Hides Industry

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Hides Industry

The hides industry was a major economic activity of colonial Latin America. Livestock accompanied the early Spanish explorers to the Río de la Plata. During the seventeenth century, rapidly growing herds of wild cattle and horses grazed the fertile pampas. Enterprising Indians developed a significant livestock trade through Andean passes with Araucanians (Aucas) in Chile.

Conflict among Spaniards, mestizos, and Indians over plains resources worsened during the eighteenth century. Municipal officials in Buenos Aires and elsewhere tried to regulate the rapidly expanding traffic in hides. On a month-long Vaquería (wild-cattle hunt), gauchos might harvest thousands of hides. Legally, wild-cattle hunters had to obtain a special permit (acción). Many gauchos, however, engaged in illegal, freelance wild-cattle hunts and sold the animals they killed to unscrupulous merchants.

The early colonial hides trade was crude but profitable. Gauchos used hocking blades attached to long lances to hamstring and thus disable the animals. The riders then returned to kill and flay them. The hides were then staked out on the pampa to dry in the sun.

Hides were sold in both internal and external markets, but exports to Europe boomed during the eighteenth century. Buenos Aires exported about 185,000 hides from 1726 to 1738. City officials, concerned over the diminishing herds, took sterner measures to limit unsanctioned hunting by Indians and gauchos. By the mid-1700s, estancieros began laying claim to well-watered sections of the pampas and to the animals that grazed there. Mataderos (slaughterhouses) appeared on some estancias.

Buenos Aires exported more than 500,000 cattle hides during the 1810s; the figure rose to 2.3 million during the 1840s. Hides accounted for 65 percent of total exports in 1822. By the 1890s, however, they accounted for 26 percent. Other products, notably refrigerated beef, wool, and grains, marginalized the hides industry. Nevertheless, Argentina remains a leading producer of leather clothing and shoes.

See alsoMeat Industry .


Jonathan Brown, A Socioeconomic History of Argentina, 1776–1860 (1979).

Bailey W. Diffie, History of Colonial Brazil, 1500–1792 (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Amaral, Samuel. The Rise of Capitalism on the Pampas: The Estancias of Buenos Aires, 1785–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Gelman, Jorge. Campesinos y estancieros. Buenos Aires: Editorial Los Libros del Riel, 1998.

Gelman, Jorge. Rosas, estanciero: Gobierno y expansión ganadera. Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual, 2005.

                                     Richard W. Slatta