Basques in the American West

Basque Immigration

Similar to millions of other European immigrants during this period of time who experienced difficulties, Basques wished to build better lives. America offered opportunity and hope, so they began to migrate to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Gold Rush of 1849 encouraged Basques to travel the southern route to Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and into California for mining. The booming sheep industry for meat and wool promised even more U.S. jobs, and the 1869 transcontinental railroad enabled faster, safer, and less expensive travel to the American West.

This second route triggered a larger migration of Basques who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, New York, and then boarded trains for a five-to-seven day journey to California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming. Basque males usually arrived alone, with a limited education, no English skills, and the intent to make enough money to eventually return home. Many men took arduous jobs that most Americans did not want as sheepherders, for little pay and in rough, solitary, physical conditions much different from what they had ever experienced. Most had only tended to a handful of sheep in rural farms, or had no interaction with livestock if they lived in fishing villages or the city. As opportunities increased in the U.S through the 1920s and 1930s, “chain migration” led to subsequent waves of fathers, uncles, and brothers also coming to America to work as sheepherders. Some Basque women joined their family or friends, others traveled as brides-to-be. Most Basque immigrants first settled in communal boardinghouses. There, they could join fellow Basques, speak Euskara, eat familiar food, and obtain contacts for prospective jobs. Many Basque women worked in the boardinghouses as domestic help, and many eventually became proprietors themselves of the boardinghouses. Boardinghouse proprietors helped immigrants with translating, banking, and medical issues, and they helped tremendously with the immigrant transition to new ways of life in America.

By the 1950s, the sheep industry had declined and with it, the rate of immigration and therefore, the need for boardinghouses. Most second-generation Basques had obtained educations, English skills, and their own homes. Western communities retained large Basque populations through the years, however, and cities such as Boise, Idaho, continue to celebrate this unique and ancient culture today.