How Basques Became Synonymous With Sheepherders in the American West

Though Few Immigrants Arrived With Experience, They Created an Ethnic Economic Niche That Became a Ladder to Success

One enduring myth of the American West is that people of Basque origins or ancestry came to dominate sheepherding because of the skills they brought with them from the old country.

The real story is less about sheep and more about migration, desperation—and money.

In the 1850s, some Basque families, including the Altubes and the Garats, arrived in California as its mining economy expanded. These early Basques had previously fled to South America during the problematic path of transition from the old regime to a liberal state in the early 19th century. …