Basque People Arrive in the New World
Basque people come from a small region bordering the Bay of Biscay and straddling the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain and France.
They speak a language unlike any of their European neighbors. In fact their language is unique in the world and thought to be at least 5000 years old. This means the Basque people have lived in their European homeland for at least 5000 years and maybe much longer, making their culture possibly the oldest in Europe.
Because the Basque homeland encompasses climatic zones from marine to alpine, the Basque people are mariners, fishermen, farmers, ranchers and miners as well as shopkeepers, blacksmiths, millers and bakers.
In the past and today they tend to produce much of their own food and material goods and were able to barter for other goods with agricultural products.
Basque people came to the New World with Columbus in 1492. In fact, they are said to have made up at least half of his crew. After the New World was discovered, many Basque colonists settled in South and Central America.
The first wave of Basque immigrants to western North America came after 1849 to the gold fields of California. Many stayed on after the Gold Rush to run flocks of sheep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
At the end of the 1800's, when grazing land became overcrowded in the Sierras, the herdsmen moved out into the High Desert into Nevada, northeastern California, southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon.
Basques in Southeastern Oregon
Steens Mountain is an ideal place to pasture sheep in the spring and summer. Because of its significant elevation, ample supplies of feed and water would be available to the flocks even in the heat of the summer.
Beginning in the late 1800's Basque men moved into southeastern Oregon, many as sheepherders and ranch hands, some with herds of their own. Basque women came as well to work on ranches and in the boarding houses as maids and cooks.
Beginning in the spring, after lambing, the sheep would move off their winter pastures in the low valleys and work their way up Steens Mountain as the snow melted and the grass began to grow.
The sheepherders would tend their flocks with the help of trained sheep dogs. The life of a sheepherder was very solitary and many did not see another human soul except when the camp tender periodically delivered food supplies. Many times their only company was their sheep dogs, a guitar, their memories of home and family.
Many of the quaking aspens on the mountain have been carved with names, dates, sayings and pictures of women, guitars and swords. At the end of summer the flocks were herded down the mountain to various shipping points, where many of the lambs were sent to market. Then the herders either stayed on at the ranches or moved to boardinghouses in the larger towns like Burns or Jordan Valley.
Few traces of the Basque herders are left on Steens Mountain. Place names, carvings on aspens trees and a few small sheep camps with cabins or shelters are all that remain of over a half century of sheep herding on Steens Mountain.
A thriving Basque people and culture can be found in various places in the intermountain West. A number of towns and cities have Basque hotels and restaurants. Basque dance clubs and festivals are a yearly occurrence.
The Basques have made a significant contribution to the history and culture of Harney and Malheur Counties.