Thursday, July 10, 2014

Basques in the US Old West

During the 1848-1855 gold rush, young Basque men from their homeland, Uruguay and Argentina, immigrated to California's promising gold fields. Those who struck it rich invested in sheep or cattle ranches and formed partnerships with other Basques. Some who didn't worked in the mining industry, including Utah's Bingham Canyon copper mines. Others turned to sheepherding. They avoided being "txamisuek jota" (struck by sagebrush), withstood the challenges of inequity and made a new life in a new land.
Basque shepherd Bertrand Borda arrives at Salt Lake City airport to begin his new job. June 1951
While raising sheep is an old-world Basque tradition, Pyrenees flocks were often small in number (less than 100) and kept close to the farm. Large-scale sheep production was another story.
El Basque Club de San Francisco
Basque sheepherders worked throughout California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Representing a minor percentage of western shepherds, an industrious Basque accepted sheep in lieu of wages and increased his own itinerant sheep band while running his employer's herd. By 1880, the Basques earned the "reputation as the finest sheepmen in the American West."
Basque sheep herders in Idaho in 1938
Sheepherding is a lonesome profession filled with unrelenting hours, years-long nomadic transhumance (a "livestock management" technique in which animals travel hundreds of trailing miles during seasonal grazing cycles), mental deprivation and social isolation.
Basque couple, Boise, Idaho
Alone with his sheep, monthly food drops and occasional visits, the loyal dog was often his only companion. The iconic sheepwagon defined his workplace and home on the range.
Route US50 Car-wash
As sheepherders — and new Basque immigrants — arrived in Utah, Basque hotels sprung up. These establishments offered a familiar sense of community with Basque culture, conversation, music and cuisine.
Soon enough, many a solitary shepherd married his Basque bride. The sheepwagon, a temporary honeymoon suite, became home and hearth to the dedicated Basque wife who worked alongside her husband and helped increase his holdings.

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