As horses and cattle escaped from the first Spanish settlers, they quickly populated the fertile pampas region. From these undomesticated resources, emerged the gaucho. Relying on the horses for transportation and the cattle and wildlife for food and clothing, he wandered the vast expanses of the region working for the estancieros when the mood struck him and regularly participating in the contraband trade.
The gaucho resided outside the regions growing urban centers and farming settlements. He developed a strong sense of identity and code of conduct, traveling when and where he wanted. He willingly shared his food and lodgings with fellow travelers. When not working, he spent his time drinking maté or alcohol, card playing, and fighting.
The gaucho was the ideal soldier during the wars of independence and the civil wars that followed. This skilled rider could survive off the land, knew the terrain intimately, and was a brave warrior. When Spanish forces threatened northwest Argentina, Martín Güemes gaucho army harrassed and slowed the Spanish advances. The caudillos rise in the Argentine interior derived from his ability to control the gaucho militia.
The life of the gaucho became increasingly difficult during the nineteenth century, as anti-vagrancy and passport requirement laws used to round up workers for the estancieros and soldiers for the Argentine army forced the gaucho further into the interior. Extensive portions of the pampas were settled, leaving less room for the gaucho to roam with his ponies and the wild herds of cattle he lived upon. At times, he escaped to Indian territory where he could live outside the Argentine laws.
The gaucho has come to mean many things to Latin America. He is the romantic image of the past, representing freedom from colonial control and from the urban encumbrances that have come to define the Latin American experience. He could live off of the land with no need for civilization, only his horse, knife and lasso. Not unlike the American cowboy, the gaucho has become idealized and the stuff of myth. No one did so much to create that myth than José Hernandez with his poem Martin Fierro (shown here in the case), one of the finest and best-known pieces of Latin American literature.