This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
During the 1848-1855 gold rush, young Basque men from Uruguay, Argentina and their homeland, in the Spanish and French provinces in the Pyrenees Mountains, immigrated to California's promising gold fields.
Those who struck it rich invested in sheep or cattle ranches and formed partnerships with other Basques. Some who didn't worked in the mining industry, including Utah's Bingham Canyon copper mines. Others turned to sheepherding. They avoided being "txamisuek jota" (struck by sagebrush), withstood the challenges of inequity and made a new life in a new land.
While raising sheep is an old-world Basque tradition, Pyrenees flocks were often small in number (less than 100) and kept close to the farm. Large-scale sheep production was another story.
According to anthropologist William A. Douglass, co-author of Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, the Basque knowledge of trailing sheep (by the thousands) was gleaned on the pampas of South America. It was this expertise that distinguished the Basques and proved the most adaptable to the western frontier.
Basque sheepherders worked throughout California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Representing a minor percentage of western shepherds, an industrious Basque accepted sheep in lieu of wages and increased his own itinerant sheep band while running his employer's herd. By 1880, the Basques earned the "reputation as the finest sheepmen in the American West."
Sheepherding is a lonesome profession filled with unrelenting hours, years-long nomadic transhumance (a "livestock management" technique in which animals travel hundreds of trailing miles during seasonal grazing cycles), mental deprivation and social isolation.
Alone with his sheep, monthly food drops and occasional visits, the loyal dog was often his only companion. The iconic sheepwagon defined his workplace and home on the range.
Before Studebaker standardized sheepwagons in 1889, the first handmade architectural gem on wooden-spoke wheels was credited to Utah sheepman William McIntosh (1880), Wyoming blacksmith Jacob Jacobsen (1883), or Wyoming blacksmith James Candlish and sheep rancher George Ferris (1884).
No two sheepwagons were alike. Most were constructed with four to eight wooden bows and a stretched canvas top. Approximately 11½-by-6½ feet with an inside brake lever, hinged windows and a door, compact interiors included a "Go to Hell" sheet-iron stove and pipe, cantilevered table, built-in bed, coal oil lamp, cupboards, mess box, bookshelves, side benches with lids that opened to outside bins, and an exterior platform for water keg and fuel oil.
As sheepherders and new Basque immigrants arrived in Utah, Basque hotels sprung up in Price, Bingham Canyon, Ogden and Park City. As with John and Claudia Landa's Hogar Hotel in Salt Lake City, these establishments offered a familiar sense of community with Basque culture, conversation, music and cuisine. They served as meeting places and as a bridge between the old world and new.
Soon enough, many a solitary shepherd married his Basque bride. The sheepwagon, a temporary honeymoon suite, became home and hearth to the dedicated Basque wife who worked alongside her husband and helped increase his holdings.
By the 1960s, the sheep industry waned and most Basques shepherds had moved off the range. Among their herding traditions and experiences relinquished to history and oral recollection, one such story from Douglass' book reads like an old western.
In early 1930, two Basque men acquiring leases to a hayfield near a Utah town angered the former owner, an anti-sheep cattle rancher. Drunk and threatening to shoot the "Greeks," the rancher entered camp, took aim with his rifle but was shot in the back before firing. The bullet coursed through the rancher's body and struck the sheepman. Both men died.
Anti-Basque sentiments ran high. No charges were pressed. But the mortician refused to bury the Basque. The remaining sheepman held his partner's funeral in the desert and feared reprisal. He set up a decoy camp and wintered some distance away, sleeping "in the darkness as a precaution against an ambush which never came."
Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at email@example.com and welcomes stories from Utah's Basque community. Sources: Amerikanuak by William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao and Sheepwagon: Home on The Range by Nancy Weidel. Additional Notes: Called "Home Comfort," in 1910, Sidney Steven Implement Co., Ogden, shipped their wagon in pieces for $550-$650. In 1920, Ahlander Co., Provo, advertising sheepwagons built on a rubber-tired Model-T Ford frame.