Tag: sheepherding

“The Time of the Lambing and Shearing” – A New Exhibit at the Basque Museum & Cultural Center in Boise

If you’re near Boise this week, check out the opening of what promises to be a fascinating new exhibit, “The Time of Lambing and Shearing,” at the Basque Museum & Cultural Center. The opening and reception take place on Thursday, February 23, at 6:00 pm.

The exhibit is based on the work of photojournalist Jan Boles, who in 1976 photographed the last lambing and shearing operations at the J.D. Aldecoa and Son, Inc ranch for a feature for the Idaho Free Press. Just recently, we posted a response to a reader’s query about native Basque breeds of sheep (see the post here) and it got us to thinking that there is a potentially a major narrative to be written about the role of sheep and sheepherding in forging the American West.  Lambing and shearing are two key cultural as well as practical events in the calendar of any sheepherding culture, bringing communities together. In the Basque case, such times would have represented a great example of auzolan. According to Wikipedia, the sheep-shearing feast is the setting for Act IV of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. And sixteenth-century English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser even created  a verse for the occasion:

Wife make us a dinner, spare flesh neither corne,
Make wafers and cakes, for our sheepe must be shorne,
At sheep shearing neighbors none other thing craue,
but good cheer and welcome, like neighbors to haue

Even if you can’t  make it to the opening tomorrow, this promises to be well worth a visit. We’re sure the exhibit will be yet another wonderful addition by the Basque Museum & Cultural Center to a greater understanding of the importance and contribution of Basques to this more general story.

It goes without saying that the seminal Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, by William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao is  must read for anyone interested in the importance of the sheep industry to the Basque experience in the United States. For the Old World experience, check out Sandra Ott’s superb ethnography, The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community.

Tales from Basques in the United States: A Wild West story


Southeastern Oregon countryside near Downey Canyon where these tragic events took place.

Today’s story in our weekly look into the lives of ordinary Basques who came to the US is adapted from vol. 1 of Basques in the United States and concerns the sad story of (Raimundo) Domingo Aldecoa Egaña.

BUS cover

Born in the Kurtziaga neighborhood of Ispaster, Bizkaia, ca. 1884, he arrived in New York City on Apr. 21, 1903 and went to Oregon, where his uncle Juan Acarregui lived. Domingo Aldecoa became a sheep camp tender and a partner in a third of a large herd in Jordan Valley. He gradually built up his own herd of 2,100 sheep that every year during lambing season he would take to Downey Canyon, OR.

In the spring of 1910 another sheepman named Blanchett decided to take his herd to lamb to the same canyon, arriving there before Aldecoa. On Apr. 1 Aldecoa started to move his herd toward the canyon. Two herders were guiding it, one of them his younger brother. Obviously he did not seem to know that Blanchett had arrived with his sheep ahead of him. On April 3 Aldecoa arrived and with the other herders and began setting up camp. Charles Wear, one of Blanchett’s herders came up to the Basque camp and, aiming his gun at Aldecoa, ordered him to abandon the site. Domingo agreed, even though he had been coming with his herd to the same spot for many years.

Around 4pm that same day the two Basque herders moving Domingo’s sheep arrived at a hill overlooking the canyon. Blanchett and Wear saw them and started moving their herd toward the Basque herders. When the two herds were about 200 yards from each other, the Basques started to move their animals away so they would not mix. Wear and Blanchett advanced toward the Basque herders, who tried to explain to them that they were going to the camp Domingo was preparing. Then Wear pulled his revolver out and began insulting and attacking them. The Basques moved the sheep about 2 miles away and young Aldecoa went looking for his brother. Meanwhile, Wear went to the Basque camp and pulled the tents down, scattering their provisions and clothes. Young Aldecoa went to the ranch and told his brother all that had happened. Domingo then went to Jordan Valley and the following morning went back to the camp, intending to pick up the things and take them over to Jordan Creek.

At this time the two herds were about 1,000 feet apart from each other. Young, one of Blanchett’s herders who had spent the night with the herd (and who would turn into the prosecutor’s principal witness), reported that Wear came to their camp and told him go eat dinner. Wear was armed with a rifle and a revolver. About 1,000 feet away he saw Domingo picking things up. Wear entered the Basque camp and Young heard some shots. Young said he then saw Domingo running away and Wear chasing him. Domingo had a gun in his hand and was bleeding and came to Blanchett’s camp seeking Young’s help. But Wear caught up with him and shot him dead in cold blood. Charles Wear was sentenced to life imprisonment (Idaho Statesman, May 7, 1910).

We intend for Basques in the United States to be more than just an encyclopedic reference; we’d like it to be a true forum for sharing stories and anecdotes about the thousands of Basque women and men who forged new lives for themselves in the US.

If you’d like to share your own family stories with us, please click here at our dedicated Basques in the United States Project website.

