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University of Nevada, Reno

Sheep in Nevada: A History

HistorySheep in corral
The first domestic sheep in Nevada traveled with wagon trains on their way to California, as early as 1841. During the gold rush, thousands of sheep were driven from New Mexico to California, across Nevada, to feed the miners.
1900Bighorn sheep
Bighorn Sheep were native to the Western United States, including the mountain ranges of Nevada. By 1900, the wild population had been decimated by diseases brought to them by domestic sheep.
Richen L. “Uncle Dick” Wootton brought 9,000 head of Mexican sheep (churros) across northern Nevada on the way from Taos, NM to the Sacramento Valley in California, along with 6 goats, one dog, and 22 herdsmen, 14 of them Mexican. The trip lasted 107 days, and he sold the 8,900 survivors for $50,000 gross. Read Uncle Dick Wootton’s account of a situation in Nevada during the trip.
The first resident sheepman of Nevada, C.D. Jones, squatted on meadow land in the Carson Valley below Genoa and raised a permanent flock of sheep for breeding purposes. His operation was small, as was his market.
Kit Carson and Thomas Boggs gathered 13,000 churros to bring to the gold country in California, each taking half the flock. Carson grazed his sheep in an area near what is now Carson City before crossing the Sierra Nevada. On his way back, Carson reported seeing 10,000 to 25,000 sheep heading for California.
C.D. Parker settled on ranch lands in Douglas County, raising sheep that later fed miners in the Comstock.
1857Photograph of ranch
H.F. Dangberg from Prussia built a ranch on the East Carson River where he eventually raised sheep. It is believed he got his start by buying weary sheep on trail drives. The Dangberg operation grew to be very large, and still exists. Dangberg introduced alfalfa to Nevada, imported from Chile and called at the time Chilean clover.
More than a half million sheep crossed Nevada going west.
1859-1910Photograph of sheep drive
After the Comstock Lode was discovered, sheep drives changed direction, and thousands of sheep were driven into Nevada from California. In 1862, the first of many sheep drives from California crossed Nevada for destinations to the East. The greatest west-east movement of sheep occurred from 1875-1890.
Early 1860s
A number of sheep ranches were established near mining camps and boom towns in Nevada.
A severe winter killed 2,700 sheep in the Truckee Meadows, Washoe Valley and Carson Valley.
The Federal Homestead Act allowed families to claim 160 of public domain land after living on it for 5 years.
1864Image of Nevada State Seal
Nevada became a state. Byrd Wall Sawyer, the author of Nevada Nomads and the stepmother of a Nevada governor, Grant Sawyer, wrote "It is strange that the Great Seal of the State of Nevada shows no sheep. Somehow, down the years, ranching, the key to prosperity through most of Nevada history, has been taken for granted or overlooked completely. Certainly, if the Seal portrays the resources of the state it should include a sheep."
For the census, Washoe County reported 2,000 head of sheep, Humboldt, Lander, and Nye Counties each listed 1,000.
Warren Williams begins ranching, building a sheep empire that was said to have included over a 100,000 head of sheep. He was active in Nevada politics and founded the town of Fallon.
"Uncle Dan" Wheeler, formerly a cattleman, built a lucrative business raising sheep for wool and for mutton for miners in Virginia City. He purchased land in the Truckee Meadows and established the Steamboat canal to irrigate thousands of acres of brushland.
The Nevada State Livestock Association was formed; during its second year, its members reported having 49,000 sheep.
1877Photograph of large flock of sheep
About 50,000 sheep were driven across Nevada to the east. The Nevada Livestock Association was formed, and sponsored a state fair in 1878. A. Evans, a prominent sheep man, showed Spanish Merinos, a breed well-suited for the Nevada range.
A harsh winter combined with overgrazed range lands decreased the number of sheep in Nevada by 65%.
About 150,000 sheep were driven across Nevada to the east.
About 750,000 sheep were driven across Nevada to the east.
1883Photograph of two loaded wagons
