Basque Ranching Culture Thrives

In the annals of western history, there is perhaps an overfictionalization of the conflicts between sheep and cattle on western ranges. There were some range wars, but in reality, both sheep and cattle were often run on the same ranch, especially in the Great Basin.

A good example is northeastern Nevada's Spanish Ranch, where at one time reportedly 18,000 head of cattle and 12,000 sheep ran on the same ranch. This ranch today still runs both sheep and cattle, though not in those numbers.

A sheep outfit sells two crops a year - wool fleece and lamb meat. Cow-calf operators sell one crop - calves.

Many ranches, particularly in California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada, were involved in the range sheep business because it was profitable. And the shepherds who tended their flocks were almost invariably Basque, a people with a homeland - northern Spain and southern France - but no one nation to call their own.

When the Basque herders first arrived in America in the mid-1800s, sheep herding was a job that required no knowledge of the English language and little formal education - but for an ambitious man provided an opportunity to acquire his own sheep band within a few short years. One could take sheep in exchange for wages and then head out with a band into the then-unclassified public lands administered by the United States government.

This was all before the U.S. Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, which divided and designated livestock grazing allotments on public lands. These sheep bands were called "tramp sheep outfits." The new sheep owner, once he became established, sent back to the Basque country for a relative or friend, and the process started all over again.

At one time there were more than a million sheep in Nevada, and Elko County had the largest concentration of Basque sheepherders in the United States. There were approximately 100,000 head of sheep on summer range in Nevada's Ruby Mountains as late as 1973. A dozen years later, most sheep outfits and their Basque herders were gone. Reasons for the range sheep business demise included falling lamb and wool prices coupled with an increase in such imports, predators, changes in federal livestock land practices and problems finding men willing to assume the lonely sheepherder life. Most contemporary contract sheepherders now come from South American countries, mainly Peru and Chile.

Basques today, however, continue to play significant roles in the region's livestock industry. Many Basque sheep men's children and grandchildren are successful cattle ranchers and business people throughout the Great Basin. Their heritage is a unique and colorful part of the American West.

The origins of the Basque people are still a mystery, although some consider them direct descendants of the Iberians, people who once inhabited Spain. Their unique language is called Euskera, and is unrelated to any Indo-European language today. They are an inherently friendly, fiercely independent people who were known in the Middle Ages as skilled boatmakers and courageous whale hunters. Later generations grew up in an agrarian society and worked with their livestock on isolated mountain farms throughout the Pyrenees Mountains.

Immigration

Basque immigration to the western United States, sparked by both poverty in the homeland and a reluctance to serve either France or Spain in their colonial wars, began around 1850, when gold was discovered in California. Many Basques soon learned, however, that gold was hard to find, and turned to working and owning livestock on ranches. Basque-owned itinerant sheep bands soon ranged from the Pacific Coast to the High Sierras. By the early 1860s, many Basques had become established ranchers, and they were so prominent in the western range sheep business that they were regarded as the industry's founders.

The Basque sheepherder, just starting out, was near the bottom of the social order in the West. But many of these men viewed the life as something to be endured temporarily because they would be rewarded with enough saved wages that, when they returned to their homeland, they could purchase their own businesses or farms. Some did return home; many others stayed.

By the 1870s, expanded agriculture and over crowded California rangelands pushed stockmen beyond the Sierra Mountains into the high desert of the Great Basin. This arid country with its vast rangelands and snow-capped mountains became a magnet for Basque people in America. Coming from a region barely 100 miles across in any direction, Basques were amazed at this new land's size.

Bernardo and Pedro Altube, who were born in the Basque country, first settled in California, then sold their ranch and bought 3,000 head of cattle in Old Mexico and trailed these cattle from there to Independence Valley in northwestern Elko County, Nevada. Their ranch, near Tuscarora, was roughly 20 miles long by 10 miles wide, with thousands of additional government-owned acres adjoining. The Altubes and other California stockmen also brought with them the customs and traditions of the Old California Spanish vaqueros, which helped form Nevada's buckaroo tradition we know today.

Range sheep didn't begin to arrive in earnest in the Elko County area until the early 1900s, when the Altube brothers began running large sheep bands using Basque herders. The Spanish Ranch, today operated by the Ellison Ranching Company, was part of the vast Altube domain and is still one of the largest ranches in Elko County.

Another Basque livestock family, John Baptiste and Garacianna Garat, originated the YP brand in California, which is believed to be the third-oldest brand in the country. The Garats were French Basque who came to Nevada in 1874, where they purchased 320 acres near the White Rock settlement in northeastern Elko County. This began a four-generation ranching tradition that grew into one of the largest ranching empires in the county.

