Basque Ranching Culture in the Great
Basques are a people with a homeland, but without a nation. The
countries of Spain and France claim their homeland. Four provinces
in Northern Spain and three adjacent regions in France make up the Basque
Country today. The Basques inhabit the region that includes the
Bay of Biscay and the forest and the granite crests of the Pyrenees
Mountains. This legacy dates from the Treaty of the Pyrenees in
The origins of the Basque people
are still a mystery. Their unique language is called Euskera and
is unrelated to any Indo-European language today. Linguists and
scholars have not been able to link it with any other known language.
Basque is apparently the only language remaining of those spoken in
southwestern Europe before the Roman conquest.
The Basques are considered by some
to be direct descendants of the Iberians, people who once inhabited
Spain. The Basque are a friendly, fiercely independent people
who were known in the middle ages as skilled boat makers and courageous
whale hunters. These people often ranged far across the Atlantic
Ocean in their boats. Later generations grew up in an agrarian
society and worked with their livestock on isolated mountain farms throughout
the Pyrenees Mountains.
Basques in America:
Basque people immigrated to the western United States from their
homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains, first arriving in California around
1850. This immigration to the American West was inspired by the
discovery of gold in California. Many of the Basques soon found
that gold was hard to find and turned to working and owning livestock
on ranches. Basque-owned itinerant sheep bands ranged from the
Pacific coast to the High Sierras. By the early 1859s, many Basques
had become established ranchers. Basque names were so prominent
in the western range sheep business that they were regarded as the industry’s
A Century of Immigration
When the Basque herders first arrived
in America, sheep herding was a job that required no knowledge of the
English language, little formal
education, but for an ambitious man, provided an opportunity to
acquire his own band of sheep within a few short years. Back then,
one could take sheep in exchange for wages and then head out with a
band into the previously unclassified region of the vast Great Basin
public lands administered by the US Government. This was all before
the US Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, which divided and designated
livestock grazing allotments on public lands. These sheep bands
were called “tramp sheep outfits.” The new sheep owner sent back
to the Basque country for a relative or friend once he became established
and the process started all over again. Basque sheep men and Basque
herders soon began to appear all over the Great Basin. Thus began
an immigration chain that would continue for over a century. Many
immigrants knew little of their destination in America. Some knew
names, within the Great Basin, such as Elko, Ely, Mountain Home, Jordan
Valley, etc. that they had heard before from their relatives or friends
that had been to the American west.
Poverty was one reason for young
men to leave their homeland. While the Basque sheepherder was
near the bottom of the social order in the West in the early 1900s,
many men viewed this life as something to be endured temporarily because
they would be rewarded with enough saved wages that when they returned
to their homeland they could purchase their own
business or farm. Another was that the Basques were reluctant
to serve France and Spain in their colonial wars. The posting
of draft notices often prompted an overnight emigration of young men
from the Basque country. Men leaving for this reason sometimes
felt they could no longer return to their homeland even when they made
enough money in America to do so.
Throughout the American west, “Basque”
has been so synonymous with the term “sheepherder” it was assumed that
every immigrant from the Basque country had an extensive background
in sheep herding. This was not always true. What these young
men brought to America was a rural upbringing that gave them some skill
in caring for livestock, a hard work ethic, and a willingness to undergo
extreme hardship to get ahead in life. It was here in the American
west that many of these young men, with instruction from a seasoned
sheepherder, learned how to care for sheep.
Basque Stockmen in Northeastern
the 1870s, expanded agriculture and overcrowded rangelands in California
pushed stockmen beyond the Sierra Mountains into the high desert of
the Great Basin. This arid country with its vast rangelands and
snow-capped mountains became a magnet for Basque people in America.
Coming from a country barely 100 miles across in any direction, Basques,
when arriving in the Great Basin, were amazed at the size and emptiness
of the land.
Bernardo and Pedro Altube, who were
born in the Basque country first settled in San Mateo County and then
moved to Palo Alto, California. In 1871, they sold their California
ranch, bought 3,000 head of cattle in Old Mexico and trailed these cattle
from there to Independence Valley in northwestern Elko County, Nevada.
Pedro was reported to have stood six feet six inches tall and was known
as Palo Alto, or “Tall Pine.” It is said by some that the town
of Palo Alto, California was named after him. Pedro Altube was
elected to the Cowboy Hall of Fame at Norman, Oklahoma as Nevada’s candidate
Altube brothers’ ranch, located in Independence Valley, near Tuscarora,
was roughly 20 miles long by 10 miles wide with thousands of additional
government-owned acres on which they ranged their cattle.
