Learning the Ropes:

A Twisted Tale of Twine


Rope is one of man’s oldest tools. Almost every culture on Earth twisted animal hair, hide, sinew, or plant fibers to make some type of rope. Braiding and twisting strands of such materials yielded a product that was stronger than individual, unbraided fibers. These strengthened fibers were spun into twine, and twine was used to make rope. Rope consists of four elements—from smallest to largest, fiber, yarn (twine), strands, and rope. Rope helped people carry, catch, clothe, combat, construct, cross, and cultivate. Many different types of rope developed for hundreds of uses.

Rope has permeated western American culture and is responsible for several well-known English idioms relating to cowboy life. In rope-speak, the “bitter end” refers to the end of a rope, where its usefulness has been exhausted. To be “at the end of one’s rope” is self-explanatory. The “cow’s tail” describes the frayed end of a rope. A number of foreign words associated with rope are familiar to English speakers. Sisal is the fibrous material from the leaves of the agave (maguey) plant. Abacá, a relative of the banana plant grown mostly in the Philippines, is the plant from which the fiber for Manila rope is made.

Rope culture has also enriched the English language with words borrowed from Spanish and subsequently mangled. In this way, la reata (the rope) became lariat, cuarta (short, braided-leather whip) became quirt, and lazo (rope loop) became lasso. The honda, the loop or ring at one end of a lasso through which the other end passes to form a noose for catching horses or cattle, came into cowboy vernacular with an aspirated “h” not present in the original Spanish but otherwise unchanged. “Mecardy” derives from mecate, the Mexican Spanish term for a horsehair rope.

Although we often speak of different tool traditions—English and Spanish—converging in New Mexico, rope making from the British Isles to the Mediterranean centered on the rope walk. A rope walk was a cleared area, typically long and narrow, where an individual would fasten a bundle of yarn around his waist, attach one end of the yarn to a wheel or twister, and slowly walk backwards, paying out the yarn. Another individual turned the wheel to twist the yarn. After several strands were spun in this way, they were twisted together to make rope. English and Spanish colonists transferred this technology to the New World. Historic sites, particularly in New England and California, preserve rope walks. They are still in use in some parts of Mexico, for example, in Oaxaca. Mexican vaqueros and American cowboys also used simple, handheld, knob-end twisters, which worked on the same principle as the rope walk, only on a smaller scale.

From time out of mind, rope has played a vital role in life in New Mexico. Long before Europeans arrived in the area, Pueblo people made a variety of objects, such as backpacks, clothing, and shoes, out of yucca fiber. They also made rope from yucca, which was just as strong as plant fibers used in other parts of the world, such as hemp or abacá.

When Juan de Oñate came north from New Spain in 1598, rope came with him. In the Spanish world of the late sixteenth century, among many other uses, rope bound yokes to the heads of the oxen that drew the heavily laden wagons, secured burdens on pack animals, and anchored tents.

Rope figured lethally in the dramatic and violent encounter at Acoma in January 1599, at least as it was recounted by New Mexico’s epic poet, Gaspar de Villagrá, at the conclusion of his Historia de la Nueva México. In Canto 34, in the aftermath of the battle at Acoma, Spaniards discovered two Acomas, Tempal and Cotumbo, hiding in a kiva. When they requested knives to take their own lives, Oñate refused and instead ordered that they be given sogas, or nooses, so that they could hang themselves from nearby cottonwoods.

In 1628 eighteen hawsers (thick nautical cables) made of Castilian hemp were shipped to New Mexico in the mission supply caravan. These cables, called guindalezas in Spanish, measured 28 feet each and were typically made of three thick ropes twisted together. Such heavy cordage was surely destined to perform the heavy lifting required in the construction of Spanish missions. Archaeologist James E. Ivey has theorized that these cables were used to lift heavy roofing materials, such as vigas, which were positioned with block and tackle. As Ivy notes, there would be almost no other use for such heavy cable in New Mexico.

Rope played an important role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. As the leaders of the revolt made their plans in the summer of 1680, secrecy and timing emerged as crucial elements. The insurgents achieved both by means of a tool that was as ingenious as it was simple. Runners carried a knotted cord from Taos in the far north to the other Indian communities in the Pueblo world, untying one knot as the days counted down to the one selected for the launch of the rebellion. In this way all the participants in the confederation knew when to attack. As it happened, the Spaniards discovered that an uprising was imminent, and the Pueblos moved up the date of the attack, but the knotted cord had served its strategic purpose.

Governor Diego de Vargas returned New Mexico to the fold of the Spanish Empire in the 1690s and soon began granting land to the colonists. One of the steps in finalizing a land grant in colonial New Mexico was measuring the land. A standard cordel, or measuring cord, typically made of rawhide or horsehair, was 100 varas long. A local official, such as an alcalde, measured its length with a vara rod, laid out against the cordel a hundred times. Rawhide stretched when it was wet or when the measurers pulled it taut. This made for a measurement that was something less than standardized. Spaniards and Indians alike complained about the practice, and in 1786 Governor Juan Bautista de Anza ordered local alcaldes to use a waxed cordel because waxing was thought to minimize stretching. In general, horsehair rope was preferred for measurements precisely because it was resistant to stretching, especially when wet, a characteristic that rawhide rope did not share.

Visitors to the Cowboys Real and Imagined exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum will learn that, next to his horse, a trusted lariat was probably a cowboy’s best friend, and certainly his handiest tool. Thomas E. “Black Jack” Ketchum, once a cowboy, was doubtless familiar with rope and how to use it, but he gave up the cowboy life and turned to crime. His unsuccessful 1899 attempt to rob a train landed him in jail in Clayton, New Mexico. There, in April 1901, he was hanged. The event was a tragedy of errors, and the execution went spectacularly wrong: the rope was too long, the drop too far, and Ketchum too heavy, resulting in his decapitation.

Two coils of Manila rope in the exhibit, one about twice the diameter of the other, are striking pieces of the craft of rope making. The most elegant piece of rope is a multicolored, horsehair rope. Since the color of the rope reflects the color of the horse, this rope must have come from a real beauty. None of these ropes appear to have seen wear. The horsehair rope, which seems more a work of art than a practical, working cowboy tool, is on loan from the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.

In addition to the many items on display, the New Mexico History Museum collection holds more than a dozen other examples of rope that are not part of this exhibition. The most common is the rawhide lariat. These ropes all date from the late nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth century. The classic lariat is made of four strands of braided rawhide. One traditional Mexican method of preparing the rawhide lariat for everyday use was to stretch the braided lariat between two objects, such as two trees, cure it with lime juice, and rub it with tallow. This made the rawhide pliable and extended its life. Not all of the lariats retain their hondas, but in those that do, each honda is unique. A simple honda is formed by tying a loop. A more elegant variation has an intricately woven honda like the eye of a giant needle. Still another lariat has an honda formed by a metal insert.

To have all this rope, there must be some way to make it. James Harl Sizer made a horsehair rope twister in 1930 when he was working for the Arizona Park Service in Springerville, Arizona. It is handmade of very hard wood and consists of four parts. One is a knob-end rod with a hole bored through it. One end of the yarn is hooked on the knob and payed out from the bunch of yarn as one person backs away, while the other spins the knob-end rod. The resulting strands are then twisted together in the same way as the yarn was twisted to form rope. In the hands of skilled practitioners, this primitive tool can produce a 45-foot-long strand in a matter of minutes, but making this task look easy, just like tossing a lariat with skill and accuracy takes countless hours of practice. It is not as simple as it looks to make and wield a rope.

Rick Hendricks, PhD, is the New Mexico state historian.