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Dwindling down from a peak of more than a million sheep in 1910, Nevada’s sheep empires have vanished.
Photo: Dini Esplin (Copper Mountain area, near Jarbidge)
It was one of those warm, golden days in the sagebrush desert of late summer, when the air was so bright that one’s eyes had to draw into a squint to be able to support it. The desert was quiet and the silence broken only by the scraping of our boots on bare ground, and occasional talk. That was the trouble. Here, at least, it was too quiet.
I had known this sheep ranch since I was a boy. My father had trailed sheep through here on their way to summer range in the forested Sierra that reared in the distance. And more than once, I had stopped here to rest and water the horses that I was driving from winter range to the foothills of the Sierra. Then, the ranch had always been a bustle of activity, corrals filled with milling sheep, the plaintive wails of lambs and the bleating of mothers looking for their wayward offspring.
Now, the ranch was deserted and the corrals abandoned. As we wandered through the maze of weathered brown boards and trampled earth, Batista said in his soft, outside voice, “I had to sell out. The Basque boys don’t want to come over from the old country anymore, because life is getting better over there. They don’t want to spend their best years out in the desert or the mountains herding sheep. You could say they were spoiled, but I can’t blame them for not coming over. We didn’t know it then, because there wasn’t much choice for us, but I guess it was a hard life at that.”
Out of long habit, he paused to straighten and close a gate to a corral that would never hold a head of sheep anymore and said with eyes narrowing in his creased face, “And then there was the coyotes. With that new law protecting them, they are all over the range. They was killing my lambs like rabbits, and there was no way we could stop them. You know yourself, one man with a rifle has no chance in hell to kill one of those things, much less a hundred of them. It was too discouraging, so I quit.”
He was echoing a lament that can be heard throughout Nevada’s range country today. Yet, it is only part of the reason for the decline of the sheep industry. The development of synthetic wools, uncertain world markets, importation of cheaper wool from foreign countries, and a lessening demand for mutton have all contributed to the decline. Dwindling down from a peak of more than a million sheep in 1910, Nevada’s sheep empires have vanished, and only a handful of outfits remain to tend less than 200,000 sheep on private land and the diminishing public domain.
The story of sheep in Nevada was one that began almost by accident. The discovery that sheep could fare on the sagebrush deserts was made in the years of the California Gold Rush. Profits to be made by selling meat to the gold camps were realized by such as Kit Carson, who had been a scout for Fremont in his explorations of the Great Basin. In 1853, Kit Carson trailed some 13,000 sheep from New Mexico through Nevada to Sacramento, setting in motion a movement of half a million sheep across the Nevada deserts.
When the fortunes of the California gold camps waned and silver was discovered in 1859 near what was to become Virginia City, the sheep made a return journey over the Sierra to Nevada to feed the new boom camps. As mining strikes proliferated across the state’s landscape, sheepmen followed. From then on, sheep were never again absent from Nevada.
The years immediately before and after the turn of the century were the years of biggest expansion in the sheep industry. They also saw the beginning of a period of violence between cattlemen and sheepmen over range and water.
The Basques with their free-roaming bands of sheep over the open range were the cattlemen’s common enemy. Vilified by politicians and newspapers aligned for the time being with the established cattle interests, they nevertheless refused to be run off what they considered to be free range. They fought back with a ferocity the cattlemen had never expected, even when outnumbered by marauding bands of buckaroos who shot their invaluable dogs, scattered their sheep, and took shots at the herders themselves.
The range disputes were effectively settled in 1934 by the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which divided the open range between warring factions. From then on, cattlemen and sheepmen learned to live and prosper together. Contrary to the Hollywood-created myth, cattlemen often became sheepmen, sheepmen became cattlemen, and the most far seeing ran cattle and sheep at the same time. It all depended upon the market, and both cattle and sheep used the same essentials of corrals and range and water.
I have known cowboys who herded sheep when buckarooing jobs were scarce, and sheepherders who became buckaroos when market prices for wool and mutton dropped and they were left without jobs. My father and my uncles were typical. All of them came to America as young sheepherders. My father began with sheep, expanded to sheep and cattle together, and finally returned to sheep exclusively. Both of my uncles alternated between sheep and cattle until they died. All of them were good sheepherders and top buckaroos. And along the trail, they had all been riders enough to have tried their hand at the most demanding horseman’s endeavor of all, running down and roping mustangs on the open range.
Though English, Scots, Irish, Mexican, and Chinese were predominant as herders in the beginning, the Basques emerged as the backbone of the range sheep industry. I once asked an English-born sheepman why this was so. He told me that of all the nationalities he had hired as sheepherders, he considered the Scots the most skillful. “But they and the Irish had a breaking point when it came to too much time spent alone,” he said. “When they got fed up, they would walk away from their sheep and go to town for a tear. Not the Basques. They would stay with those sheep until they dropped in their tracks, or went nuts from loneliness, or got rich. Usually, it was the latter.”
Like the rest of Nevada’s nationalities, the Basques were tenacious. In the classic immigrant pattern, they sent home passage money for brothers and nephews to help with the sheep, and sisters and nieces to work in the small Basque hotels. The small hotels, really boarding houses, became gathering places where herders could rest in their off-times or between jobs, speak with their countrymen in a familiar language, meet their future wives, and keep alive the songs and dances of their homeland in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.
The Basques have lived to see themselves regarded as a group unique to the Far West. But plagued by a public domain slowly being withdrawn for recreational uses and lack of young herders, the tradition of the Basque sheepman on the open range will soon be a closed chapter in history. And the aspect of a solitary sheepherder guarding his flocks through winter deserts and summer mountain meadows will have vanished forever from the Nevada scene.
From NEVADA: A History by Robert Laxalt (pictured at left). Copyright © 1977 by the American Association for State and Local History. Published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., and the American Association for State and Local History with support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
“The Sheepmen” was originally published in the No. 2, 1977 edition of Nevada Magazine. The red-tailed hawk cover image teased a feature on birds, and the issue also included a story on Basque sporting events and a Guide to Rock Hunting.
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