Basque Americans in the Columbia River Basin

Sojourners and Sheep Herders
Boarding Houses and Basque Social Life
Basque Cultural Renaissance
New Basque American Communities


Basques first arrived in the Americas with the Columbus expedition. They played prominent roles in the formation of the Spanish colonies in the New World as merchants and colonial officials. In the 1840s many Basque immigrants left their homeland and settled in Argentina and Paraguay where they became hotel owners and established themselves in sheep herding and tending livestock. In 1850 Basque immigrants left Argentina bound for San Francisco as news of gold strikes in California reached South America. Basques in California soon discovered that competition from hundreds of miners of different nationalities and anti-foreigner sentiment of American miners limited their chances for striking it rich. By the 1860s, Basques began to find work herding sheep and cattle, and with a few decades they dominated this work in southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Expansion of the sheep and cattle industries coincided with the growth of mining centers, and the Basque herders soon followed the trek of miners from California to northeastern Nevada, southeastern Oregon, and southwestern Idaho.


Sojourners and Sheep Herders
The identity of the first Basques to enter and settle in the Columbia River Basin is difficult to establish. There are reports, however, of Basque pioneers in Idaho in the 1880s and the 1890s. Jesus Urquides ran a highly successful mule-packing operation in central and southwestern Idaho during this time. In late spring 1889, Jose Navarro and Antonio Azcuenaga, from the province of Bizkaia in the Basque country, reached the present town of Jordan Valley in southeastern Oregon after surviving a near-death experience in the desert. Many Basques followed Navarro and Azcuenaga to Oregon and Idaho, as word reached the Great Basin and the Basque homeland that there were opportunities for work in sheep herding.

Basque immigration had a direct link to economic, political, and cultural conditions in the Basque country, as well as to the growth of the sheep industry in the Pacific Northwest. The mountainous terrain in the Basque Provinces limited agricultural and farming potential, and Basque inheritance customs usually favored the eldest male, encouraging other children to seek a livelihood elsewhere. Many young Basque men were drawn to southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon.

The sheep industry in Idaho expanded considerably during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The industry had difficulty finding sheepherders who could withstand the demanding and lonely nature of the work, and the industry soon turned to Basque immigrants. Early settlers Juan Achabal and Jose Bengoechea, who were among the first of their countrymen to prosper in the sheep industry in the Columbia River Basin, facilitated the immigration of relatives and friends, who soon joined them to try their fortunes herding sheep.

Basque immigration to the region peaked in the years between 1900 and 1920. Most Basque immigrants who came to Idaho and Oregon were from the Spanish province of Bizkaia. Most were men who were either single or married and came without their families. Some women joined husbands to work in agriculture, and some families and single women came to towns and cities to run boarding houses and other businesses for the Basque immigrant population. Most came with the intention of staying in the United States just long enough to earn and save enough money to return to the Basque country and buy a business or a farm and live with their families. For many, however, the dream of striking it rich in the promised land never came true. Many never earned or accumulated enough money to return to their homeland and live the comfortable lives they had planned.

Basque sheepherders earned thirty dollars a month plus room and board. This was substantially more than their potential wages in the Basque country, but they paid a high personal cost to earn these wages. Each herder had the responsibility of caring for several hundred sheep, with only a dog to help him. There were considerable risks involved. The herder had to account for lost sheep to his employer, a responsibility made especially difficult due to the threat of predators and hostile cattle ranchers. But perhaps the worst aspect of the Basque sheepherder’s work was loneliness. The herding cycle required him to be alone for long periods of time. In many cases herders often went months without seeing or speaking to another human being and had “only the sky and the dog to talk to.” Their limited English skills also curtailed their contact with others. There are accounts of Basque sheepherders who were overcome by loneliness and never regained their mental health.

Many Basque sheepherders moved to other types of work as soon as they could, due to the demanding conditions of herding. They found work as farm laborers, and in lumber mills and mines. Others found jobs in the city or started their own businesses, such as boarding houses. Some enterprising Basques started their own herds, and some became prominent in the sheep industry. Juan Achabal, Jose Navarro, Jose Bengoechea, and others, were very successful and soon had their own ranches in southern Idaho and in Jordan Valley in southeastern Oregon. By 1920, John Archabal (previously Juan Achabal) was one of the wealthiest men in Idaho and owned one of the largest herds in the sheep industry.

Boarding Houses and Basque Social Life

Basque boarding houses emerged to cater to the needs of sheepherders for family and community. Beginning in the 1890s Basque families rented out spare rooms to newly arrived immigrants from the Basque homeland. Juan and Teresa Yribar opened one of the first Basque boarding houses at 118 South Seventh Street in Boise in 1900, and Jose Uberuaga opened the City Lodge, also in Boise, the following year. In 1910 the Boise city directory listed six Basque boarding houses. By 1925, Basque boarding houses could be found in Nampa, Hailey, Burns, Shoshone, Gooding, Twin Falls, Mountain Home, and north to Mullen in Idaho, and to Jordan Valley and Ontario in southeastern Oregon.

