Who Are the Basques?

The Roots of Basque Character and the First Diaspora to the United States

By Clare O’Toole
The Basque Homeland

The Basque homeland has a history and cultural significance that defies its modest geographical area. Barely a hundred miles across, this tiny region spans the forests and the granite crests of the Pyrenees mountain zone between France and Spain and is fringed to the north by the rugged coastline of the Bay of Biscay.

Basque landscape.

Basque Country in its totality is known as Euskal Herria. Its modern composition comprises seven provinces; of these, four are Spanish and three are French. The Spanish provinces, Alava, Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa are collectively known as the autonomous community. The fourth and largest Spanish province, Navarra, was granted status as a separate autonomous community. These provinces were accorded the status of nationality in the Spanish Constitution of 1978. French Basque Country or Pays Basque consists of the provinces of Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule, they lie at the northeastern reaches of Euskal Herria.
Cultural Roots

Archaeological evidence suggests there has been some continuity in the ethnicity of the population of the Basque Country for thirty five millenia. The region of the Basque people could hold the secret of the oldest known origins of Homo sapiens in Europe. Genetic research points to a unique and ancient line of descent from central Asia dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Age. These Homo sapiens displaced the earlier Neanderthal population. The coastal areas were first to be settled and then later, at the end of the Ice Age, as hunters turned from large animals to smaller prey and fishing and seafood gathering became prevalent, migration spread to the south. Neolithic pottery fragments have been found dating back to this period marking the spread of Neolithic technology. Sheepherding is also known to have been practiced from these early days but, as is usual with massive cultural shift, progression through the Mediterranean regions was slow.


Although the precise source of the Basque culture is unknown, it is clear the sheepherding instinct and the crafts and practices that accompanied it, is ingrained at the deepest level of Basque culture. As the millenia progressed, cultural practices developed with waves of migration. The Basque region reveals evidence of family burial chambers, the introduction of agriculture to support animal husbandry and the building of stone gathering circles. Basque forefathers created the Pyrenean cave paintings of the Stone Age period.

The Basques are known as Europe’s “Indians” since their language and culture are said to be more ancient than any other in Europe. The Basque language is unique, with its roots showing no connection to the family of Indo-European languages. This uniqueness has been known to stir controversy. Some say the Basques are Atlantians escaped from the lost city of Atlantis; others say they represent the bloodline of Jesus. The romantic images and the ‘who’ and ‘why’ behind them can be misleading. What is clear, is the preservation of Basque society and culture and the ability of these people, over the centuries, to withstand the advance of invading cultures, are quite remarkable.
The Basque Diaspora

The Basque people were never vanquished by Visigoths, Franks, Normans or Arab Moors. It is possible that to some extent, their small, remote, rugged region never represented a coveted target for acquisition. But, significantly, Basques also appear to have learned the value of political expediency, and offered skills and services in exchange for a degree of independence. Two significant aspects of this independence were the establishment and preservation of Basque common laws “fueros” and the preservation of the Basque language. The fueros and the Basque language are the threads that have held Basque society together over the generations and enabled the region to maintain homogeneity despite localized differences evident in the seven districts of Basque country. The significance of Basque political structure to the success and longevity of the society was not lost on the founders of the American Constitution. The second president of the United States, John Adams, cited Basque fueros as a precedent for the development of the Consititution.

Spanish Civil War Soldiers

Basque society has remained intact despite the interplay between the Basques and other cultures and the internal political strains that ensued. Under Spanish occupation from 1512, when part of the region was ceded to France; the Spanish and French learned to respect Basque requirements for autonomy. Basques were considered noblemen in Spanish society and were accorded prominent positions in the church and state. Medieval Basques were Europe’s first whalers. They were accomplished sailors and navigators and were the first people known to circumnavigate the world by sea and ocean.  It was Basque sailors who, in 1492, set sail with Columbus to the New World, where they had pivotal roles in the Spanish colonial government and the expansion of the church for the next three hundred years.

Thus, initial Basque immigrants to the Americas were explorers and part of an expansionist culture. They were not downtrodden folk and, in setting out into the wider world, they took with them, their sense of independence. In later years, during the troubled times of the nineteenth century, the Basque country found itself embroiled in the violent affairs of its large neighbors and this sparked another wave of migration. The French Revolution, Napoleonic campaigns and the Spanish Civil War sorely tested allegiances in the tiny Basque region and pitted Basque against Basque. Each region, in a bid to hold on to autonomy, attempted to negotiate the best political outcome for itself.

