Gauchos lived off cattle and carried all of their worldy posessions on horses.

Gauchos were solitary men, independent nomads whose social status in Argentina evolved over three centuries from semisavage half-breeds to displaced outlaws to freedom fighters to common ranch hands to national symbols of honor, bravery and self-reliance.

The first gauchos were sons of the pioneers, mostly Andalusian, who settled the coastal region of Argentina in the mid-16th century. Unlike the Pilgrims these settlers came to the New World without their women, and intermarriage--or, at the least, intermingling--with the natives was common. The resulting mestizos, mixed bloods, were the earliest gauchos, a name believed to be derived from the Indian word huacho, meaning orphan. They were part of neither the white man's world nor the Indians'. "My joy is to live as free/as the bird in the sky;/I make no nest on this earth," Jose Hernandez wrote in his 1872 epic poem, The Gaucho Martin Fierro, the definitive work on the subject.

From their Indian forebears the gauchos were said to have inherited their love of freedom, disdain for civilization and disregard for law and order. From the Andalusians, who were part Arab, they inherited nomadic tendencies and unparalleled horsemanship. From the Spanish they inherited passion, superstition and a love of poetry and music. It was a rich and tempestuous stew.

The pampas on which the early gauchos roamed were populated by vast herds of horses and cattle, wild descendants of livestock that had escaped from the earliest Spanish settlements. Since the pampas were largely free of predators, except Indians, these wild herds were as abundant as the vast buffalo herds of the North American frontier and afforded the gauchos their way of life. The horses were caught, broken and used to run down the cattle on the open range--gauchos were foragers, not cattlemen. The cows were butchered for sustenance, not for sale. There was no refrigeration, of course, and salt for curing meat was expensive, so the only commercial value of a cow was in its hide and tallow. The gauchos would trade these for rum, tobacco and mate, the herbal tea to which they were addicted. Those pleasures, his horse and his freedom were all he asked for in life.



"The gaucho has no luxuries; but the great feature of his character is that he is a person without wants," English mining adventurer Francis Bond Head, author of the 1828 travel volume Rough Notes, wrote, "If he has got a good saddle and sharp spurs, he does not consider that money has much value.... [Still], I made it a rule never to be an instant without my [fire]arms, and to cock both barrels of my gun whenever I met any gauchos.... [They] were often perceived as being as wild as Indians, and just as interesting."

The gaucho was thought of as a sort of centaur. So seldom would he dismount that he stood severely bowlegged and had a crabbed gait. He even bathed while mounted. The tips of his boots were open so he could grip long pieces of knotted rawhide--which served as stirrups--between his toes.

A gaucho carried all his worldly possessions with him as he rode. His saddle was sheepskin and cloth laid over a leather-covered frame, and it doubled as his bedroll. He had no pockets in his baggy pants, so he wore a thick leather belt that supported his back as he rode and was adorned with silver coins. His woolen poncho was used as a raincoat by day, a blanket by night, and, during knife fights, as a shield when wrapped around his forearm.

The gaucho's most prized possession, though, was his knife, or facon. "The facon was the gaucho's third arm," says Charles Balbe, who is called the English Gaucho by friends because his grandfather emigrated from Scotland. "He used it for finely chopping tobacco for his cigarettes, for eating, for cleaning his horse's hooves and for ending a conversation. He didn't approve of firearms. He only loved his knife, and in a duel he wouldn't try to kill you. He'd try to cut you to leave a scar. That way every time you saw the scar, you'd remember how you'd been bested. You'd respect him."

Knife fights between gauchos might break out at the slightest offense when liquor was flowing. "A dispute easily arises about a hand of cards or the heart of a woman, and a sharp word is too often answered by a sharp knife," wrote T.W. Hinchliff in 1863 in South American Sketches.

In his book Far Away and Long Ago (1918) Argentine naturalist William Henry Hudson wrote that gauchos "loved to kill a man, not with a bullet, but in a manner to make them know and feel that they were really and truly killing."

"They liked to see blood," says Balbe. "They wouldn't hang a horse thief, as they did in the American West. They'd slit his throat without blinking an eye. They liked the color red."

The bola was the gaucho's other weapon of choice, though it was primarily employed to capture game. An Indian invention, the bola was fashioned of three billiard-ball-sized rocks or iron balls that were covered in leather and attached to long lengths of rawhide. Holding the middle ball, the gaucho would swing the bola over his head, lasso-style, and fling it at the legs of his prey. It would enwrap them as neat as you please. In this manner he could bring down rheas--small, ostrichlike birds--cattle or horses. If the horse happened to have a man on its back, that man was in trouble, which is why gauchos used to train their mounts to run with their hind legs tied together. They also took pride in being able to land on their feet if their horses took a header. Indians galloped from pursuers with their lances pointing backward to deflect a bola's flight.