INTERVIEW: John Grafton, Cowboy, Vaquero, Craftsman, Docent

John Grafton

John Grafton is a docent at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park

John Grafton is a docent at the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, where he has a special interest in the history of California horse culture.  He also uses an unusual, hands-on style to explore the past. We interviewed Mr. Grafton to find out more about his background, his workshop approach to history, and how he views horses and tack of the early American West.  We also asked him about historical inaccuracies in Hollywood Westerns.

While visiting San Juan Bautista, I’ve heard you referred to as “The Canadian Cowboy.”  Could you tell us a little about your background?

I was born in Boise, Idaho to cattle-ranching parents who ran cattle in Oregon in the Jordan Valley area. We moved up to the central interior area of British Columbia, Canada, where my parents continued to raise cattle.  I worked for various cattle companies in B.C. until I joined the Peace Corps, and was sent down to Ecuador, South America, where I worked in large animal production for nearly four years.  Upon returning to North America I followed a career in law enforcement in Sacramento, CA, where I became a docent at CA State Parks Historic Site of Sutter’s Fort.  Staff and docents there encouraged me to do Californio interpretation because of my background in cattle ranching, and experience in Latin American culture.  I retired from law enforcement, and went on to travel, and stay for periods of time, in Mexico, primarily with the rancheros of lower Baja California.  I moved to Monterey County where I now live, and continue to work at various historic sites.

You are also referred to as a “vaquero.”  What is the difference between a “vaquero” and a “cowboy”?  Is “vaquero” the Spanish equivalent for “cowboy,” or does it refer to a person of a specific horse culture?

“Cowboy” seems to be a term that came into wide use beginning with the Texas trail drives of the 1870′s. Before that, western cattle ranch workers were known as “vaqueros” due to the Hispanic influence on ranching culture. Ranch workers west of the Rockies have continued to be called “buckaroos,” which seems to be a term derived from the Spanish word “vaquero.”  “Vaquero” in Spanish simply means anyone who works with cattle, regardless of whether they ride horses or not.  If one rides horses but doesn’t work cattle, he would probably not be termed a “vaquero” by a Spanish-speaker.

Charro saddle

National Charro Champion of Mexico, Juan Zermeño Torres, prepares to saddle up

What about the Mexican “charro,” and charro tack?  The charro saddle has a HUGE horn and a high back.  Is this just a question of style, or do these elements serve specific purposes?  Has the charro played a significant role in the horse history of California?

The “charro” culture seems to have appeared in central Mexico beginning in the 1860′s, and it appears to have been a major change which didn’t make its way to California until modern times, so it probably shouldn’t be confused with early California horsemanship and culture. The large horn (“cabeza”) of the charro saddle makes it easier to hold the reata when wrapped around the horn.  However, I suspect that when charro saddle horns get too huge for practicality, style might be more of a factor than practicality.

Today you are a docent at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.  Do you also work at Mission San Juan Bautista?

The SJB State Park Historic Site is adjacent to the Mission, and has great shop space, so I do much of the work there. We do what work we can on site at the Mission though, and we are looking forward to doing an increasing amount there as time goes on.

How did you become interested in horses, horsemanship, and horse tack of California’s Spanish and Mexican periods?

I was originally recruited to do blacksmithing at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, but after being encouraged to focus on Californio stuff, I found that even though the Californios had a major impact on American culture, they are little understood.  There is much to be discovered about them, and they were a very colorful and fascinating people.

Many people in California are familiar with the Western saddle used by ranchers as well as show riders and rodeo  competitors, not to mention trail riders.  What are the most distinctive features of the Western saddle, and how did it come to be so popular in the American West?

I think that the most distinctive feature of the Western saddle is the rawhide covered “tree” or framework that is the heart of the saddle.

western saddle

A western saddle, designed for roping and moving livestock over large areas

This was a revolutionary feature which seems to have appeared somewhere at some time in colonial Mexico, and it enabled the vaquero to raise enormous quantities of cattle over huge expanses of unfenced, open range.  This feature gave the saddle great strength and durability, and provided the vaquero with a working platform that could transport him far and wide, and allow him to capture livestock with the reata.

When did horses first arrive in California? What were the circumstances?

It is generally believed that the first horses came into Alta California in the 1760′s with the Portola/Serra expedition.  However, horses were first introduced by the Spanish into what is now the American Southwest in the 1500′s, and rapidly spread across the Great Plains, up into Canada, and into the Pacific Northwest.  So it seems highly likely to me that over a two hundred year period before the 1760′s, horses would have appeared from time to time in California.  It would seem that the California Indians might not have readily taken to horses, possibly because they were not very nomadic, so rather than ride and raise horses, they may have preferred to eat them.

Stables at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park

The old stables at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, where John Grafton uses a workshop and forge to create horse tack inspired by artifacts from early California

Were the earliest horses in California different from the ones we see in the state today?  What are some of the key differences?