John G. Taylor, arriving from Scotland through California, began earning wool and lambs through the shearing and herding occupations, initially leasing a flock. He became the largest sheep baron in Nevada history, owning over 250,000 acres and leasing a half a million acres. He recruited a large number of sheepherders from the Basque Country, including the Saval brothers, who later built their own sheep empires.
1884Photograph of sheepherder's wagon
The first sheep wagon was built in Wyoming; until 1900, all wagons were manufactured by the Schulte Hardware Company of Casper Wyoming.
Henry Anderson, a Dane who came to Nevada in 1873, began to build a sheep business. His flocks ranged beyond Nevada to California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
The worst winter in Nevada’s history, following a very dry summer, killed an estimated 134,000 cattle in Northern Nevada; sheep fared better and many cattle ranchers switched to sheep raising; some of the remaining cattlemen, fearing the increase in sheep on the range, turned to violence against sheep and herders.
After losing half his sheep during the hard winter, nomad sheepman Patrick Flanigan realized the value of hay-growing land, subsequently building a large diversified empire that included 30,000 sheep. He was the first Nevada sheepman to crossbreed sheep to improve their wool.
1902Photograph of sheep and corral
H.F. Dangberg and his sons formed the Dangberg Land and Live Stock Company. The operation continued to prosper after H.F. dies in 1904, with more than 10,000 sheep and up to 50,000 acres of land.
Patrick Flanigan imported 100 Lincoln rams from England. Bred to Merino ewes, they sired a Rambouillet type of offspring. He was the first Nevada sheepman to crossbreed sheep to improve their wool.
The industry prospered. Nevada sheepmen began to specialize in feeder lambs, abandoning the practice of fattening sheep through grazing. The growth of California's population provided a stable market.
A new immigration law set an annual quota for Spanish nationals at 131.
The "Bull Bloc" in the Nevada legislature succeeded in passing the 1931 Range Act, Senate Bill 127, to restrict sheep grazing on public lands. It was superseded by the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934.
One of the worst droughts in the Great Basin forced sheepmen to find new areas for grazing. The Taylor Grazing Act put an end to the nomadic aspect of the sheep industry in Nevada and the rest of the Western United States.
1940-1943Photograph of sheep in chute being loaded onto transport vehicle
During World War II, sheepherders were scarce, and some outfits combined two herds into one to cut down on the number of men needed; an estimated 140,000 sheep were sold due to lack of labor.
Sheepmen organized in western and eastern Nevada to implement herder importation programs. The Nevada Range Sheep Owners Association was established, with John Dangberg as president.
At least 66 Basques in exile in Mexico were brought to Nevada to herd sheep.
1949Photograph of hay drop
A very hard winter brought out military boxcar planes to drop hay for stranded or hungry sheep and cattle. See stories and photos of Operation Haylift.
Nevada's Senator Patrick McCarren successfully sponsored Public Law 587 to allow 250 Basque sheepherders to enter the U.S.
The California Range Association was organized "for the purpose of alleviating the critical shortage of labor in the industry." The name was later changed to the Western Range Association.
Public Law 307 permitted another 500 herders to be sponsored for immigration.
893 Basque sheepherders had entered the U.S. under the special immigration program
1957Photo portrait of Laxalt
Robert Laxalt published Sweet Promised Land, a book about his father, Dominique Laxalt, who came to Nevada as a sheepherder.
1,283 herders were under contract to the Western Range Association (WRA). Contract wages were $230/month in Nevada for a herder's first year, with $10 increases each year for the next two years of the contract.
At the peak of Basque sheepherding, 1,500 herders were under contract to the WRA; 90% were Basque.
742 herders were under contract to the WRA; only 106 were Basque. The industry was in decline, and wages had risen in the Basque Country.

Sources: Golden Fleece in Nevada by Clel Georgetta, Amerikanuak: Basques in the American West by William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao, Nevada Nomads: A Story of the Sheep Industry by Byrd Wall Sawyer, America's Sheep Trails: History, Personalities by Edward N. Wentworth, and Basque Sheepherders of the American West: A Photographic Essay by William A. Douglass and Richard H. Lane.