Los ciboleros: New Mexican buffalo hunters

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This illustration of buffalo hunting in the 17th century comes from the Texas State Historical Association and Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia on the internet, as well as stories and songs handed down through generations.

Before the Spaniards came to New Mexico, the Pueblo Indians would take trips to the plains of what is now the eastern portion New Mexico, the western part of Texas and even Kansas and Nebraska to hunt buffalo. Native Americans did not have horses until the Spaniards arrived. Native American hunters would cover themselves with hides and sneak up on a stray buffalo and, once close enough, they’d kill or wound the animal. If wounded, it could be tracked down.

When the Spaniards came in the 17th century with horses and other domesticated animals not native to the Americas, most of the Spanish settlements were near Native American communities, mostly along the Río Grande. The Spaniards used horses to hunt buffalo.

Families would unite to make the trip, usually once a year in the fall after the harvests were in. Sometimes, up to 150 people would go with their carts, horses and supplies to supplement their need for food and buffalo hides for manufacturing of saddles, harnesses and other leather products for the Santa Fe-Chihuahua trade.

The hunter-travelers were ciboleros (from cíbolo, Spanish for buffalo).

The cibolero who killed the bison was brave, strong, a good horseman and probably young. The cibolero would gallop his horse alongside the buffalo and kill the animal with a lance, maybe stabbing it between the shoulder blades the way it is done in the ring of a bull fight or on the side in the heart area.

Women and children would cut meat for drying and prepare the hides for tanning. When the carts were full, the families would return to their homes in Pecos, Santa Fe, Española, Abiquiú, Taos or whatever communities they were from.

This tradition continued until around 1870, when the Americans slaughtered most of the bison in the plains to subdue the Native Americans by destroying their food source.

Ciboleros are still remembered in New Mexican folk songs, cultural events and stories. 

The Spanish version of this story can be found here.

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