by Sonja Humphries
Photograph of Sonja’s family
America is the result of hundreds of years of immigration and settlement. In the mid 1800’s, the gold rush drew thousands of Basque people to the California wilderness and in the early 1900’s, ambitious youth of faraway lands rooted in the Pyrenees Mountains made their way to the Rocky Mountains of America’s West (Lasagabaster, 2008). Leaving homeland, family and friends behind in northern Spain, young men came with the intention of earning a nice wage and returning to their homeland to build lives there. During most of the eighteenth century and the early 1900’s, political unrest in the Basque Country broke the hearts and spirit of many, but in America, land was attainable at little cost and futures looked brighter, so young men sent for their sweethearts to join them or married local girls and invested in the uninhabited lands of California, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Nevada; this was the beginning of the Basque diaspora in the American West.
The Basque Country is an autonomous country within France and Spain. Most migrants from Spain settled in America’s western territories before statehood was granted. Beginning in the mid 1800’s, young men journeyed to California to try their hand at gold mining, but it was difficult to make it worthwhile and living conditions were crowded. A few entrepreneurial men made the observation that miners had to eat, and much of the west was free for grazing, so they became sheepherders, which worked well for those who did not speak a language comprehensible to others of a different culture. Once the California Gold Rush fizzled out, the Basque sheepherders migrated to surrounding territories, which eventually became Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming.
For nearly a century, young men journeyed west from their Basque homelands to herd sheep. Many non-Basque assumed that the Basque men preferred solitude, but the truth is that they found it difficult to communicate, as many Americans were immigrants from varying countries speaking in their native tongue, unbeknown to the Basque who believed everybody else was speaking English. Being a sheepherder eliminated the need to learn another language that seemed confusing and inconsistent. The sheep were taken to the hills during the spring and summer to graze on public lands, but during the winter months, the sheep were kept at sheep ranches, and these young men needed a place to eat and sleep. Basque hotels, or boardinghouses as they were called, erupted throughout densely populated areas to support the young bachelors. The boardinghouses became a home away from home as families would typically manage the boardinghouses. Tenants were like brothers forming family bonds with the master and mistress of the house as well. Eventually, young women came from Basque homelands and served as maids and cooks for the boardinghouses and young men found in them qualities of good mothers and wives. The Basque community was then perpetuated. Traditions have been preserved through social gatherings and Basque clubs, regional festivals, and programs of study supported by universities in the western states. The Basques of the American West are respected in the western states as being ambitious and hardworking and significant to the history of the West.
Aulestia, G. (1992) CBS-Morris English-Basque/Basque English dictionary-hiztegia. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
The Basque language is unique in that it does not derive from Latin, Arabic or Germanic roots. In order to interpret written documents penned in Basque, or decipher primary source documents, the genealogist should have a resource to aide them. A Basque-English dictionary also aides in the interpretation of oral history recordings for those who may not be proficient in the English language.
de Barandiaran, J. M. (2007). Selected writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán : Basque prehistory and ethnography J. Altuna, (Ed.). Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
The book represents a century of study by de Barandiaran. The writer served as a priest and missionary and spent his life researching, exploring and pouring through documentation and histories in order to preserve his heritage. This book reveals a personal viewpoint of social conditions and traditions that define the Basque people. The Genealogist will find this publication supportive in developing a perception of day to day life of Basque ancestry.
Douglass, W. A. (2006). Global Vasconia: Essays on the Basque diaspora. Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
Douglass combines several personal studies on the Basque homeland and compelling issues of immigration into one publication on the migratory paths and development of the Basque diaspora. This is a comprehensive view of political, social, and cultural trends of the Basque immigrants seeking freedom from oppression and limitations once clouding the Basque Country at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Echeverria, J. (1999). Home away from home: A history of Basque boardinghouses. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
Echeverria provides a visual image of the Basque boardinghouses in Nevada, Idaho, and California. More than just a physical space, the boardinghouses provided a home away from home, governed by etxeko amak (house mothers) who served and cared for young bachelors far removed from their own mothers.
Iberlin, D. & Romtvedt, D. (Eds.). (2011). Buffalotarrak: An anthology of the Basques of Buffalo, Wyoming. Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
Buffalo Wyoming represented the Basque hub of the state in the early days of its settlement. This book is a collection of essays on the Basques who settled in Buffalo Wyoming. The essays shed light on the challenges faced by those early settlers and represent common experiences of Basque settlers throughout the western states. Genealogists will find this a useful resource in understanding the character and fortitude demonstrated by those so far from their homeland and families.