The first early California horses were probably smaller than the average horse of today with more durable feet. They were a product of harsh desert conditions beginning in North Africa and later in Baja California, so they were very hardy, tough animals that could subsist on very sparse, natural feed. Many were “gaited,” or had that fast, smooth, and very efficient “running” walk. The Californios seem to have gotten along just fine without ever shoeing their horses.

We’re interested in facts about Indians and horses during California’s Mission Era.  Were Indians forbidden to ride horses?  And if so, were there exceptions?

Mission Indians in California did ride horses, probably with much encouragement from the Mission Padres. I suspect that the Padres, who tended to not get along very well with the Spanish soldiers and colonists, did everything that they could to maximize Indian participation in the Missions, and minimize non-religious Spanish influence. And since cattle ended up being the major product of the Missions, that meant that Mission Indians would have been encouraged to ride horses to tend to the cattle.  There was a law in “Nueva España,” or New Spain, forbidding Indians from riding horses, probably because of the very real threat that mounted Indians would pose to each other and to Spanish colonists. However, as Indians became Hispanisized they would no longer be considered Indians, even though they might have pure Indian ancestry. It seems like people were mostly categorized as “gentiles” (i.e. “tribal”) or “gente de razón” (i.e. “civilized”) without much value given to race.

Often when we see paintings or drawings of Indians on horseback in the early West, they are not using saddles, but are rather riding bareback.  What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of riding without a saddle and stirrups?  

I’m not sure if any Indians rode bareback for any reason other than the lack of a saddle (maybe?). I know that the Californios did when they were horse racing, or running wild horses. Also, I have seen Baja vaqueros riding broncs bareback, throwing the horse down to the ground when it tried to bolt or buck, and that may have been done in Alta California as well. I imagine though that no one would choose to ride bareback for any significant distance since it would not be very good for the horse or rider.

Mexican spurs

Spurs from the Colonial Spanish era in Mexico


What about spurs?  Some spurs look especially sharp and menacing.  Are horses hurt when riders use them?  Did riders of the Spanish and Mexican era use spurs in California?  Did Indians use them then as well?

There seems to be much misunderstanding about spurs, particularly on the part of some Anglos in their attitudes towards Hispanic peoples. The “Black Legend” still seems to be with us to some extent, and big Hispanic-style spurs seem to be emblematic in the minds of some people of “Spanish cruelty” used to hurt horses to “make them go faster.” 

spurs on young boy

A young boy wears spurs made for small-sized footwear

The truth of course is that spurs are just another medium for the rider to communicate with the horse in a variety of ways, and they are no more cruel than the person using them. Superb riders wear spurs, and superb horses are ridden with spurs. 

large rowels

Very large rowels on a pair of fancy Chilean spurs

It is interesting to think though of the mechanics of a large spur with large, down-turned rowel (ie. the Californio vaquero spur), and its effect on the horse. The large rowel dissipates the force of the spur, roles over the skin of the horse rather than digging in, and the long, down-turned shank prevents a direct, forceful blow from the spur.  The Californios seem to have almost always ridden with spurs that they would put on and take off each time they got on and off their horse, probably because they were too big to walk in. Their spur straps generally didn’t have buckles, but instead slipped easily over the buttons on their spurs, so the spurs went on and off quickly and easily.The presence of pieces of spurs recovered archeologically from California Mission sites would seem to suggest that Mission Indians at least wore spurs.

I visited an exhibit about the history of the high-heeled shoe.  Its curators proposed that the heel was introduced into medieval Europe along with stirrups, which were invented in Asia and only discovered by Europeans when the Christian Crusades brought Europeans into contact with Asian horsemen.  The argument was that the heel prevented the horseman’s boots from slipping through the stirrups, and that it was only much later that men who did not ride horses, and women, began in western Europe to wear shoes that had heels.  The exhibit claimed that even ladies’ super high-heel shoes, including stilettos, evolved from the horseman’s healed boot.  Is any of this relevant to the use of heeled boots, stirrups, and horses in California’s history?  Were boots with heals considered a status symbol of some kind in the Spanish or Mexican era?  Did any women wear healed shoes or boots at that time?

high heel shoe

"Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe," a traveling exhibit from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto

I would tend to think that the wearing of high heels might not have necessarily come from horsemen. The Californios rode with shoes that had low, flat heels, and I don’t think that the women ever wore high heels. And, I think that if one looks at the various horse cultures from around the world, you wouldn’t find a predominance of high heels among them.  So, my guess is that high heels were really just a fashion thing that might not have ever had much to do with riding.  The high-heeled cowboy boot really didn’t come into being until the 1870′s, and they weren’t invented in California.

Again about this exhibit.  (And, by the way, it was from the collection of  the Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto, the largest shoe collection in the world!)  There was an early pair of Persian horseman “shoes” with heals, from the High Middle Ages.  These medieval “boots” were decorated with beautiful embroidered patterns of the kind one sees today on cowboy boots, and on cowboy shirts.  Is it possible that the elaborate, squiggly forms used for cowboy boots of the American West could be traced back to ancient Persian patterns?

