In Carmel by-the-Sea today, we stroll among eclectic shops and quaint cottages.  You can smell the ocean air and hear the waves crashing at high tide.  About the closest you come to the ‘cowboy’ heritage is when you belly up to the bar at Mission Ranch, which is a restored dairy ranch.

Monterey County CowboyBut take a ride with me back in time.  Pull on your cowboy boots, strap on your guitar and saddle up and let’s ride back onto the cattle ranges where so much of our history began.

There Were No Horses in California

After coming to Mexico in 1519, the Spanish settlers established ranches and stocked them with cattle and horses from Spain, beginning on the land that is now Mexico and Florida.  For those of you who thought that ‘Flicka’ and ‘Silver’ horses had always been waiting in the corral, keep in mind that horses had been extinct in America since the end of the ice age.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the Spanish for reintroducing horses to our country.

The Original Horse Whisperers

During the 1700’s Spanish and Mexican vaqueros trained horses and worked livestock ranches.  Vaquero comes from the Spanish ‘vaca’ for ‘cow’.  Vaqueros were skilled horse trainers, often taking years to develop a horse to meet the rigorous demands of life on the range.  If you have seen ‘The Horse Whisperer’, you will have seen an example of the vaquero training style.

Merchants traveling by ship from the east coast to California in the early 1800’s encountered the vaqueros, trading goods for hides and tallow.  This also started the first intermingling of the vaqueros with the English.

Cattle in Carmel

Monterey County Carmel Mission Cattle BrandIn 1832 the Carmel Mission had nearly 2,100 head of cattle roaming the lands, along with 3,300 sheep and more than 400 horses.  They had their own cattle ‘brand’, the MR standing for Monterey.

Carmel Valley Village and Cattle

Just 7 years later, in 1839, the governor gave a large, Mexican land grant to Vicente Martinez and Jose Boronda.  It was called Rancho Los Laureles.  Take a leisurely drive out to Carmel Valley Village and you will be on the land that was once part of this huge rancho. The ranch was 6,625 acres, covered with grazing cattle and wheat fields.  Look around and imagine the rolling hills speckled with cattle and surrounded by golden fields of wheat.

How Did Monterey Jack Cheese Get Its Name

Have you ever purchased Monterey Jack cheese at the grocery store?  If so, you bought a piece of history, as Jose Boronda developed and named Monterey Jack cheese at the ranch.  Today, both Holman Ranch and Los Laureles Lodge claim portions of the original Rancho Los Laureles land.  Los Laureles Lodge is an historic California Inn.  If you’d like to see some amazing historical pictures, visit their website  You can also learn the secret to how Monterey Jack Cheese got its name.  Holman Ranch has an equally fascinating history, which you can read about on their website at

The Great Gold Rush and California Bank Notes

After the Mexican/American War of 1846-1848, more Americans poured into the lands that were once Mexican held.  And the gold rush of 1849 brought even more people to California, which increased the demand for beef.  The Americans adapted to the vaquero style and gradually produced what we now call the ‘cowboy’.   The cattle hides were often called ‘California Bank Notes’ because of their value.

Monterey County Fits in the Sunset Center

Monterey County wasn’t created until 1850, just two years after gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s.  At the time, the population was less than 1,900 people and most of those lived in Monterey.  Imagine filling the Sunset Center theater twice and you just about have the entire population of Monterey County in 1850.  Sadly, by this time, the Carmel Mission was in ruins, the roof collapsed, and the lands overrun.  It wouldn’t be until years later that the Mission was restored – but that’s another story for another time.

Origins of the Rodeo

Monterey County Cattle DriveHave you ever driven up over Pacheco Pass?  Picture the rolling hills surrounding the pass filled with cattle wandering freely.  Then picture the vaqueros riding through the range every Spring and Fall to round up the cattle and brand them or lead them to be butchered.  Because the cattle herds were so large and there weren’t fences to separate them, you can imagine the confusion as vaqueros worked to separate their herds.  Apparently they never had trouble with the young calves, who would go running and bawling after their mothers as the herds were separated.  As early as 1862 there are historical notes that reference women riding with the vaqueros to help with the round ups.  During the Spring branding round up, vaqueros were noted for grabbing cows by their tails and flipping them on their side to be branded.  This feat later became part of the famous rodeos, including the California Rodeo in Salinas.  Read about this fun event at  Did you know that the word ‘rodeo’ comes from the Spanish word ‘rodear’, meaning to round up.

We Love Country Music

Do you love country music?  Its origins began with the vaqueros who sat in front of campfires after a long day, strumming their guitars and singing songs that told stories of their life on the range.  Their Mexican ‘corridos’ are the songs of the vaqueros that have now become American country music.  “Old Time” country music originates from the rhyming couplet style that was often found in cowboy poetry that was accompanied by the guitar.

How Do We Preserve Our ‘Cowboy’ Roots

Monterey County Cowboy FestivalToday we celebrate our ‘cowboy’ roots and help preserve the vaquero traditions at the Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, held annually at the Monterey County Fairgrounds.  The Festival brings the vaquero history to life through music, poetry, storytelling, and dance.  Their goal is to keep the rich cowboy heritage from the original California cowboys alive.

The Cowboy Experience For Our Youth

In addition to the Festival, the organization provides educational programs to teach youth in Monterey County about their western heritage.  Workshops are offered to local schools to introduce the ‘Cowboy Way of Life’.  Fourth grade students can experience a ranch experience where they learn about horseshoeing, saddle making, horse grooming and tack, cattle sorting, carriage driving, roping, chuck wagon cooking, poetry, and music.  Students are encouraged to write their own cowboy poetry and cowboy music that they can present at the open mike time at the Festival.  In addition to teaching about the vaquero culture and history, students explore news ways to read, write, and recite during their cowboy experience.

Celebrate Our Cowboy Heritage

The 18th Annual Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival begins on Friday, November 18th with a Cowboy Happy Hour and runs through the weekend, ending Sunday with the Cowboy Church, which benefits the Salvation Army and two final performances celebrating cowboy history.

Would you like a glimpse into the Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival?  Click here for a wonderful video:

For lots more details about the Festival, please visit their website:

If you want to experience more of the vaquero lifestyle, head on down to the V6 Ranch in Parkfield, where you can participate in a cattle drive.  Or if you’re not that proficient with your lasso, you might prefer trail rides at Holman Ranch, rides along 17 miles drive through the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center, or the Molera Horeback Tours in Big Sur.

And next time you put a slice of that Monterey Jack Cheese on your sandwich, I hope you’ll remember your vaquero roots.  I know we will.

Enjoy our Monterey County ‘Cowboys’ Video and Music below!

Monterey County Cowboys

Do you know the music from this ‘cowboy’ video?

Image of Otter for I Love Carmel California

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