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Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

Vicente Oropeza — First World Champion Trick Roper

The first recognized champion of the world in the “Trick and Fancy Roping” event belonged to Vicente Oropeza (sometimes spelled as Vincente Oropeso) of Puebla, Mexico. The year was 1900.

It has long been accepted that the American Cowboy first learned his trade from the Mexican Vaquero. The Vaquero had been “cowboying” in what is now the American Southwest and Northern Mexico since the 1500s. From gear, techniques, and language, to cowboy sporting events, origins can be traced back to the Vaquero, in one form or another. Trick roping is no exception.

From about 1900 till the 1930s, trick or “fancy” (as it was sometimes called) roping was a rodeo event much like bull or bronc riding is today. It was a judged event, not a specialty act. The man given credit for taking trick roping to that level was Vicente Oropeza.

Born in Puebla, Mexico in 1858, Oropeza was raised on a large Hacienda (ranch) where the skills of a Vaquero were practiced daily (the elaborate Vaqueros from that part of the world are often referred to as Charros). The Vaquero prided himself on his horsemanship and roping skills. Vicente was no exception.

At an early age, he learned the basics of heading and heeling cattle and catching horses with his reata (rope). The next challenge was to learn to do it with style. The old-time Vaquero would commonly incorporate trick roping into the every day task of roping livestock. Doing it this way took more skill in his book. He would also entertain and show off with his “Floreada de reata” skills (basically rope tricks, literally translated it is to make flower designs with a reata). Vicente soon mastered this skill.

In his younger days Oropeza toured Mexico with Ponciano Diaz, a famous Bull Fighter who also put on shows. It was during one of these shows he made contact with Buffalo Bill Cody who then invited Vicente and several other Charro performers to preform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. That was in 1893 (some sources claim 1894).

In an article about Will Rogers, written by Jesse Mullins for American Cowboy Magazine, Jesse wrote, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show played the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Clem Rogers, Will’s father, shipped a trainload of cattle to Chicago then took Will, 13, along and they attended both the fair and Wild West Show.

“At that show, a Mexican trick roper, Vicente Oropeza, bedazzled the boy. Will had already learned to handle the lariat for practical, workday purposes. Oropeza, at the end of many horseback tricks and others done afoot, wrote his name—one letter at a time—with his lariat. This moment became the clincher for Will.”

Will Rogers has been quoted many times as giving Oropeza credit for inspiring his trick roping. On several occasions, he also credits Vicente as being the greatest trick roper—ever.

Oropeza traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show until about 1907. According to information given on the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave website, “Many of the cowboys’ skills originated with the Mexican vaqueros. Exhibitions of riding by brothers Antonio and Jose Esquivel and rope tricks by Vicente Oropeza were a very popular part of the Wild West. Oropeza inspired Will Rogers to begin his career as a roper.”

According to the Hyatt Verrill autobiography (who performed with the show for a time), “Vicente Oropeza was a remarkable man. He had been a bullfighter and bandit before he turned Rurale (in the show) and as he often said, ‘A most excellent bandit.’ He was an enormously tall, heavily built Mexican but as light on his feet as a cat. He was the first man ever to spin a rope and in some ways was the best rope-spinner I ever have seen—and I knew Will Rogers, personally.

“On one occasion, Oropeza leaped onto the long dining-tent table and spun his rope back and forth over the dishes, never more than an inch or two above them, but never touching them, regardless of their various heights. Another of his feats was to stand blindfolded with his back to a horse and rider and call out by which foot he would loop the horse. Judging only by the sound of the oncoming horse, he would spin his reata backward and never missed his throw.” – Hyatt Verrill

The oldest trick and fancy roping contest of record was held in New York in 1900. This was the first time it was a judged (contested) event and just not a part of a Wild West Show performance. Ropers from all over the world came to compete. It was won by Vicente Oropeza, who was then given the title of the first World Champion Trick and Fancy Roper. Trick and fancy roping soon became a standard event at Rodeos and Wild West Shows and many men, Will Rogers included, not only followed in Oropeza’s footsteps, but looked up to him as a legend. He could make a rope “talk” with style and grace. What he did soon became the benchmark to shoot for in this event.

During the sixteen years Oropeza spent with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he was usually headlined as “The Premier Charro Mexicano of the World!” He was described as a very charismatic showman (even rivaling Cody himself).

In Mexico, Vicente is a hero as well. Regarded as one of the legendary Charros, there are volumes of research written in the Spanish language about Oropeza and his accomplishment both in the United States and Mexico. According to a Spanish website dedicated to the history of the Charro, “Un grupo de 12 Charros capitaneados por Vicente Oropeza que salieron por primera vez a Nueva York. A Vicente Oropeza los norteamericanos le dieron el calificativo de Campeón de Lazo en el mundo.” (Basically saying that Vicente led a group of twelve Charros to New York where the North Americans gave Vicente the title of World Champion Roper.)

 

At the time of his retirement, he was definitely regarded as the finest trick roper in the world. He retired to his ranch at Puebla, where he died in 1923. In 1975, the first World Champion Trick or Fancy Roper of the World was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of
Fame.