The Garat family sold their ranch in 1939, shortly after John Garat II died, to the Petan Land and Livestock Company, owned by Pete and Ann Jackson. The Jackson family continues to run livestock in this same area today, and the YP iron is still used to brand their cattle. The original Garat family home is now the Petan YP Company headquarters.

The Sheepherders

When a young Basque herder arrived in America from halfway around the world, he was met by the sheep owner, who many times was a relative. At the main ranch headquarters the young herder was provided with a tent, pack burro or mule, packsaddle and panniers, a bedroll of heavy blankets and canvas tarp, Dutch oven for cooking, rifle, canteen, sheep hook and other articles for daily sheep work. A sheep dog (or dogs) completed his outfit, serving as companion and an essential partner in working sheep on the open range. Many seasoned sheep dogs knew more about herding sheep than the young Basque immigrants who were starting out.

While the right clothes and equipment could help the young herder withstand physical elements of the Great Basin, nothing could prepare him for the emptiness and silence of the vast distances that surrounded him in his new environment. Herding sheep in the least populated region of the United States placed these men in situations that often bordered on total isolation. Most endured the loneliness, but those overwhelmed by the strange country and isolation became victims of a condition the Basque referred to as txamisuek jota, or "struck by sagebrush." They became very reclusive and didn't wish to meet or speak with strangers.

It's an art form to handle range sheep alone with no fences and no night corrals. A sheepherder handled up to 1,200 head, relying only on himself, his horse and dogs, usually Border Collies or Australian Shepherds. The herders had to constantly guard against predators such as mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and bears, and had to keep moving the band to fresh water and grazing. The goal was to produce heavy lambs for sale at fall shipping.

Recollections

Three former Basque sheepherders - Nicolas Fagoaga, Jose "Chapo" Leniz and Eustaquio Murubarria - remembered their early years in the business:

"I came to Nevada from Basque country in 1951," Fagoaga said. "I had no experience in handling sheep; I was a cabinetmaker. My brother talked me into coming to America. They sent me into the Ruby Mountains with a pack burro and tent to work for a sheep man named Tony Smith. My first camp was in a place called Rattlesnake Canyon. I hated the Rubies. They were rough, steep and very dangerous."

Many Basque herders called the Ruby Mountains mata hombres, which in Spanish means "man killers."

"I did not like to be alone," Fagoaga continued. "The camp tender would come to my camp every five days. If I was out with my sheep, he left the groceries near my camp and went on. I lasted four months.

"My brother said, 'Stick it out. You'll become used to it.' I told him no, I was leaving for California. I went to work on a ranch out of Dixon, California, where I helped take care of the sheep on the ranch; there were other people around and we ate our meals as a family. I liked this much better and stayed with the sheep business for five years, then came back to Elko and started a construction business." Fagoaga, now retired, lives in Elko.

Leniz came to America in 1954 and went to work in the Jarbidge Mountains in northeastern Nevada for sheep man Pete Elia.

"For three years," Leniz said, "I lived in a tent, packed a burro and walked to my sheep. Then I came to the Rubies and went to work for the Sorenson Sheep outfit. They promoted me to camp tender because I had learned a little English and some of the ways of sheep. I took care of six summer bands."

A summer band is a herd of sheep comprised of 1,000 to 1,200 ewes with their lambs and cared for by one herder and his dogs.

"One day a week," Leniz said, "I baked the bread for these herders." The bread was baked in Dutch ovens, buried in the coals from sagebrush or aspen wood fires.

"I rode a horse and packed supplies for each herder on pack mules, visiting each herder every five days, which meant there were no days off for me. Our main camp was in Secret Pass between the East Humboldt Range and the Ruby Mountains. I enjoyed the mountains and the life of a camp tender." Leniz is now retired and lives in Elko.

Murubarria went to work for sheep man Paul Enchauspe, Austin, Nevada, in the Toiyobe Mountains beginning in 1957, and stayed at it for 25 years. "Eighteen of those years were spent herding, and then I moved to Paul's main ranch and took care of his cows, horses and sheep," Murubarria said. "I herded sheep year-round for 18 years. In winter, we'd take our bands south into the desert. I stayed alone most of the time and it didn't bother me. After 25 years of herding sheep and ranch work, I moved to Elko and now work for the school district as a custodian, and own a home in Elko."

Even Murubarria admits he's "glad to be in town and around some people."

