Who were the Ciboleros?
There are a few topics that always show up on bullet-point lists of the History of the American West: Lewis and Clark, the U.S. Cavalry, Native Americans of the Plains, Gold Rushes, Railroads, and Bison. This last topic is almost always presented rhetorically as the punctuation mark at the end of a historical sentence, the tragic climax signifying the “taming” of the West. The extirpation and near extinction of the American Bison herds is a potent symbol of ecological destruction and over-harvesting of a natural resource.
The history of Buffalo in America, however, almost always skips over the hunting traditions in the desert southwest, leaping from pre-Columbian time right to the “ranchers and railroads” phase of North American history. In fact, from the 16th Century through the 19th Century, a class of Spanish, and then Mexican, specialist-hunters developed that strongly influenced colonialism and imperialism in the southwest, the ecological degradation of southern bison herds, and the sociopolitical relationship between native peoples and invading Europeans.
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These hunters were called the Ciboleros (from cíbolo, the common Spanish term for bison), and they are a fascinating piece of Western history.
While we most often picture Bison herds against the backdrop of the verdant grass-sea of the prairie, the highly migratory herds actually stretched down into Texas and New Mexico. Here, they found rich forage and water among the playas of the Llano Estacado, where they were an important resource for populations of Indigenous peoples. These included nomadic southern plains Native Americans as well as more sedentary pueblo-dwelling inhabitants, who would travel considerable distances from their homes in New Mexico and southern Colorado to the modern panhandle region of Texas.
European settlement under the Spanish introduced horses, which shrank the travel times between bison herds and the Pueblos. From these people, Spanish colonists learned how to track, hunt, and process bison, and the animal quickly came to be an important part of the colonists’ diet and economy.
The Spanish, and later Mexican, frontier was a harsh place; arid, hot, and sparsely populated, the colonists had a marginal existence eking out a living on the unforgiving plains. Just as they had for the indigenous people of the region, the buffalo represented a considerable resource in terms of both calories and hides.
However, hunting buffalo required specialized knowledge and strategies, very different from the isolated stalking of deer or antelope more familiar to colonial hunters. In addition to their migratory habits and large herd sizes, individual buffalo are also big, dangerous animals, perfectly capable of killing a man if given the chance.
Early Spanish expeditions had tried to hunt and even capture and domesticate buffalo, without much success. At first, Pueblos had served as middle men, hunting and processing bison and then selling meat and hides to the settlers. Eventually, however, Spanish colonists learned the tricks of the trade from the Native Americans, and were ready to venture out on their own.
By the 17th Century, Cibolero culture had been born.
The Ciboleros dressed in what can only be described as Gaucho fashion, flamboyant, gaudy, and stylish. They often rode their small Spanish ponies bareback so as to avoid entanglement with their gear and tack. The scarcity of firearms on the Frontier meant that the Cibolero hunted with a lance or, less commonly, a bow and arrow.
Travelling in groups of up to 150 men, the Cibolero would chase the stampeding buffalo, spearing the animal in the flanks. When the buffalo stumbled, the Cibolero would leap from his horse, dispatch the wounded animal, then remount and pursue another target. In this way, an individual Cibolero could kill up to 25 animals in a single chase over two or three miles.
Lance of the Cibolero, by Ron Kil
This was, of course, a very dangerous way to hunt, and Ciboleros that survived became very skilled and very famous in their communities. Alternatively, their gruesome deaths at the hooves and horns of enraged, stampeding buffalo were a favorite subject of folk ballads among the settlers.
Ciboleros hunted the bison twice a year, once in October after the harvest, and once in Spring after the planting. A village would generally send a single Cibolero out, and the position was often hereditary, with training and techniques passed down from father to son. When they gathered together, the men would elect a foreman to lead the hunt, and they’d be off, pursuing the herds. They would sometimes be accompanied by helpers, sometimes women, who would skin and help butcher the animals. Meat would be jerked in long thin strips while out in the field, hides taken and cured, and fat and tallow collected. In order to maintain good relations with Native Americans, on whose land they were, after all, hunting, the Ciboleros would bring food and trade goods to exchange.
The Ciboleros got very good at their particular work, eventually providing the majority of the meat used by local people and forts in the area. Additionally, preserved buffalo tongue became something of a delicacy among the bourgeois of Mexico City, and the Ciboleros were happy to supply the luxury to them. Their expertise and knowledge also helped the Comancheros in establishing and expanding their lucrative, long-distance trade networks into the Llano and beyond.
The success of the Ciboleros resulted in expanding populations and trade networks in the region. As the demand grew for more and more buffalo, the hunters took more and more buffalo. By the early 1800s, Ciboleros were reported to have been killing 10,000 to 12,000 buffalo a year, resulting in conflict with the Plains tribes of Native Americans that had originally harvested the herds for their own purposes.
The industrialization of the Cibolero continued apace, however, helped along by market economics as well as by Mexican government policy that sought to remove Native Americans from the Llano. By the mid 1800s, Ciboleros were using huge wagons that could hold the remains of 45 buffalo apiece, allowing for expanded decimation of the herds.
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Eventually, the arrival of white hunters with long range rifles in the 1870s brought about the end of the buffalo. By the 1880s, the total population of bison in North America had been reduced to a few hundred individuals; these two would be quickly shot, and by 1890, wild bison were extinct. A small population of five individuals would, eventually, form the core of the reintroduction of bison into North America, but for all intents and purposes, the Bison was extinct from the landscape.
The Ciboleros are an important part of the history of the Southwest, presenting an interesting story of the exchange of ideas and expertise from native people to settlers in the earliest days of Spanish colonization in the region. They revolutionized the economics and resource extraction policies in the region, and were one of the main drivers of changing population and trade from the 16th through the 18th Century.
They also played an important part in restricting the ecological framework of the American plains, a job finished with the introduction of truly industrial-scale hunting under the control of American settlers.
H/T Texas State Historical Association, H. Allen Anderson, “CIBOLEROS,” Handbook of Texas Online.
Kenner, Charles L. A History of New Mexican Plains Indian Relations. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.