Tales from Basques in the United States: If you ever needed reminding that Basques had a reputation for working hard…

Today’s story in our series of tales from Basques in the United States is adapted from vol. 1 and concerns the amazing feat of record-breaking Antonio Malasechevarria, brother of the more tragic “Txomin” covered in a previous post.

Jan eta lo, potolo (“The Devil makes work for idle hands,” literally: “Just eating and sleeping makes you fat”)

 Lan onak, uzta ona (“Good work, good harvest”)

Gus Bundy.

Long, lonely days on remote mountains were the norm for newly arrived Basque sheepherders. Photo courtesy of Gus Bundy, from the Basque Archive.

Born Apr. 22, 1890 in Gizaburuaga, Bizkaia, he arrived in New York City in 1910 and went straight to Winnemucca, NV, to meet up with his brother, Juan, who was working in Paradise Valley. He became a sheepherder and, after stints in Humboldt Co., NV, he ended up working for Jay H. Dobbins in southern Idaho and Oregon. In 1918 the media reported that he had broken a record that was difficult to match: He had worked a straight 38 months and 5 days or 3 years, 2 months, and 5 days, without taking a single day off! What’s more, he didn’t receive a single penny for any of this mammoth work shift until it was over, and he went into a town only when passing through. In the end, he received a check for $2,018. Antonio was one of the five “Bascos” contracted by Dobbins in the spring of 1915. Another compatriot, José Arriaga, had also worked 2 years straight without rest (Oregonian, Jul. 7, 1918).

We intend for Basques in the United States to be more than just an encyclopedic reference; we’d like it to be a true forum for sharing stories and anecdotes about the thousands of Basque women and men who forged new lives for themselves in the US.

If you’d like to share your own family stories with us, please click here at our dedicated Basques in the United States Project website.

The ethnic bonding of Basque immigrant workers in the American West

In my paper for the recent 50th Conference of the Western Literature Association in Reno, under the title “From ‘Black Bascos’ to ‘White’ Subjects: Basque Sheepherders and Racial Narratives in the American West,” I explored how Basque immigrants learned their place in the new country. From experiencing exclusion and discrimination to an assimilation and legitimization process between the interwar and post-WWII periods, Basque ranch workers in the sheep business consciously pursued adaptive strategies that emphasized their identity with the Anglo-population. In this paper (part of my present doctoral dissertation that I will complete next Spring 2016), I analyzed how the increasing importance of race became a crucial element in the transformation and consolidation of the Basque immigrant community in the West.

You can follow my research on Academia and LinkedIn.


A Basque sheepherder. Dangberg Ranch, Douglas County, Nevada. 1940. Source: Library of Congress



A Visit to Basque Summit


Basque Summit shows many signs of recent use, but not much information about its past.


Approaching Basque Summit along Topia Creek at the end of a long Nevada summer day.

When I am not being a Basque books editor, one of my favorite activities is exploring little known and out-of-the-way places in the great state of Nevada that we call home. On one of these recent trips, to the Desatoya Mountains west of Fallon in central Nevada, I was browsing the Nevada Gazetteer when I stumbled across a familiar place name: Basque Summit. Curiosity being what it is, I decided that we had to visit this place. We set up our camp in a little meadow well below the summit and walked up the road toward the summit in the growing shadows of an early summer Nevada evening, surrounded by sagebrush and juniper covered peaks away. The road we were on had once followed the Pony Express Trail as it made its way across almost innumerable Nevada mountain ranges arranged running north and south like an armada amassing to sail north to the pole.

We arrived at the summit at sunset, surrounded by juniper-covered hills and with a stock pen and loading chute. A typical Nevada place, more inclined toward production than toward tourism. I wondered why it had been called Basque Summit. Due to sheepherders, certainly, but why the generic Basque, instead of the name of someone specific? Was this the only place where Basques congregated in these mountains? Was it the only place where sheep were allowed? Was the name a sign of conflict, or of peaceful relations between neighbors? Or something else altogether?

When I returned to the office I tried to learn something more about this place, but, again like so many places in Nevada and the West in general, its name refused to give up much about its history and so much is left to the imagination. The only information of any kind I could find was in Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe’s Speaking through the Aspens where he writes:

The headwaters of Edwards Creek and Topia Canyon in the Desatoya Range are known as “Basque Summit,” which suggests intense sheepherding activities in the past. Lack of aspens is the chief reason little carved evidence of sheepherders remains. The groves now standing are in poor shape because of canker, drought, or other causes, taking a severe toll on the arborglyphs. In both mountain ranges [referencing the Desatoyas and the neighboring Clan Alpine Mountains] most dates begin in the 1920s and multiply in the following decade.

Not much information to go on, but he does also write, very interestingly,

Traversing Basque Summit from north to south, a side jeep road takes you to Billy Canyon. Here the trees are hemmed in by mountains and have survived the wind, which explains the older carved dates. One of the oldest carvings anywhere is here, dated 1872, but it is not totally clear.

So, while I may not have learned much about Basque Summit, I have found more fodder for further explorations!