Basque Nationalist Battalion

One of the most iconic paintings of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso’s, “Guernica,” depicts the slaughter of the undefended citizens of Guernica ,in the Basque province of Vizcaya, used by Hitler’s Luftwaffe for target practice to test out his intensive, ”scorched earth” bombing capabilities. The Luftwaffe made their attack at the invitation of Spain’s General Franco. Franco’s Spanish Nationalist ambitions had the support of the region of Navarre and were opposed by Basque regions favoring the Spanish Republic as their means to autonomy. Franco used the raid as a strategy to destroy the spirit of the left wing, Basque nationalists. The raid, of April 26th, 1937, was the first of its kind on this scale of hit and run barbarity, leaving an estimated two and a half thousand inhabitants dead or wounded.  The civil war caused terrible divisions in the usually homogenous Basque society and caused many to seek exile, travelling to France, or to the Spanish colonies, or the United States, to escape the turmoil in the home lands.
The Basques In Nevada

The Basque cultural influence and diaspora in Nevada stems initially and largely from the gold rush era, pre-dating the worst divisiveness of the Spanish Civil War. Young men headed to the American West in a relatively positive frame of mind, to seek opportunity. In many instances, their intention was to raise money overseas and then return to their homeland to settle and raise a family. Those who had already tried their luck raising sheep on the pampas of South America sailed up to California and then followed the immigrant trails over the Sierras into Nevada. They were joined by young Basque coming directly from their homeland.

Basque society had a built in bias toward sending younger family members out into the wider world to make their living. It did not take a particular political crisis, a waxing or waning of the Basque homeland economy or a war to drive the migration instinct.  As Bill Douglass, founder and former head of UNR’s Basque Studies Program explained;

“Those kinds of elements would stimulate more activity, but even in the best of times, there was always a propensity for some members of the family to consider migrating.

Dominique, Paul, and Marie Laxalt

The Basque family system produced candidates for immigration because the farm was always given to the eldest son. If there were five or six children in a family, the others had to go and do something else with their lives. Typically you might have a daughter who’d marry a neighboring farmer and another daughter might enter the church and become a nun.  Remaining sons would likely emigrate -one to Latin America and one to the U.S. or to other parts of Spain.”

The young Basque migrants to Nevada came initially to work in the mines but soon found a better life could be had through raising sheep and selling the meat to the mines. They would take employment on the established ranches; working as sheepherders and either save their money to put into their own sheep business, or opt to take payment in sheep so as to quickly establish their own herds.

The sheep industry in Nevada and Southern California owes its growth to Basque immigrant labor. As the rangelands of California became overcrowded with the expansion in agriculture, migrants travelled further south beyond the Sierra Mountains into the high desert of the Great Basin. Despite the desert terrain, this arid country with its vast rangelands and snow-capped mountains became a magnet for Basque people in America.  In the hundred year period between the commencement of the gold rush and the end of the Second World War, sheep numbers sky rocketed in comparison to cattle. It is estimated there were at least two million sheep grazing the Nevada Sierras in the heyday of migrant Basque sheepherding.

Basque sheepherders from South America were already used to the style of animal husbandry necessary to raise animals on wide rangeland. They had developed the ranching and herding skills that allowed them to trail sheep along the long distances necessary to move between lowland winter and high-ground summer pastures. Others, arriving “straight off the boat” from their homeland, experienced a huge culture shock when they arrived in Nevada. Having left the intimacy of their green fields and rainy valleys behind, where sheep were tended on the few acres surrounding the family farm or “basseriak;” they found the lifestyle of the Nevada desert to be an altogether different challenge. New arrivals were amazed at the size and emptiness of the land .Before they knew what had hit them, the young Basques would find themselves alone in the hills with nothing but a canvas tent and tarp, a bedroll of heavy blankets and a gun, for protection from the elements and predators. They would have no more than a pack burro, a dog and a herd of sheep for company. The rancher would provide his new hand with a Dutch oven to cook with, some basic provisions of salt pork, coffee and a bag of beans. And, with that simple and stark introduction to American ways the young sheepherder would be taken to the hills and left to get on with it. These young sheepherders could be left alone for ten days or more before a camp tender would reappear bring fresh supplies in.

Sheep Grazing Above Lake Tahoe

“Whether in the summer camps set amidst spectacular mountain scenery, or the winter bivouac on the expanse of seemingly endless desert, the herder’s home is but the frailest challenge to the supremacy of the wilderness,” Bill Douglass. Basque Sheepherders of the American West: A Photographic documentary, UNR Press.

Basques would generally establish sheep camps close to a source of water and protection from the weather. The many aspen groves on the hillsides were popular places for this reason. The practice of creating “arborglyphs” (carving inscriptions and illustrations into the tree bark) grew from the propensity to set up camp in the aspen groves. The trees were a ready medium for Basques to express their individual voice, leaving their message for those who followed in their footsteps. There is an undeniable element in the practice of tree carving, of creating a connection to their ancient heritage. The messages related to their homeland and the era they stemmed from but the practice itself called back to the pre-Christian era of their culture when the ancient tribes who inhabited the Basque region learned to make their peace with nature.

