With the Reno Rodeo running June 18-27, here at the Center we thought it a good moment to reconsider an arguably neglected part of Basque history in the American West: that of Basque cattlemen.

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Photo from Basque Library archive. 

Did you know, for example, that one of the first ever inductees in the Hall of Great Westerners (formerly known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame), in 1960, was a Basque, Pedro Altube, also known as the “Father of the Basques in America”?

Pedro Altube Idigoras was born on May 27, 1827, in Oñati, Gipuzkoa. At age 18 he left his family home for Argentina, where three of his brothers were already established. In 1850, he set sail once more, this time to seek his fortune in the Californian Gold Rush. But such get-rich-quick schemes were not for him and, once his brother Bernardo had joined him from Chile, the two Altube brothers set up a more steadily profitable dairy business in the San Mateo area of California, supplying both San Francisco and the mining camps in the Sierra foothills. After briefly trying his hand at ranching outside of Santa Barbara in the 1860s, in 1871 Pedro once more joined forces with brother Bernardo to establish a huge ranch in Independence Valley, Elko County, Nevada, near the town of Tuscarora, driving 3,000 head of cattle from Mexico to the Great Basin in order to set up the operation.  They named their property Spanish Ranch, which became one of the most prosperous ranches in Nevada. Following his retirement from the cattle industry, Pedro Altube moved to a mansion he had built for himself in San Francisco, where he died in 1905. When Spanish Ranch was sold in 1907, the sale included 400,000 acres of land, 20,000 head of cattle, 20,000 head of sheep (a later addition to the ranch), and 2,000 horses.

So, at a time when Reno dons its Western wear to celebrate Cowboy culture, let’s remember the Basque contribution to the cattle industry of the American West. Let’s remember the Altubes. And let’s also remember their close friends, the Garats, originally from Iparralde or the Northern Basque Country, who also ran a major cattle business after establishing the YP Ranch on the Tuscarora Fork of the Owyhee River in Elko County. Because these Basque families were at the very heart of the struggles and achievements of the cattlemen that, together with others, made the American West.

To learn more about the Altubes, Garats, and more like them, if you haven’t done so already, check out the classic Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, by William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao. See also Nacy Zubiri’s wonderful Travel Guide to Basque America: Families, Feasts, and Festivals, which revisits many of the historic sites associated with the Altubes and Garats, providing useful travel information for those interested in following the Basque trail through the West and beyond.

For a brief online introduction to the significance of Basque ranches in the American West, see the excellent article “Basque Ranching Culture,” by Mike Laughlin. And for a highly evocative first-hand account of frontier life from the perspective of a Basque woman, check out My Mama Marie, by Joan Errea.