A quick examination of historical sources reveals that it wasn’t for the faint of heart. While Apache and Comanche raids posed a regular threat, danger also came in the form of the cattle, themselves.
According to author Jack Jackson (Los Mesteños, 1986), Spanish Colonial ranchers used the word mesteño (mustang) to describe both wild cattle and horses. The Spanish viewed hunting of mesteño cattle as a sport, and between this activity and predation by wild animals, the slower and less wily animals were weeded out, leaving the most intelligent and fleet-footed to propagate.
After approximately 250 years of this winnowing, the result was an extremely alert, intelligent, and dangerous animal physically and mentally suited to the harsh living conditions of South Texas. Ultimately, on the vast range lands of Mission Espíritu Santo, these cattle developed into the Texas longhorn.
One only has to read accounts presented in J. Frank Dobie’s “The Longhorns” to understand how dangerous these animals could be.
In a first-person account dated to 1850, “...an army officer dashed up on a fine American horse and fired his pistol at the bull. Instantly the brute wheeled to attack. ... The big American horse, too slow in turning, was met full in the side by the bull’s horns. Both horse and rider were lifted for one instant into the air, and then came down in a heap together. The horse was dead without a struggle, one horn being completely through his body, the other caught in the bones of the chest.” (Dobie 1980:15)
Another account Dobie attributes to Colonel Philip Saint George Cook, concerns an 1846 encounter between the military and wild cattle that took place in Arizona.
“I had to direct the men to load their muskets to defend themselves. The animals attacked in some instances without provocation ... one ran on a man, caught him in the thigh, and threw him clear over his body lengthwise; then it charged on a team, ran its head into the first mule and tore out the entrails of the one beyond.
“Another ran against a sergeant, who escaped with severe bruises, as the horns passed at each side of him; one ran at a horse tied behind a wagon, and as it escaped, the bull struck the wagon with a momentum that forced the hind part of it out of the road. I saw one rush at some pack mules and kill one of them.” (Dobie 1980:16).
And finally, Dobie himself said “In many ways … these cattle were more like deer than buffaloes - quick, uneasy, restless, constantly on the lookout for danger, snuffing the air, and moving with a light, elastic step. In their sense of smell they were fully the equal of deer. A wounded bull has been known to hunt for his enemy by scent, trailing him on the ground like a bear.” (Dobie 1980:23)
After reading historical accounts like these, it becomes clear just how difficult life was for early Texas cattle wranglers. Whether mission Indian, Mexican vaquero, or Texas cowboy, the people who chose this way of life dealt with danger every day of their lives. After all, death could come at any time - whether from the tip of an arrow, a blast from a gun, or the point of a horn.
No wonder we, their descendants, have such a reputation for grit. It seems we inherited it.