sheepherding: myths & realities
Essentially unique among American ethnic groups, only in the American
West did one group of people become so exclusively identified with just
one occupation: Basques & sheepherding.
Basques have been in
the Americas for centuries--possibly even before the arrival of
Columbus. Most of the current Basque communities of the American
West, however, trace their origins to the more recent past. The
Basque sheepherding story of the American West goes to the California
Gold Rush that brought a sustained number of Basques to the American
West. Most "49ers" did not find their gold and had to turn to an
alternative plan, and thus some Basques went into ranching. By the
1870s Basque sheep outfits had expanded throughout the high desert
country of the American West.
Anyone who has driven
the high desert ranges of the West has pondered how someone could
possibly live there. It's possible, but the life was very
demanding, compounded by the reality that sheepherding as an occupation
was not favorably looked upon. Basques took the job because it
offered them economic opportunity. These hundreds of herders
tended bands of sheep for months on end in a harsh, desolate
environment. They were usually all alone. It was not an easy existence, but thanks to their
perseverance their descendants were able to enjoy a better life here in
or shepherder wagon was once omnipresent throughout the American
West. It was a mobile home for the many Basque shepherders
who were tending their flocks on the open range. At one
time, they were drawn by animal power then later by automobiles.
Ironically these Basque newcomers knew
little or nothing about herding sheep; they literally learned on the
job. They did so well that they quickly became sought after by
sheep outfits while some Basques moved into positions of ownership that
together initiated the practice of bringing over other Basque young men.
Many obtained U.S. citizenship, and trips to the Basque homeland now
became vacations often with the primary purpose of finding a Basque
While shepherding served as
the foundation of the Basque community for many years, today few Basques
remain active in the sheep industry. By the 1970s the Basque
involvement in the sheep business began its decline. Various
factors contributed to this transformation, beginning of course with the
immense challenges posed by the occupation that thrust the herder into
"one of the loneliest professions in the world." A domestic
struggle over the use of public land which resulted in the limitation of
livestock grazing permits, improved economic conditions in the Basque
homeland, recruiting efforts shifting to Latin America and changes in
the livestock industry that favored cattle to sheep ranching effectively
brought an end to a 150 year story.
to the Basque shepherder is located in Reno, Nevada.
“Bakardade,” or “Solitude” by its author -- noted contemporary
Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea -- the artwork was conceived
as a statement about the past by the present to the future.
In the design, the solitary figure of a
shepherd carrying a lamb is suggested rather than depicted.
For more information
about the monument visit
Basque Sheepherder Monument
But sheepherding was always just a means
not an end for most Basques. Thus the children and grandchildren
of the herders have diversified into many careers. As William
Douglass noted, "the work ethic, business integrity and success of
Basques in a wide variety of walks of life resulted in their being
viewed in the region as one of its unique cultural and economic assets."