Basque boarding houses became “a home away from home” for sheepherders and a social center for the Basque immigrant community. The herding cycle brought herders down from the mountain grazing zones to the valleys during the winter. The boarding houses filled with herders starved for the company of others who spoke the same language and shared the same customs. They slept indoors on real beds and enjoyed traditional Basque cuisine with other boarders and the owners, all in a family atmosphere.
Most Basque boarding houses had a bar and pool tables, and were lively places where impromptu dances and parties were held. Many boarding houses, which often recruited young women employees from the Basque homeland, became places where many sheepherders met and married their future wives.
Basque boarding houses also served as support centers for immigrants, who often arrived in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon with little money. Boarding houses were the first point of contact, a temporary residence, for new arrivals until they found employment. Proprietors often extended credit for room, board, work clothing and equipment to these new arrivals. Boarding houses also often served the role of hospitals; they were places where ill or injured sheepherders could stay, on credit if necessary, until they recovered fully. Doctors commonly made calls to boarding houses to treat their patients. In addition, reports indicate that more babies were born in JuanYribar’s boarding house, which he operated from 1900 to 1935, than any other place in Boise except St. Luke’s Hospital.

Basque boarding houses in the Columbia River Basin also reinforced Basque cultural continuity and social customs, such as the game pelota. Pelota is a form of handball that is played in a court called a fronton. Domingo Zabala built the first fronton in Boise in 1910. "Big Jack" Anduiza built an indoor fronton in 1915 that was reputed to be the best in the United States. By 1920 several other boarding houses in Boise, Mountain Home, and other southwestern Idaho towns had built frontons. In Oregon, a fronton was built in Jordan Valley. Several of the Basque boarding houses in Boise, southwestern Idaho, and in Jordan Valley sponsored pelota teams and games. A spirit of competition developed between boarding houses that helped reinforce Basque connections and traditions.

Basque Cultural Renaissance
From 1900 to 1920, many Basque immigrants married and formed families, and gave up the goal of returning to their homeland. Second generation Basques were raised in a bilingual, bicultural environment speaking the Basque language Euskera at home, and English at school. Many children lost the Basque language, and consequently Basque cultural traditions also suffered. Second generation Basques began to identify themselves as Basque Americans.
Basque immigration to the Columbia River Basin virtually ceased under the impact of the Immigration quota law of 1922. By the outbreak of World War II, the sheep industry in Idaho and Nevada raised concerns about the shortage of Basque sheepherders. Political pressure by the sheep industry in the 1940s and 1950s resulted in the “sheepherder laws,” which allowed recruitment and importation of a new wave of Basque immigrants to work as sheepherders in Idaho and other states in the West.
This new generation of Basque immigrants did not speak English and faced problems similar to those experienced by their countrymen who had preceded them. These new Basque immigrants, however, arrived in Idaho and the West at a time when the Basque American community was well established. Basque American volunteer associations were available to provide assistance when needed. The new arrivals found life as sheepherders much more bearable. Transistor radios were available to keep them in touch with the outside world and allowed them to listen to radio programs, music, and information from the Basque country.
The arrival of this new generation of Basque immigrants reinvigorated Basque traditions in the Columbia River Basin. Third generation Basque Americans and some elders began to take interest in the preservation of Basque culture and customs. In 1929, John Archabal started the Sheepherders Ball, an annual event that went on to become an established tradition among Basque Americans in Idaho. Basque Americans also began holding a picnic in late July of each year to celebrate the anniversary of St. Ignatius Loyola. During the annual picnic, Basques gathered to eat traditional food such as chorizos, to play baseball, and to socialize with their ethnic kin.
In early 1948, Juanita “Jay” Hormaechea decided that young Basque American children needed to learn Basque cultural traditions. She started dance classes for children in Boise because she thought these traditions were too important to lose. In 1960 a group of third generation Basque Americans from Boise visited the Basque country where they became acquainted with a dance group called Oinkari that taught them traditional Basque dances. They returned to Idaho determined to start their own dance group and created the Oinkari Basque Dancers of Boise in the early 1960s. By 1964 the Oinkari Basque Dancers, well known by then in Idaho and other states, represented Idaho at the World's Fair in New York. In 1963, Joe Eiguren began offering classes in Euskera in an effort to revive the Basque language. His students included preschool children, teenagers, and some adults.

New Basque American Communities

Second and third generation Basque Americans did not follow their ancestors’ footsteps as sheepherders. They had advantages that their fathers and grandfathers did not have such as education and the ability to speak English. They entered professions and businesses alongside other Americans. Some, like Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, had successful careers as elected officials. Basque Americans have made a substantial contribution to social and economic life in the Columbia River Basin since the first Basque pioneers arrived in Oregon and Idaho in the 1880s. They earned the acceptance of the larger community because they were industrious and law-abiding citizens, and because their work ethic and frugality coincided with the values of the host society. They were able to focus more freely on social advancement because they did not experience discrimination to the same degree as some other immigrant groups. Like other ethnic groups, Basque Americans continue to cultivate and adapt their traditions as they leave their imprint on Columbia River Basin society.

- Mario Compean



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