Basque Sheepherders in the American West (10/22/2021)

We are wrapping up our month-long celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month with one additional posting that has roots in Spain (and France). Most people are vaguely aware of the Basque ethnic group but really don’t know much about them. Since tomorrow, October 23, is Basque Cultural Day it is appropriate to learn more about the Basque and their contributions to American agriculture.

We welcome back Dr. Jim Connors from the University of Idaho who authored this footnote.

Basque Sheepherders in the American West
Friday Footnote
Dr. Jim Connors

America includes numerous stories of immigrants coming to the new world to seek a better living. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, many individuals left their homelands across Europe to find jobs and land in the American West. The history of agriculture in the American West would not be complete without the story of Basque sheepherders.

Basques originated in the Pyrenees Mountains on the French – Spanish border. They first started to emigrate to the United States during the California Gold Rush in 1849. When they realized there was no fortune in gold, they moved inland to the mountains to work in agriculture. Their agricultural knowledge and work ethic served them well in the rough and tumble environments of the mountain west.

The young Basque males quickly became established in the western livestock industry. The Basque sheepherders watched over flocks of thousands of sheep and moved the herds from the low-lying deserts where they spent the winter months to grazing lands of the high country in summer. This sheepherding took place across the Great Basin region of the west including the high Sierras of California and Nevada, the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, and the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming.

Sheep Wagons

The life of a Basque sheepherder was a lonesome existence. They would often spend weeks or months at a time alone with only the sheep flock, their horse, and a herding dog to keep them company. They often lived in very primitive tents or sheep wagons. The sheep wagons provided the herder with a bed and wood stove for cooking and heat to stay warm. Hundreds of sheep wagons once dotted the western grazing lands.


Another unique part of Basque sheepherding culture was Arborglyphs, or more commonly known as tree carvings. Before there were radios, telephones, or the internet, Basque sheepherders would carve information into the white bark of aspen trees in the mountains of the west. Carvings would include grazing information, news on the sheepherding, memories of the “old country,” humor, or graphic language/pictures.

Grazing and Immigration Politics

The sheep herding business started to decline in the 1930s. Overgrazing and the severe drought of the Dust Bowl took their toll on sheep flocks across the west.  In 1935 the U.S. Congress passed Taylor Grazing Act which created the Division of Grazing in the Department of Interior. The act ended open grazing on public rangelands across western states. The Division of Grazing became the U.S. Grazing Service in 1939 and eventually the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1946. The implementation of strict grazing regulations helped to hasten the decline of nomadic Basque sheepherding.

The onset of World War II brought the need for more sheep, more lamb to feed people, and more wool. The need for increasing sheep production resulted in the need for more sheepherders during the 1940s.  To meet the labor needs of sheep ranchers across the west U.S. Senator Patrick McCarran, for whom McCarran Airport in Las Vegas is named, introduced a series of bills called the Sheepherder Laws. McCarran introduced bills to grant residency to Basque shepherds to the U.S. He stated that “Unless skilled and competent sheepherders are promptly made available it will be necessary for the herds to be progressively reduced.” The Basque sheepherders were considered immigrants with special skills and given preference for admission into the U.S. with permanent residency. By 1954, the legislation introduced by McCarran had allowed over 1,100 Basque sheepherders to enter the country and obtain work in the western sheep industry.

Basque Culture

The Basque culture was centered around several close-knit rural communities in the Great Basin area of the west. Basque towns included Jordan Valley, OR; Mountain Home, ID; Elko and Winnemucca, NV. The National Basque Festival is held annually in Elko, Nevada. The 2022 festival is scheduled for July 2-4.

The Basque culture and western sheep ranching are also celebrated each fall in Ketchum-Haley, Idaho at the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival. This year’s 25th anniversary festival celebrates the annual moving of the sheep from the high-country pasture to their winter pasture in the Wood River Valley of central Idaho. Thousands of sheep are herded through town during the festival. Events include the Big Sheep Parade, Championship Sheepdog trials, sheep folklife fair, sheep tales gathering, and Wool Fest classes and workshops.

Sheep Research

As one can see, sheep ranching and grazing is still an important component of American agriculture, especially across the western states. Most people are not aware that the USDA operates the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, ID.  The experiment station maintains almost 50,000 acres of land for sheep research across Idaho and Montana. The sheep research conducted at the experiment station is a collaboration between the USDA and the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Pete Cenarrusa – Agricultural Educator and FFA Supporter

One of the most famous individuals of Basque descent was Pete Cenarrusa. Pete was born in Carey, ID in 1917 to Basque parents from the south Basque country in Spain. He attended the University of Idaho and graduated with a degree in Agriculture. After college, Pete taught math, science and agriculture in Cambridge and Carey High Schools. He was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1950, serving for nine terms, including three terms as Speaker. In 1967 he was appointed Secretary of State for Idaho. Cenarrusa was the longest serving elected official in the state of Idaho, serving for 52 years. Cenarrusa passed away in 2013 at the age of 96 years old.

Pete Cenarrusa was a lifetime farmer, rancher, woolgrower, and strong supporter of agriculture, agricultural education, and the FFA. He was inducted into five different Halls of Fame including Agriculture, Athletic, Republican, Basque, and Idaho. The Idaho FFA Association holds the annual Cenarrusa Day on the Hill each January in Boise during the Idaho Legislative sesion. Idaho FFA members meet and interact with Idaho Legislators and the Governor during the event. The Cenarrusa family continue to support Idaho FFA through endowments with the Idaho FFA Foundation.


The history of agriculture and the sheep industry would not be complete without the story of Basque sheepherders who immigrated from their homeland in Europe to the Great Basin region of the western United States. Basque sheepherders brought their rural agricultural knowledge and experience and became skilled sheepherders across the west. In doing so, they brought their strong work ethic, family values, and unique Basque culture to America.

The Basque culture survives to this day across Nevada, Idaho, and other western states. The Basque Cultural Center in Boise offers tours and information about the Basque in southern Idaho. Festivals like the National Basque Festival in Elko, NV and the Trailing of the Sheep in Sun Valley, ID continue to celebrate this unique people and their contributions to the western U.S. and the sheep industry.

Learning Activities

  • Research the history of cattle and sheep grazing on federal lands in the western U.S.
  • Research the importance of rangelands for livestock production in the U.S.
  • Discuss the use of immigrant labor in agricultural throughout history and to the present day.
  • How is current U.S. immigration policy affecting agricultural producers in America?

Additional Information


Cowboy Showcase (n.d.). Basque ranching culture in the great basin.

Douglas, W. A. (n.d.). Basque sheepherding in the American West.

Juaristi, V. J. (2016). The good shepherds. Elko Daily Free Press – April 9, 2016. 

National Park Service (n.d.) Basque sheepherders aspen carvings.        

O’Connors, J. (2012). Herding sheep in Basque country (Idaho). New York Times – Aug. 24, 2012.

Pete Cenarrusa (n.d.).

USDA (n.d.). Range sheep production efficiency research: Dubois, ID.

Saitua, I. (2019). How Basque became synonymous with sheepherders in the American west.

The Living New Deal (n.d.). Taylor Grazing Act (1935).

U.S. Forest Service (n.d.) Basque carvings.