a team of oxen to pull the plow and also the cart used to get the crops out of the field.
New American breeds of beef cattle and oxen flooded into New Mexico after 1850. By the end of the century, the local strain of the Criollo was gone from the upper Rio Grande, marking the end of a romantic chapter in our ranching history.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.