Monreal-Zia, G. (2005). The old law of Bizkaia (1945): Introductory study and critical edition. Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
Monreal-Zia provides a thorough insight to the political structure of the Basque country in this publication. The assemblies and customs are outlined and represent the commitment to community held by the political figures of the time. Genealogist will find this resource insightful to the political influence that led to the philosophies and passions that drove so many out of the country when their political autonomy was tampered with by socialist governance.
Oiarzabal, P. J. (2009). Gardeners of identity: Basques in the San Francisco Bay area. Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
This publication addresses the common gathering places of the San Francisco Basques. Social engagement is represented well here, addressing the importance of meeting places, such as clubs, pelota courts and Basque hotels, most often referred to as boarding houses. Here is where the Basque men would dwell during the weeks that they were not herding sheep in the hills. Basque boarding houses serve as an icon of the culture throughout the western states. Basque women also were associated with the boarding houses as housekeepers and cooks. This is a great resource to use to gather insight of the sociality of the Basque men and women who were pioneers of the west.
Totoricaguena, G. P. (2004). Boise Basques : dreamers and doers. Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
Totoricaguena describes the societal issues and cultural integration of Basque immigrants from early nineteenth century migration to modern times. The author brings to light the occupational shifts from agriculture to professional careers of Idaho Basques and the drive behind their success.
White, L. & Watson, C. (2003). Amatxi, Amuma, Amona : Writings in honor of Basque women. Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
This publication provides a peek into the lives of the Basque women who came to the unsettled west as teenagers. The lives of immigrant women in general were lonely and complicated by the roughness of America’s frontier. The author provides insight to the character of perseverance, courage, and above all, faith. These early Basque immigrants valued family and their maternal roles.
CATALOGS AND GUIDES
Center for Basque Studies at University of Nevada, Reno. (2011, August). Retrieved from http://basque.unr.edu
The Center for Basque Studies produces scholarly literature pertaining to Basque anthropology, history, culture, migration, nationalism, and other scholarly topics. The Center for Basque Studies also supports University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) which allows students to study in the Basque region of Spain. A comprehensive collection of Basque literature is also available for purchase through the Center for Basque Studies at UNR.
Cordova, M. (2011, November). Basque Studies. Albertsons Library at Boise State University. Retrieved from http://guides.boisestate.edu/basque
This website is associated with the Albertsons Library and represents a collection pertaining to Basque Studies program of Boise State University extending access to articles, E-books, monographs, and a guide to websites. A wide spectrum of content is made available on Basque history, philosophy & religion, culture, language, society, and settlement in the American West. This is a great beginning point for a family historian striving to gain some insight to the Basque people who migrated to the America west. Physical holdings onsite are available for inter-library loan as well.
Foder’s Travel. (n.d.) Bilbao and the Basque Country Travel Guide. Retrieved from http://www.fodors.com/world/europe/spain/bilbao-and-the-basque-country/
Foder’s Travel website provides resource links to all seven of the provinces within the Basque Country of Spain and France. Also provided on this site are maps and photos of the Basque Country. This is a great resource for the family historian to gain a foundation of the physical layout of the Basque Country, and acquire contact information for arranging a visit there.
Geographia World Travel Guide. (2011, December). Geographia’s Europe. Retrieved from http://www.geographia.com/
Geographia is a geographical guide to Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The site in an entity of InterKnowledge Corp, which holds the copyright for the site. The Basque homeland is located in northern Spain and southern France and this site provides a great overview of the potential destinations within the Basque Country that would lend some insight to the lifestyle and historical roots of the Basques. Included on the website is information on museums, monuments, guides to tourist offices and accommodations for out of town visitors. Maps of the Basque Country can be accessed through Geographia as well.
Etulain, R. (n.d.) Basques. The Oregon Encyclopedia –Oregon History and Culture. Retrieved from http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org
The Oregon Encyclopedia is the product of Portland State University, the Oregon Council of Teachers of English, and the Oregon Historical Society developed in commemoration of the Oregon Sesquicentennial Celebration. Topics covered within this online encyclopedia include an article on the Basque settlements of the late 1880’s and early 1900’s which also addresses the migratory patterns and cultural background of the Basque immigrants who settled in Oregon, Nevada and western Idaho.