Taking a Break

Whispers from an ancient past show themselves again in the “stoneboys,” or “arrimutilak,” erected by Basque sheepherders. As if carrying on in the tradition of their ancestors, the Neolithic herders who left stone monuments in the Pyranees; the American-Basque sheepherder created rock piles for differing practical reasons. Often they served as direction makers to help the sheepherder navigate his way through his isolated environment. Erecting stoneboys also helped pass the time and allowed the creator to leave a humble, human monument to mark his own achievements and pay homage to the natural forces that first forged the rocks in this vast, pristine landscape.

The sheepherding life was a lonely and very trying one and not all Basque men were able to cope with the demands. Some turned tail and headed for the town or home. The vast majority stuck it out and turned adversity to profit. The author Robert Laxalt has described how his father became rich in sheep when he first arrived in Nevada. He lost money during the Great Depression years but by that time he was married and was able to lean on the industrious nature of his wife and her business skills in the hotel industry.

As sheepherding expanded, there was some inevitable conflict between the interests of sheep ranchers and cattlemen. Itinerant Basque sheepherders would allow their sheep to graze on the open public lands adjacent to settled cattle ranches. As numbers rose, cattlemen showed increasing resentment towards the Basque newcomers. The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act clamped down on itinerant grazing practices and caused severe difficulties for those Basques who could not afford to purchase land of their own. Apart from the politics, there are many stories of friendship between sheepherders and cowboys. Cowboys on the range always knew they could be guaranteed a glass of wine and a decent meal if they dropped in on a neighboring Basque sheep camp.

The Second World War saw the last major spate of Basque migration to the United States and by the 1970s the sheep industry had dwindled down to only a shadow of its former self. (See interview with Brent Espil for a description of the decline of the sheep industry in Nevada). Migration moves in both directions, with as many Basque Americans returning to their homeland as newcomers arriving in America from the Basque region.

Although it was the men who were first to make the journey overseas, it wasn’t long before women followed. As the men began to get established, they would send for Basque women to marry or take up employment as cooks, housekeepers and hotel workers.
Basque Women Migrants

Despite this very traditional, patriarchal line of inheritance, the social position of women is considered better in Basque society than in neighboring cultures. Women quite often managed the home finances and were business partners in a marriage with substantial influence on decisions taken in the management of the home and domestic economy.

Women’s Work

Sheepherding kept the men on the range or up in the hills for the greater part of the year and it took strong minded women to keep the home fires burning and look after the everyday affairs of running a household and family. Matriarchal dominance in the family is credited with instilling strong familial bonds so that Basques in general are known for the qualities of honesty, reliability, stoicism in the face of threat, loyalty and integrity. These are all qualities that stem from cultures that preserve a strong sense of family. The establishment and success of the Basque hotels throughout Nevada, is largely down to the women. These were family run concerns and expressed Basque values through the support they offered to the local community in which they were situated.

Robert Laxalt, whose mother opened the famous French Hotel in Carson City, has described the atmosphere and activities that took place at these Basque establishments as they sprung up to become hubs of Basque community activity. Hoteliers passed news and information on to Basque sheepherders when they were able to make their seasonal trips into town. They acted as interpreters and bankers – sending drafts to Europe and extending credit to other Basques down on their luck. Baptisms, weddings and funerals were all hosted by the Basque hotelier. Children from outlying ranches were invited to board at the hotels in order to attend school. Wives spent the final stages of their pregnancies at the safe haven of the hotel and gave birth there in order to be close to medical assistance.  The injured and ill stayed in the hotels to convalesce.

The Laxalt Family 1961

As well as being central to social necessities, the Basque hotels were for Basque immigrants, the core of their social universe. Many a marital partnership budded from hotel encounters.  The Basque hotelier, more often than not a woman, provided a homely atmosphere for her visitors, encouraging them to feel part of a wider family. They could sit at the family sized dining tables, have a home cooked, hearty meal, drink wine, or picon punch and allow their cares to slip away. The Basque card game “mus” and a form of handball,”pelota,” became popular pastimes for those who liked to soak up the convivial atmosphere at the Basque hotel. The hotelier often allowed the hotel to act as a base from where to plan large scale community celebrations such as the Basque festivals that became a popular image of the immigrant culture.

Basque festivals are still current in the rural areas of Nevada. They generally start with a Catholic Mass and are followed by displays of folk dancing and general, lighthearted ethnic competitions such as stone lifting, wood chopping, sheep hooking contests and sheepdog trials. There are plenty of opportunities to sample Basque food and libations. Such celebrations provide the opportunity for the descendants of the earlier Basque migrants to keep the feeling of ethnic community alive, even as the Basques have become well assimilated into American culture and may now consider themselves first and foremost, Americans.

Archival images courtesy of the Basque Library, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.