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.
- Basque Sheepherders of the American West: A Photographic Essay. Photographs by Richard Lane, text by William Douglass, presented in English, Basque, Spanish, and French. Published by the University of Nevada Press as part of the Basque Series in 1985.
- Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World by William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao. Published by the University Press in 2005 (a reprint of the 1975 edition with a new preface). Partial full text.
- Sweet Promised Land by Robert Laxalt, written in 1957 about his father, Dominique Laxalt. Partial full text.
- Trouble in the Sweet Promised Land: Basques in Early Twentieth Century Northeastern Nevada. Published in Anglo-American Contributions to Basque Studies: Essays in Honor of Jon Bilbao, published by the Desert Research Institute in 1977.
- Ethnic Industries for Migrants: Basque Sheepherding in the American West by Gloria Totoricagüena Egurrola, published in Euskonews & Media 212, June 30, 2003.
More Information and Activities
- Beautiful accordion music of Mercedes Mendive of Elko, Nevada
- Photographs of Basque sheepherders
- Basque Arborglyphs (tree carvings by sheepherders)
- More about the sheepherding life
- Sheep Industry of Northern Nevada resources
- Sheep in Nevada history
- The Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno
- The Basque Library, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
- The Basque Database, articles and books published after 1994 about Basque history, language, and culture
- Basque Ranching Culture in the Great Basin by Mike Laughlin, photos by Lee Raine