By Len Wilcox
Do you remember sheepherder wagons? I recall seeing them off in the distance, out on the prairie, in those Wyoming hills west of Cheyenne. They were found on the open range around the West, on land where cows don’t do well but sheep thrive.
That sheep wagon, with its white canvas top, was a beacon in the wilderness, a lonely home for a herdsman with his trusty dogs, guarding the sheep as they grazed the open range.
That herdsman was usually a Basque, with family roots in Spain and France but now an essential part of the American West. The Basques are a unique people originally from Europe. Their history is intertwined with the Spanish and French, but they maintain their own cultural identity, no matter where they are.
Part of the bond that keeps the Basque close to their roots is their unique language – there is no other language like it, not in Europe or the rest of the world. The Basque came to the West in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s. Sheepherding was a job that seemed to suit the young immigrants; it was a solitary job that required little knowledge of English.
Out with the sheep for the entire summer, they developed the wagon to use as a home on the road – the original travel trailer. Sometimes you can still see them, a hundred or more years after they were first used, out on the prairie, providing summer shelter for the herders.
At the end of summer, the sheepherders would stay in town. Many Western cities have Basque hotels where the single men would stay for the winter. Basque restaurants still serve family-style meals at these hotels, and they are hearty and wholesome feasts.
The Basque are known for more than wagons. Basque families hold great festivals in several Western cities, and everyone is welcome to join the party. The biggest are in Elko, Nevada, and Buffalo, Wyoming. These festivals showcase culture and traditions, with dancing, music, arts and crafts, and great food and wine. To find a Basque festival near you, check the web, or search Facebook – there are several listed around the West.