In these early days, the Basque stockmen
were cattlemen who brought to Nevada the customs and traditions of the
Old California Spanish vaqueros. The customs and traditions that
these Basque cattlemen brought could well have been the start of the
buckaroo tradition in Nevada, as we know it today.
Range sheep did not begin
to arrive in earnest in the Elko County area, in northeastern Nevada,
until the beginning of the 1900s when the Altube Brothers, who had started
as cattlemen, began to also run large bands of range sheep using Basque
herders. The Spanish Ranch, today operated by the Ellison Ranching
Company, was part of the vast domain of the Altubes and is still one
of the largest ranches in Elko County.
Basque livestock family, Jean and Grace Garat reportedly drove their
cattle herds over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1874 from California
into northeastern Nevada and located on the Tuscarora Fork of the Owyhee
River. The YP branding iron, first registered in California in
1852 by the Garats, was brought to Nevada and is still used today.
This large ranch, started by the Garat’s, is 90 miles Northwest of Elko.
It is now owned and operated by the Jackson Family and is called the
In the annals of western history,
there is perhaps an over-fictionalization of the conflicts between sheep
and cattle on western ranges. In reality, often both sheep and
cattle were run on the same ranch. A good example is the Spanish
Ranch in northeastern Nevada where at one time they reportedly ran 18,000
cattle and 12,000 sheep on the same ranch. One reason this was
possible is that sheep and cattle do not compete for the same forage.
This ranch today still runs both sheep and cattle. Sheep are browsers,
eating forbs and brush. Cattle are grass eaters-grazers.
A sheep outfit sells two crops a
year, wool fleece and lamb meat. Cow/calf operators only sell
a young Basque herder arrived in America from half way around the world,
he was met by the sheep owner, who many times was a relative.
At the main ranch headquarters the young herder was provided with a
tent, pack burro or mule, pack saddle and panniers (canvas pack bags),
a bedroll of heavy blankets and canvas tarp, Dutch oven for cooking,
rifle, canteen, sheep hook and other articles for daily sheep work.
A sheep dog completed his outfit, serving as a companion and an essential
partner in working sheep on the open range. Many seasoned sheep
dogs knew more about herding sheep than the young Basque immigrants.
While the right clothing and equipment
could help in getting the young herder to be able to withstand the physical
elements of the Great Basin, nothing could prepare these individuals
minds for the emptiness and silence of the vast distances that would
surround him in his new environment.
STRENGTH TO SURVIVE:
These Basques were tough, hardy individuals
but their loneliness and the vast empty country made for a difficult
adjustment. There were those who were overwhelmed by the strange
country and loneliness, and became victims of a condition the Basque
referred to as “txamisuek jota,” or “struck by sagebrush.” They
became very reclusive and did not wish to meet or speak with strangers.
Most of the herders, however, adapted to their new life in America.
Basque herders were some of the very
best sheepherders in western range sheep operations. These men
soon found out upon arriving in the American west, that they had entered
one of the loneliest professions in the world. Herding sheep in
the least populated region of the United States placed these men in
a situation, which at times, bordered on total social isolation.
However, most Basque men endured the isolation. Basques came from
a mountainous country in Spain growing up in rough mountain terrain
and an agrarian society. They understood the land and the animals.
Hard work was nothing new to Basques. They were real stockmen.
They were very dependable and could be counted upon to stay for long
periods alone and not leave their flocks.
is an art form to handle range sheep alone with no fence and no night
corrals. The herders had to constantly guard against predators
such as mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and bears, and had to keep
moving the band to fresh water and grazing. Efficient management
of a band of range sheep demanded total teamwork between the herder
and his animals. Herders were careful not to use their dogs too much
on their sheep herd. The term, “dogged sheep,” meant the sheep
became nervous from overusing a dog on them and their weight would start
to fall off. The goal was to produce heavy lambs for sale at shipping
time in the fall. Border Collies and Australian Shepherd dogs
were the two breeds that were preferred by most by the herders.
Cattle need to be fenced in or handled
by a crew of cowboys on horseback, where as one experienced sheepherder
would handle 1,000 to 1,200 head of sheep outside relying only on himself,
his horse and dogs.
From the herder’s point of view
a personal interview with three former Basque sheep herders, Nicolas
Fagoaga, center in this photo, said this about his early years in the
sheep business: “I came to Nevada from Basque Country in 1951.
