A Basque sheepherder gathers his band of 2000 ewes and lambs near Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada [Tahoe National Forest, August, 1965] © 1965

Basque Sheepherders in the West: Introduction to the gallery…

These photographs were taken in 1965. I was researching sheepherders on the open ranges of the American West. At that time the western range sheep industry still depended on seasonal migrations between summer and winter pastures. Transhumance, as the practice is called, was brought from Europe by Basques and Scots who first led their California flocks into the Sierra Nevada's alpine meadows in the 1860s. These seasonal migrations between winter pastures in dry lowlands and summer grazings in the Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains, or the mountain ranges of Nevada and Wyoming, made sheep raising practicable and profitable in the arid West. By the early 1900s most of the West's sheep ranches were owned by Basques who had emigrated from Spain or France, or by their children. And by the 1960s, because very few Americans were willing to endure the long months of solitary work herding sheep in deserts or high mountains, most of the sheepherders were Basques imported on three-year contracts to work as herders. In the 1960s wages were $240 per month, with food and lodging provided by the rancher. Most Basque herders, living for months alone on the range, far from towns, had few opportunities to spend their earnings. To return home with their savings, wealthy enough to buy a farm or a business, perhaps to marry, was the goal.

Today only a few ranchers still raise sheep this way in the West. In many areas fenced pastures have replaced the open range, and Basque sheepherders can no longer be found on the high mountain meadows—where they were alone except for their dogs—tending their flocks in summer. Nowadays, where sheep ranching on the open range still survives, flocks are smaller, and today's herders are likely to be Peruvians on two- or three-year contracts, rather than Basques.

Basque Sheepherders in the West: gallery