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University of Nevada, Reno

Basque Sheepherders

Photo: Young Basque sheepherder holding flag

For more than a century in Northern Nevada and other parts of the Western United States, Basque immigrants were closely tied to the sheep business. The first Basque sheepmen in Northern Nevada came for the gold rush in the mid-1800s, usually by way of South America. Some Basques who were experienced with livestock found that they could make a better living providing the mining camps with meat and wool than they could by mining. As their operations grew, they began hiring herders from the Basque Country, and Basque sheepherders gained a reputation for dependability. Population pressures and the political and economic environment in the Basque Country made sheepherding an attractive option for young, single men with a sense of adventure. Some of them were not fully informed about the solitary and difficult conditions that awaited them in the mountains and deserts of the West, and most of them did not stay with the job more than a few years. Most of them returned to their homeland.

Basque ethnic identity in the United States remains tied to the collective past they share of sheepherding as the door opener to the United States, and even those Basques whose families never were a part of the sheep business still preserve this significant aspect to the history of Basque development in the West.

— Gloria Totoricagüena, Ethnic Industries for Migrants: Basque Sheepherding in the American West, EuskoNews and Media, 212

Some Basque sheepherders took their wages in sheep instead of cash, and built their own sheep empires. Others found success in other occupations. In 1966 1,200 Basque sheepherders were employed in the United States, but 10 years later there were 106. It no longer made economic sense to go to America to herd sheep. Basque immigrant communities strive to keep their cultural traditions alive, and Basques in Northern Nevada celebrate their sheepherding heritage.

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