I had no experience in handling sheep; I was a cabinetmaker. My
brother talked me into coming to America. They sent me into the
Ruby Mountains with a pack burro and a tent to work for a sheep man
by the name of Tony Smith. My first camp was in a place called
Rattlesnake Canyon, near Lee, Nevada. I hated the Rubies.
They were rough, steep, and very dangerous. I did not like to
be alone. The camp tender would come to my camp every five days.
If I was out with my sheep, he left the groceries near my camp and went
on. I lasted 4 months. My brother said ‘Stick it out you
will become used to it.’ I told him, no, I was leaving for California.
I went to work on a ranch out of Dixon, California. I helped take
care of the sheep on the ranch, there were other people around, and
we ate our meals as a family. I liked this much better, although
it was much harder work than sheep herding in the Ruby Mountains.
I stayed with the sheep business for five years, then came back to Elko
and started a construction business. Sheep herding in the Rubies
was not for me.” Nick is now retired from his construction company
and lives in Elko.
Many Basque herders called
the Ruby Mountains in Elko County, Nevada “mata hombres” which, in Spanish,
means “man killers.”
Jose “Chapo” Leniz (right
in the photo and now diseased) also talked about his sheep herding experience.
“I came to America in 1954 and first went to work in the Jarbidge Mountains
in Northeastern Nevada for sheep man Pete Elia. I lived in a tent,
packed a burro, and walked to my sheep. I did this for three years.
Then I came to the” Rubies” and went to work for the Sorenson Sheep
outfit. They promoted me to camp tender because I had learned
a little English and some of the ways of sheep. I took care of
six summer bands.” (A summer band is a herd of sheep comprised
of 1,000 to 1,200 ewes with their lambs and cared for by one herder
and his dogs.) “One day a week I baked the bread for these herders.”
(The bread was baked in Dutch ovens, buried in the coals from sagebrush
or aspen wood fires.) “I rode a horse and packed the supplies
for each herder on pack mules. I visited each herder every five
days, which meant there were no days off. Our main camp was in
Secret Pass between the East Humboldt Range and the Ruby Mountains.
I enjoyed the mountains and the life of a camp tender.” After
his herding career “Chapo”
retired and lived in Elko for several years.
Eustaquio Murubarria, (left in the
photo) who worked for sheep man Paul Enchauspe out of Austin, Nevada
in the Toiyobe Mountains for 25 years, talked about his life as a sheepherder.
“I went to work as a sheep herder for Paul in 1957 and stayed at it
for 25 years, 18 of these were spent sheep herding and then I moved
to Paul’s main ranch and took care of his cows, horses and sheep.
I herded sheep year around for 18 years. In the winter, we would
take our bands south into the desert in the Ione and Gabbs country.
I stayed alone most of the time and it did not bother me. After
25 years herding sheep and ranch work I moved to Elko and got out of
the sheep business. I was glad to be in town and around some people.
I now work for the Elko School District as a custodian and own a home
Basque Tree Carvings (“Arborglyphs”)
In the remote mountains of the west,
during the summer months, sheepherders camped alone in tents with a
pack outfit, horse or pack burro, and their dogs to tend their flocks.
Camp tenders, with a pack string, visited the herder about once a week
bringing groceries and other necessities. Many times this camp
tender was the only other person the herder would see during the entire
A portion of the history of Basque
herders has been recorded on aspen trees throughout the mountains of
the Great Basin. Solitary during their time in mountains for 4-5
months during the summer, seeing only the camp tenders once a week,
herders used tree carving to alleviate boredom and loneliness and record
events of note. These herders moved into a rhythm with their sheep
and their daily movements. They wanted to leave their mark on
the landscape and carved a record of their presence on the bark of aspen
trees with a knife or other sharp object for other sheepherders to see.
Black scar tissue builds up on the tree’s white bark. As the tree
continues to grow vertical scratch lines widen more than horizontal
ones, causing a unique tree carving style.
Some of the earliest tree carvings
made by Basque herders found and recorded date back to 1895. There
is no known tradition of tree carvings found in the Basque Country.
With no record of this carving technique being passed from one sheepherder
to another in the Basque country, it is assumed that the sheepherder
artists in America simply saw the work of past herders who had camped
in the same location and added their own tree drawings.
These carvings provide a glimpse
into the herders’ idle moments away from their sheep. Most frequently,
the carvings were only a name and date and may include the name of their
hometown or province in the Basque country. Occasionally there
are drawings of women, animals, or objects. Some herders left
messages telling where they were going or where they had been, what
had happened that day, or where the best feed and water was, etc.