Tree Carvings

A portion of Basque sheepherder history is recorded on aspen trees throughout mountains in the Great Basin and in other western states. Solitary for four or five months during the summer, seeing only the camp tenders once a week, herders used tree carving to alleviate boredom and loneliness, and to record events. They wanted to leave their marks on the landscape and carved a record of their presence on the bark of aspen trees with a knife or sharp object for other sheepherders to see. Black scar tissue builds up on the tree's white bark. As the tree continues to grow, vertical scratch lines widen more than horizontal ones, causing a unique tree-carving style.

Some of the earliest tree carvings made by Basque herders date to 1895. There is no known tradition of tree carvings in the Basque country, so it's assumed that the sheepherder artists in America simply saw the work of past herders, who'd camped in the same location, and added their own tree drawings. Frequently, the carvings are only a name and date, and might include the name of a hometown or province in the Basque country. Occasionally there are drawings of women, animals or objects. Some herders left messages telling where they were going or where they had been, what had happened that day or where the best feed and water was.

The Basque Studies Program of the Desert Research Institute, University of Nevada in Reno, has done scientific studies of these tree carvings, which are termed "arborglyphs." Other Basque landscape marks are stone cairns called harrimutilak, or stone boys. These piles of stone were built to mark their routes and to pass the herder's time, and many stone boys can still be seen in the Great Basin.

The Seasons

Seasonal routines varied little. Each cycle began by driving sheep to spring lambing grounds, chosen for protection from prevailing winds and for plentiful grass and water. Ewes were sheared after lambing, male lambs were castrated and all the lambs' tails were "docked" (bobbed off) for cleanliness. The lambs were earmarked, and the ewes and lambs were marked with paint using the owner's brand. Next, the herders trailed their ewes and lambs to the mountains, moving up from the sagebrush flats, through juniper foothills, into the aspen-lined creeks of the mountains for summer. This was done slowly, allowing the herd to graze along the way.

During the hot summer months of July and August, sheep left their bed ground on an open hillside just after daylight and began to graze. The herder left his camp long before daylight to check on his band. Black sheep were used as markers, and the herder counted the blacks. If they were all with the band, chances were all the sheep were together. If a black sheep was missing, then the herder and his dogs set out in search of the missing black and whatever other sheep had gone with this marker.

Bells placed around the necks of some ewes also were used to help keep track of the band. The sheep grazed downhill to water, then shaded up and rested during the heat of the day. Then they started to graze uphill until dark. The herder and his dogs positioned the band on an open hillside for the night, then the herder headed for his tent or stayed with his band with his bedroll, rifle and dogs if coyotes or mountain lions were killing his sheep.

Come fall, the bands moved back to the lower desert and two summer bands often merged; aging ewes and lambs were sorted and sent to market. With the bands' size reduced, some herders went to town for winter. Others headed their bands toward winter range, which was sometimes hundreds of miles from summer range.

On the trip to winter range, and during winter months, herders lived in sheep wagons. The sheep wagon, a forerunner of the modern travel trailer, is a camp on wheels with beds, a table and a wood stove. It was pulled in the old days by a horse team, and later by a pickup. During this time, two herders sometimes shared a camp. One drove the team or pickup pulling the camp; the other rode his horse and moved the sheep, with the help of his dogs.

Basque Hotels

Several Basque hotels still operate in towns throughout Nevada. One of these is the Star in Elko, a 22-room hotel and restaurant built in 1910 to provide a winter home for sheepherders. The meeting and resting place for Basque herders who had no other homes, it still serves as a home for retired Basque herders. In addition to the Star, Elko has three other fine Basque restaurants - Toki Ona, The Nevada and Biltoki. Basque food and drink are popular Great Basin specialties. Meals are served family-style, as they always have been, both to residents and the general public.

National Basque Festival

Elko is still the center of Nevada Basque, and Basque descendants continue traditions of their old homeland, including customs, language, dances, dress and food. The National Basque Festival, dating back to 1964, is held in Elko the first weekend of July to celebrate these traditions, and visitors are invited to join in the fun and "become Basque for a weekend."

In addition to all the games, food, music and dancing the festival offers, another popular event was added a few years ago - Running from the Bulls! Mexican fighting bulls are brought in from Idaho, and the spectacle is similar to the Running of the Bulls held in Pamplona, Spain.

Portable fence panels are installed to establish a confined running course on almost two blocks of street in downtown Elko. Bulls are confined in a stock trailer on one end of the course, and contestants - who must be at least 18 years old, sober, and sign a liability release, run ahead of the bulls to a confinement pen at the other end of the course. Runners are encouraged to wear white shirts and pants, red scarves and a sash in traditional Basque dress. An estimated 5,000 spectators were on hand for this last year.

For more information: Elko Basque Club, Box 1321, Elko, NV 89803; 775-738-9957; www.elkobasque.com.