Western boot

A cowboy boot, with its heel and elaborate stitched designs

My theory is that the elaborate decoration on cowboy boots comes from the very ornate “botas” (leggings) typically worn by North American Hispanic people during colonial and rancho periods.

 The Mexican War of Independence began in 1810 and continued through 1821, when Mexico (which then included California) gained independence from Spain.  Did this momentous shift in power relations result in any visible impact on horse culture in California?

I don’t believe that the Mexican War of Independence from Spain had much impact on horse culture in California, though I think that it did on mainland Mexico.  It seems that mainland Mexican horse culture changed after Independence, but Californio horse culture remained much the same, and was very similar to pre-independence Mexican horse culture.

Apart from studying the history of horses and horse tack, you also make tack using original methods and historically accurate materials, whether of leather, metal, or wood.  How did you learn these crafts?

I learned horse tack craft starting as a child growing up on cattle ranches where we were always repairing gear.  I subsequently had the opportunity to travel and stay in villages in central Mexico where local craftsmen generously shared their knowledge with me. I went on to live and work in Ecuador for nearly four years where I was once again able to learn from village craftsmen. I have of late been going to lower Baja California where I found the first and last of the original Californios, and they have been a tremendous resource for learning about the construction and use of Californio horse tack. I have never made horse gear professionally, however.

What are you able to learn about the past by making things with your own hands?

Working the leather of spur straps

Swiss-born saddle maker and cowgirl Lena Serrano adds decorative touches to a pair of leather spur straps

I think that by making things with my own hands I am able to become aware of details that I would tend not to discover just by looking at something.  Also, I think that it gives me a greater awareness of the aesthetics, environment, and spirit of the culture from which the things come.

Could you describe the steps involved in making a new piece of  historic tack?  Say a bridle, saddle, or spurs?  Do you start with library research?  Or are you more inspired by something you can see and touch?

It is always inspirational to be able to see or touch an artifact, but I think that research is very important as well. I believe that much can be learned by going over period accounts (and “reading between the lines” of period writing), and by considering and sharing information and opinions with other interested people, and people who might still be living within remnants of the culture.

I usually don’t try to exactly copy a specific artifact, but instead try to gather enough knowledge and sentiment to be inspired to produce something that would have been true to the times and culture had I lived it.

What do you most enjoy about crafting materials using the old-school approach?  Which phase of the work is most engaging for you personally?

I think that I most enjoy the sense of discovery of past and somewhat lost times that following “old-school” craftsmanship provides me, as well the people with whom I come in contact.  Sometimes the work involved in doing something “old-school” can be bit long and tedious, but when something interesting and appealing is created, it can be a nice sense of accomplishment.

Docent John Grafton

John Grafton leads young visitors on a tour

Would you share with our Trail Blog readers a few things you’ve learned and found most interesting about the history of horses, riders, and their gear in the period before 1850, when California joined the United States?

I believe that one of the more interesting things that I have found about riders, horses, and gear in the period before 1850 is how much that period influences our present ranch and western culture. Western Americana did not start with the Texas trail drives, but instead evolved much from Mission/Colonial and rancho period California. Large scale cattle ranching was going on in California long before the Texas trail drives, and was every bit as colorful as anything that went on with the Texans.

Also, I think that it is interesting to see how on the surface things have changed over time, but at their heart much is the same. An early California saddle looks a bit different than a modern western saddle on the surface, but at the heart of both saddles is likely to be a virtually identical rawhide-covered “tree.”  Riders are still chasing cows over the hills and across the deserts, and if a Californio vaquero from 1820 were to suddenly appear in their midst, he would know what to do.

Mission San Juan Bautista

The arcade of Mission San Juan Bautista, where Alfred Hitchcock shot legendary scenes of his film "Vertigo"

Given that Mission San Juan Bautista has played a starring role in cinema history, notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo, I can’t resist asking a movie question.   Are you a fan of Westerns?  When it comes to movies set in the eras you study, what is the most striking  ”mistake” you see repeated when they show Indian, Spanish, or Mexican riders and their horses?

I like Westerns, but I guess that I have to admit that I haven’t seen a lot of them, so I suppose that I don’t merit the title of “Western Fan.” I think that the people of the “Old West” probably didn’t go around at a full gallop shooting each other all the time, so Western movies might not be a really good source of historical information. Probably unfortunate though that westerns don’t seem to be very prevalent these days, so people are not being made aware of, and enjoying western culture as they might have otherwise. Seems like early California would be a great focus for movies. The “Zorro” movies were popular, so maybe some more movies along those lines would be good? (Only with more historical accuracy!)

Hope that my answers might be interesting and useful.  I’m not always right though, so anything that I come up with is open to discussion.


This interview was done via email and completed by July 26, 2012.  Thank you John Grafton for participating in our Trail Blog interview series about people we’ll be meeting on the ride.

Come meet John Grafton in San Juan Bautista for a special visit of his workshop and forge with The California Mission Ride team on September 5, 2012.  Check our Calendar page for details and updates.  Mr. Grafton will demonstrate some  of the “old school” craftsmanship that he refers to in his interview.