Carvings provide a valuable tool for historians because they marked
the herder’s whereabouts and movement of their sheep bands.
click on photos for larger views
The Basque Studies Program, Desert
Research Institute, University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada, has done several
scientific studies of these tree carvings, called “arborglyphs.”
mark upon the landscape made by the Basque herders were stone cairns
called “harrimutilak’ or stone boys. These piles of stone were
built to mark their routes and to pass the herder’s time. Many
stone boys can still be seen today in the mountains and high deserts
of the Great Basin.
Seasons of The Herders:
The daily and seasonal routines
of sheepherders in a range sheep operation varied little throughout
the Great Basin. Each
cycle began by driving the sheep to spring lambing grounds. The
ewes were sheared (the wool fleece shaved off) after the birth of the
lambs. The lambing grounds were chosen for the protection they
afforded from the prevailing winds and for plentiful grass and water.
Some sheep outfits built wooden buildings called” lambing sheds” to
protect the newborn lambs from the elements. After all the lambs
were born, they were processed. Male lambs were castrated; all
the lamb’s tails were “docked” (bobbed) for cleanliness, the lambs were
ear marked, and the ewes and lambs were marked with paint using the
After lambing, the herders
set off on the trail with their ewes and lambs headed for the mountains,
moving up from the sagebrush flats, through juniper foothills, into
the aspen–lined creeks of the mountains for the summer. All these
movements were made slowly because the herd grazes its way along the
trail. Ten to twelve miles in a day would be a big day trailing
the hot summer months of July and August, sheep would leave their bed
ground on an open hillside where they had spent the night around sunup
and began to graze; the herder would leave his camp long before daylight
to check on his band. Black sheep were used as markers, and the
herder would count the blacks. If they were all with the band,
chances are all of the sheep were together. If a black sheep was
missing then the herder and his dogs would set out in search of the
missing black sheep and whatever other sheep had gone with this marker.
Bells placed around the neck of some older ewes (female sheep) were
also used to help keep track of the band. The sheep would graze
down hill to water, drink their fill, and then shade up, and rest during
the heat of the day until around 4:00pm. Then they would get up
and start to graze uphill until dark. The herder and his dogs
would position the band on an open hillside for the night, then head
for his tent in the dark or stay with his band in his bedroll with his
rifle and dogs if coyotes or mountain lions were killing his sheep.
This was a 7-day a week job. Sheep do not take days off in their
daily movements. Sheep were moved to fresh grazing every day or
two. Salt was also used to help move sheep around.
Fall comes early in the high
country. Aspens start to turn color in late August and heavy frost
lines the meadow bottoms in early mornings. At this time, the
herders would point their bands back down out of the mountains towards
the lower desert. Generally, two summer bands would merge and
aging ewes and lambs were sorted off and sent to market. With
the size of the bands reduced, some of the herders would go to town
to spend the winter. The remaining herders would head their bands
toward the winter range, which was, sometimes, hundreds of miles from
the summer range. On the trip to the winter range and during the
winter months, the herders lived in sheepwagons. The sheepwagon,
a forerunner of the modern travel trailer, is a camp on wheels with
beds, a table, and a wood stove. It was pulled, in the old days,
by a team of horses and later by a pickup. During this time, two
herders sometimes would share a camp. One would drive the team
or pickup pulling the sheep camp; the other would ride his horse and
move the sheep, with the help of his dogs, down the trail.
Elko County, at one time
when there were over a million sheep in Nevada, had the largest concentration
of Basque sheepherders in the United States. Basque herders began
to be brought to America on contracts set up by the Western Range Association
and the U. S. Immigration Service. The herders came to work on
sheep contracts stipulating they must work with sheep for 3 years once
they reached the United States and then return to their homeland.
Sometimes they would sign up to come back for a second or third tour.
In the early years, before strict immigration laws were enacted, many
herders came, stayed in the United States, and obtained American citizenship
and became sheep owners and businessmen.
Several Basque hotels still operate
in towns throughout Nevada. One of these hotels is the Star in
Elko. The 22-room hotel built in 1910 provided a winter home for
sheepherders. It was the meeting and resting place for Basque
herders who had no other home and still serves as a home for retired
Basque herders. There are three other fine Basque restaurants
in Elko, Toki Ona, The Nevada, and Biltoki. Basque food and drink
are a popular specialty of the Great Basin region. Meals are served
family style as they always have been, both to residents and the appreciative
Current Range Sheep Industry
Today most of the sheep on the open
range are gone as are their Basque herders. Most contemporary
contract sheepherders today come from South American countries, primarily
Peru and Chile. In 1973, when I came to Elko, there were approximately
100,000 head of sheep in the Ruby Mountains on their summer range.
