This was the name given to the horsemen who worked on the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas from the middle of the 18th century until the late 19th century, having a similar image in Latin America as the cowboys have in North America. The term is sometimes also applied to horsemen in Chilean Patagonia, in southern Paraguay, and in Brazil, where the Portuguese term gaúcho is used.
There are many theories about the origin of the word gaucho. It was first used around the time of the independence of Argentina in 1816, and some claim it is a corruption of the term quechua, or huachu, meaning “orphan” or “vagabond”. Others say it derives from the Arabic word chaucho, which is a Middle Eastern term for a type of whip used in herding animals.
The Spanish introduced cattle into Argentina in 1531 when they established the first settlement at Buenos Aires. Five years later Indians destroyed the fort, and it was not until 1580 that the Spanish reestablished a presence at Buenos Aires. By that time, cattle that had escaped nearly 50 years earlier had bred and started to form large herds in the pampas.
Horsemen rounded up the cattle, and by the early 18th century an important beef and leather industry was flourishing. The ability to salt beef and, by the mid-19th century, to refrigerate it ensured that the Argentine and Uruguayan economy would be dominated by the beef industry.
The men who rounded up the cattle and wild horses were well known for their skills of horsemanship and their ability to live in the pampas and in Patagonia, in southern Argentina, and Chile.
They gained a reputation for being fearless and tough, but also for maintaining feuds and being cruel in fighting. Unlike the North American cowboy who tended to be of Spanish or British stock, the gauchos came from a variety of backgrounds.
Some were of Spanish descent, but most were mestizos (of mixed European and Indian descent). There were also numbers of black—descendants of African slaves brought to the Americas—and mulattos (of mixed black and European ancestry).
As with the North American cowboys, gauchos rode and fought prodigiously. They used the lasso, the curved knife, and also the boledoras (or bolas). This last weapon was a leather cord that had three iron or stone balls sewn into it.
It was thrown at the legs of an animal and, entwining itself quickly, would bring the creature to the ground. Gauchos also had a characteristic dress—with a broad sombrero, a shirt, wide trousers known as bombachas, tied at the ankles, and tight-fitting leather boots.
In cold weather they would wear a woolen poncho that was either a quiet sandy color or very brightly colored wool. During the 1850s, many gauchos in Entre Ríos wore red to show their support for their local leader, Urquiza. On his saddle a gaucho would often carry a rolled blanket.
When not riding with the cattle, gauchos lived in small mud huts, where families slept on piles of hides. Most were nominally Roman Catholic, although their religious beliefs tended to include local superstitions.
As with their North American counterparts, they would spend much of their spare time drinking, gambling, playing the guitar (or later the accordion), and singing about their exploits or those of other gauchos. They generally ate beef and drank yerba maté, a local herbal drink consumed communally.
During the 1820s much of the land of Argentina was taken over by a small number of pastoralists and speculators who formed massive estancias. This resulted in the gauchos becoming employees of these cattle barons, to whom they were unswervingly loyal.
A few of these men became caudillos or warlords controlling provinces and influencing national politics in both Uruguay and Argentina. During the fighting between the Unitarists (based in Buenos Aires and believing in a strongly centralized government) and the Federalists (who wanted regional autonomy), the gauchos supported the latter.
Led by men like Urquiza, they earned a reputation for being fearless in battle and utterly ruthless to their opponents, especially after the massacres that followed the capture of Quinteros in 1858.
Gradually, the regional leaders began to lose their influence, and the murder of Urquiza in 1870 marked the end of the political influence of the gauchos. The importance of the railways that began to cover much of northern and central Argentina also helped erode their economic power.
Some were able to continue as farmhands, while others moved to the cities. In Uruguay, the role of the gaucho in politics had ended five years earlier than in Argentina with the end of the cycle of wars for control of the country.
However, they remained an important part of Uruguayan life into the 20th century. In both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, gauchos remained until the early 20th century, but never as the political or military force they had been farther north.
Many people had a long-time fascination with gauchos, and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, in Facundo (1845), subtitled Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or, Civilization and Barbarism, wrote one of the few detailed accounts about gauchos when they were at the height of their political power.
As with the North American cowboys, it was just as the gauchos began to lose their importance that books on them started to be published. La literatura gauchesca became popular with Estanislao del Campo’s epic Fausto (1866) and José Hernández’s epic poem El gaucho Martín Fierro (1872).
Some gaucho ballads and folk stories were also recorded and published, and in Uruguay books by Javier de Viana and Carlos Reyes became popular. One of the most famous novels was Ricardo Güiraldes’ Don Segundo Sombra (1926).
There are still many traces of gauchos in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chilean Patagonia, and gaucho-style leatherwork can be seen in all three countries, as well as in southern Paraguay and parts of Brazil.
In Calle Florida in Buenos Aires, expensive restaurants specializing in beef have people dressed as traditional gauchos, and the Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda (Museum of Gauchos and Money) in Montevideo is popular with many tourists. There are also some estancias in Argentina and Uruguay that allow tourists to experience a small part of the gaucho life and culture.