University of Nevada, Reno

Frequently Asked Questions II
Basques in the United States

When did Basques begin coming to the U.S.?

At the time of the California Gold Rush (1848), many Basques who had already migrated to Latin America decided to try their hand at looking for gold. But a lot of other people had the same idea. In the first half of 1849, for example, over 240 ships were sailed into San Francisco Bay and abandoned by their crews and captains who took off looking for gold. The Basques soon decided that it was easier to make money by using the livestock skills they learned in Latin America to feed the mining camps. So they began raising sheep and cattle. More Basques eventually turned to raising sheep because they could do so nomadically, without owning the land they grazed on. Also, sheep were better able to survive droughts than cattle were, and sheep prices were more stable. One man and two trained dogs could handle 800 sheep. This way of raising sheep, called sheep transhumance, was very popular and lasted until the early 1900s, when great chunks of American land were turned into national parks.

In 1921 the U.S. limited immigration from Western Europe by establishing quotas for each country. The Spanish quota was only 912 persons a year. Then in 1924 another Immigration act limited the Spanish quota to 131 persons a year. This ended the influx of Basque herders directly from Spain and caused hardship on the U.S. sheep industry that depended on their skills. Herders from the French side were still coming, though.

In 1950 Senator McCarran of Nevada sponsored Public Law 587, allowing 250 herders into the country. In 1952, Public Law 307 allowed another 500 to enter. And later in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Omnibus Immigration Bill was passed. This bill made it easier to bring in herders.

But Basques who come to the U.S. today are not interested in herding sheep. And today’s Basque-American citizens are mainstreamed into the population, although many of them ended up in construction, gardening, baking, and in various professions.

How did Basque women contribute to the Basque community in the U.S.?

Basque women helped run the Basque hotels that were so important to the immigrants from the Old Country. They also helped sheepherders who did not speak English, took care of other women who would come to the hotels to have their babies, and managed all the food preparation, cleaning, and laundry. They were often “second mothers” to the young Basque men who came to work in the American West. See Dr. Jeronima Echeverria’s book Home Away from Home (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999) for a detailed account of the Basque hotels and the women who made them work. These hotels were also a place for sheepherders to store belongings and for them to live in the off season.

How many people of Basque ancestry are living in Reno/Sparks? Nevada? The U.S.A.?

According to the 1990 census, there were 1,156 people in Reno and 254 in Sparks who declared themselves Basque. Nevada had a total of 4,840 and the United States total was 47,956. (Figures taken from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the CBS Newsletter article “Re-counting Basques” by William Douglass. See the article for counts for other states. The 2000 census count is still pending.)

When and where are Basque festivals held each year in the U.S.?
Many of the Basque clubs in the U.S. hold festivals each year. Current information on the clubs and festival dates may be found on the North American Basque Organizations, Inc. web site.



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