In 10 to 12 years, most sheep outfits and their Basque herders were
reasons for the demise of the range sheep industry in Nevada were
government regulations including Nevada Department of Wildlife and
Nevada Big Horns Unlimited sportsmen's organization wishing to
remove Domestic Sheep from Nevada range lands and replace them with
wild Desert, California and Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep.
Also falling lamb and wool prices and increased imports,
predators, changes in Federal livestock land practices, labor
problems, etc. added to the range sheep demise.
I had the opportunity to work with
and camp with many fine Basque herders who would greet you and feed
you and your horses and dogs when you rode into their camp. I
feel very fortunate to have known, eaten, and camped with many of these
men. I salute these Basque herders!
Today, Basques continue to play a
significant role in the region’s livestock industry. Many of the
children and grandchildren of the Basque sheep men who endured the Great
Depression and enjoyed the prosperity of the war years are successful
cattle ranchers throughout the Great Basin.
Descendents in the United States
Descendents of the early Basque herders
still live throughout the west, especially in California, Idaho, Oregon,
Wyoming, Washington, and Nevada. One of these descents Anita Anacabe
carries on a business in Elko called Elko General Merchandise, started
by her father Jose (Joe) Anacabe, a former, buckaroo, stagecoach driver
and sheepherder. This store still provides stockman, miners, and
others 69 years later, with quality boots, coats, hats, and other outdoor
The National Basque Festival
The main center of the Basque culture
in Nevada is Elko. Basque descendants continue to carry on traditions
of their homeland, including customs, language, dances, dress, and food.
Basque people are very proud of their cultural heritage and each year
since 1964 Elko has been host to a summer festival. This festival,
held annually the first weekend in July, is now proclaimed the National
Basque Festival. Destination Magazine listed the Festival among
its “ Top 100 Events in North America.”
What can you expect to experience
at the National Basque Festival?
People come from all over the world
to take part in these festivities. Many times, Catholic priests,
woodchoppers and weight lifters from the Pyrenees Mountains in the Basque
country have been invited to participate in this festival.
The games that you will see all originated
in the Basque Country years ago. The clearing of fields and forests
became a contest between Basque men to see who could carry the biggest
rock or chop the most wood. The dances were part of celebrations
for a people who wished to express in dance their zest for life. These
dances have a great history and symbolize everyday activities that fisherman
and farmers do in the Basque country. These games and dances have
been handed down for generations and continue to this day.
Running from the Bulls was
held for several years. Is discontinued in 2013.
Basque traditional dancing in
Basque Relay Race
Handball (pelota) tournament
Basque Picnic and Barbeque with
games, dancing, music, food
Interactive living history programs
Sheepherder’s Bread Baking Contest
Outdoor Catholic Holy Mass
Running From the Bulls
In the year 2000, in order to increase
interest and attendance in the National Basque Festival, Anna Urrizaga
and the Elko Festival committee made arrangements to bring Mexican fighting
bulls from Idaho to put on a “Running From the Bulls” similar to the
popular “Running of the Bulls” held in Pamplona, Spain.
Portable fence panels are installed
to establish a confined running course on almost two blocks of the streets
of downtown Elko. Bulls are confined in a stock trailer on one
end of the course. Contestants, who must be 18 or older, sober,
and sign a liability release, run ahead of the bulls to a confinement
pen at the other end of the course. Runners are encouraged to
wear white shirts and pants, and wear red scarves and a sash in the
traditional Basque way.
This was a very popular event with
an estimated 5,000 spectators. Obviously this event has its
problems with logistics and in 2013 it will not be held.
Hopefully it will reappear.
If you want to witness a proud people,
carrying on their heritage and traditions and passing it along to their
children visit Elko, Nevada the first weekend in July and “become Basque
for a weekend.”
We wish to thank the Northeastern
Nevada Museum, Jan Peterson, and Anita Anacabe-Franzoiaoury, Anacabe’s
Elko General Merchandise, for access to photographs and research materials.
We also wish to thank Catalina Laughlin for arranging personal interviews
and interpreting with former Basque sheepherders.
Dates for 2013 July 5-7.
Elko Basque Club
PO Box 1321
Elko, NV 89803
Article by Mike Laughlin
by Lee Raine