Rio, D. (2003). Robert Laxalt: A Basque pioneer in the American literary West. American Studies International, 4(3) 60-81.
Robert Laxalt has a reputation among Basque scholars as being an authority on Basque culture and western immigration. Rio (2003) provides an annotated bibliography of Laxalt’s works which demonstrate a depth of understanding of the Basque people. Laxalt wrote both fiction and expository text, and is respected as a leader in Basque cultural studies in America and Basque homelands. This is useful to the genealogist in that the annotations include the historical content that is addressed in the publications by Laxalt.
Peck, J. & Moreno, A. (2005). West of the Basque [DVD]. Boise, ID: Idaho Public Television. Retrieved from http://video.idahoptv.org/video/2173003213/
This is a wonderful fifty-seven minute video that draws from current and past research on the motivating factors behind Basque migration to America’s West. The topics covered include a tour of Basque homelands, the political unrest in the Basque country of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the emotional struggles of being separated from family and home, occupational choices, the importance of boarding houses, and the significant role played by these immigrants in developing American’s West.
The Basque Government of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country (Euskadi). (n.d.). North American Basque Organizatons. Retrieved from http://www.nabasque.org/
This website is promoted by the Basque Government of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country in an effort to perpetuate Basque ideals and traditions in the Basque diaspora. Contents of the page are provided for the purpose to educate, and encourage a depth of understanding of the Basque culture, values, economy, political systems and government, to promote a greater respect for Basque ancestry.
Basque Museum & Cultural Center. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.basquemuseum.com/
This website is maintained by the staff of the Basque Museum & Cultural Center in Boise, ID. Online resources are available through this comprehensive, well organized website. The website provides links to outside resources, upcoming events celebrating Basque influence, and extensive collections of oral histories and photograph collections.
Established in 1985 and located on the renowned Basque Block in Boise, Idaho, the Basque Museum & Cultural Center maintains a comprehensive collection of Basque paraphernalia, photographic histories, immigration documents, and the oral histories of Basque immigrants and their extended families. Also included on the Basque Block site is a cultural center that is used for traditional Basque games and culturally defined dance exhibitions. Adjacent to the museum is the historic Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House, a Basque boarding house that was originally built onsite. The Basque Museum & Cultural Center of Boise also offers instructional courses on Basque traditions, language, music and dance, and sports, in addition to a regular Basque preschool/daycare in which the children learn to speak the Basque language and dance the traditional dances of the Basque people.
Etxarri, J. (2011, December). Basque Heritage Worldwide. Retrieved from http://www.euskalkultura.com
Basque Heritage Worldwide is a comprehensive website that was founded in 2001. The site is managed by a professional staff and provides links to international Basque resources, including Cuisine, familial names, maps, educational sites, and insights on the Basque diaspora (communities beyond the homeland) throughout the world including the American West. This site also informs on events associated with the Basque culture and the contributions of people of Basque descent. For the purpose of genealogical research, Basque Heritage Worldwide provides resources on Basque families and surnames, and links to historical church archives, in addition to links to Basque organizations and independent genealogists, who specialize in Basque genealogical research.
Keele, M. (2011, August). Center for Basque Studies at University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). http://basque.unr.edu
A well-organized website associated with the Center for Basque Studies which produces scholarly literature pertaining to Basque anthropology, history, culture, migration, nationalism, and other scholarly topics. The Center for Basque Studies also supports University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) which allows students to study in the Basque region of Spain. A comprehensive collection of Basque literature is also available through the Center for Basque Studies website.
Uberuaga, B. (n.d.). The Basque Diaspora and Genealogy. Buber Basque Page. Retrieved from http://buber.net/Basque/Diaspora/index.php
Uberuaga maintains this comprehensive website, educating on the cultural, political, historical aspects of Basque communities. The content addresses Basque culture throughout the world, which is organized by regions. This site is useful in that it represents unbiased, sometimes sensitive issues pertaining to Basques in America and other Basque communities throughout the world, including the homelands.
Sonja Humphries is an MSLS candidate at the University of North Texas and currently employed by the Jerome, Idaho school district as the librarian of the Jerome High School Evelyn Crowder Memorial Library. Sonja is a third generation Basque-Idahoan. Her grandparents, Ramon and Justa Urrutia, owned and managed a Basque boarding house in Shoshone, Idaho, in the mid 1920’s, prior to a profitable livelihood of farming and ranching in the outskirts.