The Uruguay gaucho and his Argentine counterpart have a history that historians can document all the way back to the middle of the 1700s. These cowhands played a useful role in the expansion of Uruguay settlements.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there were many colorful gauchos who lived a nomadic existence in this South American country. The men would drive and herd cattle across the land and when their job was done they would simply move on to another ranch and another adventure.
Much like the cowboy legends in the United States much of the lore and mystique of the gaucho has attained an almost cult like status.
Everyone needs a hero and the gaucho has long been a folk hero in South America. This common term was used when people referred to the men who worked with cattle in Uruguay and Argentina.
However this term was also used to refer to individuals who lived in Rio Grade do Sul, Brazil as well as those who resided in the Pantagonian grasslands, the chacos or the South American pampas. In Argentina you might even hear this word gaucho used when someone is referring to an Argentine chimichurri, or steak sauce.
Gauchos were very often men of mixed ancestry. Some of the gauchos were known as mestizos because they had both European and Indian ancestors. Others were called mulattos because they were descended from both black and white ancestors.
There were of course a number of these men who were Spanish, European or African by birth, yet the term gaucho encompassed them all.
The Uruguay gaucho has held an important and symbolic role in the hearts of the people of Uruguay. To many of fervent nationalists the independent and loyal gaucho is the one symbol that sums up how they view themselves.
These range riding, cowboys are perceived as having the freedom and courage to make their way through life by holding fast to their own ideals and beliefs. To many people of Uruguay and Argentina, these horseback riding men are their heroes. The gaucho has frequently been used by writers to give a human face to the fight against corruption.
The Uruguay gaucho, the North American cowboys and the Latin American vaqueros all owe much of their popularity to the ballads, stories and legends that have been created. The gaucho counterpart exists in many countries; in Mexico you may hear the term charro, in Chile the term used is huaso and in Venezula these men are known as llaneros.
Although these are still common words used to describe men who work on cattle ranches these terms reached their height of popularity during the 1800s.
No one is quite certain when the word gaucho actually came into existence. It was first recorded during 1816 when Argentina declared its independence as a nation. The word is believed to have been derived from cauchu which means vagabond or perhaps it is a derivative of the word huauchu which means orphan. Either of these words would fit in well with the history of the transient, and often solitary, lifestyle of many early gauchos.
The first herds of beef cattle were introduced into the Pampas during the late 16th century.
These cows were brought from Paraguay by the explorer Juan de Garav. By the 1700s there were men known as gauderios who were known to make their living by hunting and herding the wild cattle that had begun to roam the countryside.
It was in the late 1700s that cattle ranching began to achieve commercial status and this was when the first Uruguay gaucho was officially recognized.
Uruguay honors these men with an annual gaucho festival which is a very popular event. Many people take part in the festivities and there are a number of contests involving cattle roping and horseback riding.
The gauchos have also been responsible for popularizing clothing such as gaucho pants, hats, berets and ponchos.