Emigrants carved a niche for themselves in the Great Basin.

BY DAVID MCCORMICK

Basque sheepherder at Dangberg Ranch, Douglas County, 1940 © Library of Congress

When the Basques emigrated from their enclaves in Europe to Nevada, they traded a mild and damp climate for the extremes of the arid summers and snowy winters that they encountered in the Great Basin. But what drew the Basques to this landscape so foreign from their own? Gold!

Many found themselves in Nevada via the California gold rush. Some came directly from Basque regions in Spain and France, while others who had fled to Argentina to escape civil war in Spain in the 1830s made the trek north when the news of the gold discovery reached them in 1848. Like many, they found the gold was elusive and had to look to other means to make their fortunes. Those that came up from South America often had experience in handling livestock and set up operations in California’s Central Valley. These close-knit groups of family and friends found financial success.

Bakarra Basque Bistro in Winnemucca © Sean Gallian

OPPORTUNITY ON THE HORIZON

News of the discovery of silver on The Comstock in 1859 drew many from California to Nevada. By the 1860s, many of the Basques moved their ranch operations eastward. California’s burgeoning population drove land prices higher and pushed livestock operations to more undervalued lands.

These new livestock outfits drew more Basques to the expanse of Nevada’s Great Basin. Jean Garat, the Arranbide brothers, and the Altube brothers were three names among many Basques whose ranching operations flourished in the high-desert grazing lands. Starting in 1871, the Altubes began moving operations into Nevada’s western Elko County. Other ranching outfits would follow, making Elko County the nucleus of livestock operations.

The Altubes’ large livestock venture—the Spanish Ranch—as well as other sheep operations drew a large number of Basque immigrants from the old country that settled into the region. From this large labor pool, the sheep-raising industry drew workers. Starting in 1890, a large wave of Basques—as part of a larger influx of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe—arrived in Nevada. But what would drive so many Basques, at the twilight of the 19th century, from their homelands seeking a new life in America? Not gold and silver as in the previous generation. Political and economic turmoil seemed to be the driving catalysts and the offer of steady employment in sheepherding in Nevada, among kindred spirits, was a big draw.

 

SEA TO SAGE

Basque sheepherder in central Nevada © Lynn Starnes

The journey was an arduous one, beginning with the week-long sea voyage, most likely in steerage, from a European port city such as Bordeaux. This was followed by a trip, just a day shy of a week, aboard a train to reach Nevada. These newcomers were most likely illiterate and had little or no knowledge of handling sheep; it was definitely on-the-job training. It was a lonely vigil for those unaccustomed to the hard life of a sheepherder. When taking a little respite away from his domicile in the high desert, the sheepherder sometimes let off steam that was reminiscent of cowboys at a cattle drive who got drunk and shot up the town. And it was not unheard of for sheepherders to get into a fracas over grazing rights that sometimes turned deadly.

Oftentimes, when new arrivals got on their feet financially, they might take lambs in place of wages to start their own small flocks. Their sheep would intermingle with their employer’s herd, which was a win-win for all. The employer could be assured the sheepherder would pay extra special attention to the entire flock, to protect his new investment. Sometimes this would progress into something larger; small sheep holders would band together and purchase property. During the 1890s, many Basques charted that course to financial success, which bolstered the Basque community’s bonds to the sheep industry in Nevada.

NEVADA RAPPORT

The Martin Hotel, Winnemucca © Kazue Kurebayashi
Picon Punch with wine and bread, J.T. Basque Bar and Restaurant in Gardnerville © Kippy S. Spilker

One such Basque success story was that of Charles Garteiz. He arrived in Nevada during the 1890s and settled in Humboldt County. At only 14-years old he found work as a ranch hand. Shortly thereafter, he established a business with his two brothers Frank and Pete. They had learned their lessons well from the generation previous to theirs, investing in livestock, in land, and in equipment needed to successfully operate their sheep holdings. One thing they never lost sight of was the old country “pipeline” from which they drew their Basque laborers. Success carried them into the 1920s, when they purchased property at Bill Creek—located close to Winnemucca—and another nearby parcel. By this time, the Basques had fused themselves into a solid community within Nevada. Their strong business ventures, water holdings, farms, and mercantile businesses—which led to a positive fiscal status within their own group—also garnered them acceptance from non-Basque neighbors. Even those who didn’t hold land, while on a lower financial rung, were accepted as solid upright citizens.

The Star, Elko © Cody Castle
Elko Basque mural © Susanne Reese

Basque immigrants in Nevada fared better than their Italian brethren, who immigrated to America’s southern states, and were caught up in the illegal peonage system. Part of the reason was that the Italians from southern Italy were looked down on as an inferior race. But with the Basques of Nevada, their success in the sheep industry earned them a higher status. Along with the status came the erroneous assessment that they were culturally suited to be sheepherders; even though many Basques arriving in Nevada had little knowledge of sheepherding.

TRADITION FADED, NOT FORGOTTEN

Looking from the outside in, sheepherding and Basques in Nevada go hand-in-hand. But for the Basque immigrant life wasn’t that simple. First, he had to overcome a language barrier, as well as homesickness. He then had to learn a completely foreign skill—herding sheep—under strenuous circumstances. To gain a sense of the breadth of Basque-livestock operations in the Great Basin, one has only to examine the results of the 1907 liquidation sale of the Altube properties: there were 20,000 cattle, 2,000 horses, and 20,000 sheep. Land controlled by the company consisted of 400,000 acres with 6,000 in meadows and 40,000 acres fenced.

Traditional handmade bread oven © Susanne Reese
Elko Basque Festival © Susanne Reese

Both World War I and World War II affected the Nevada sheep industry. Manpower was in short supply as many American Basques served in both wars. During these times, sheep operations had expanded to the point where the conduit that supplied Basques from the old country could not keep up with the need. Another event that affected manpower was the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. During that upheaval, many Basques fled to Mexico and Latin America. In 1944, the shortage of Basque sheepherders was so great, two of Elko County’s sheep men—D.A. Hughes and Pete Aloio—traveled by plane to Mexico to scare up sorely needed sheepherders. World War II marked the last major Basque migration to America, and by the time the 1970s rolled around, the sheep industry had diminished to a mere specter of its past glory days.

Even with the sheep industry past its prime, the influence of Basque culture in Nevada is as strong as ever due to the determination of a culture that flourished so far away from home.

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