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University of Nevada, Reno

Stories of Sheep People: Herders & Carvers

"Though we talked about going home — and some did go — underneath, most of us realized the opportunity was here. It was a raw new land, and we were helping to build it. There wasn’t anything a man couldn’t do in this western country with work and luck ..."

— Dominique Laxalt, in Robert Laxalt. "Basque Sheepherders: Lonely Sentinels of the American West." National Geographic, June 1966, p. 882.

Literally thousands of sheepherders have lived and worked in Nevada during the last 120 years. Most of them were not visited by census takers, but many of them left their names on aspen trees. Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe's database of carvings on Peavine Mountain documents some of the names. The records of the Western Range Association and other immigration groups also include names of some (but not all) of the herders they sponsored. Writers, filmmakers and researchers have interviewed some of the sheepherders and arborglyph carvers who, in telling their own stories, are telling the stories of many other unknown sheepherders who passed through Northern Nevada. Most of those who were interviewed, however, were those who stayed. We would like to include the stories of those who returned to the Basque Country, and we encourage those who returned as well as those who stayed to send us your stories so we can include them in the exhibit.

Vicente BilbaoPhoto of Vicente Balbao
Born in 1887 in Bizkaia in the Basque Country, he joined his brother in the U.S. as a young man. He worked for several sheep outfits in Nevada. An oral history provides details of the life of this sheepherder in the 1920s and 1930s (includes photographs).
Dominique LaxaltPhoto portrait
His son Robert immortalized him in his book Sweet Promised Land. Without the book, he would have been known primarily as the patriarch of Nevada's most famous Basque family, as the father of Paul Laxalt, a governor and senator, and Robert Laxalt, author, professor, and founder of the University of Nevada Press. Robert also talks about his father's sheepherding experiences in an oral history interview.
Eugenio SarrateaPhoto portrait
Eugenio was the oldest of the six sheepherding Sarratea brothers. His younger brothers included Anastasio, Fulgencio, and Ignacio, Pedro, Tiburco. Eugenio's arborglyphs are found near Gray Creek, Nevada and Juniper Creek, California. Eugenio explained in an 1989 interview that newly arrived Basque sheepherders discovered that creating arborglyphs was considered a "tradition" here and, since tradition is so fundamental to the Basque culture, dared not ignore it.
Video interview
Pedro SarrateaPhoto portrait
As a young Basque sheepherder, "Pete" celebrated the Basque holiday of San Fermin on July 7, 1965 in the U.S. by going fishing and then carving an arborglyph that depicted himself in the act of pulling a fish from a creek. Four years earlier, he had carved an arborglyph of a stately house on a tree on Mount Rose.
Video interview
Jesus ArriagaPhoto portrait
"Jess" relates the story of his first night on the job as a sheepherder in Fresno when a goat knocked down a fence which allowed all of the sheep under his care to wander into the adjoining alfalfa field. On June 25, 1966, Jesus carved an arborglyph halfway up Mount Rose that expressed his delight in having reached the Tahoe Meadows.
Video interview
Etienne MaizzcorenaSepia portrait
Arborglyph artist
One of the legendary tree carvers of Northern Nevada in the early part of the 20th century, Etienne, aware of the merit of his art, Maizcorena chose a site for his "gallery" near a kanpo handia in Humboldt County, where all his arborglyphs "hang" some eight or nine feet above the ground. It is presumed that he created these arborglyphs while standing on either a horse or a ladder to prevent anyone else from touching, overcarving, or disturbing them.