The Mysterious Tree Carvings of America’s Basque Sheepherders

The Atlas Obscura web site has an interesting article about Basque immigrants to the United States. The article begins:

“Some Americans, to learn about their ancestors, can dig through documents detailing when they passed through Ellis Island or flew in or got married, or where they lived at the time of a census. But for some Basque families in the United States, the only record they have of their immigrant ancestors is carved into trees in secluded aspen groves throughout the West. Names, dates, hometowns, and other messages and art scar the pale bark of aspens where Basque men watched over herds of hundreds of sheep from the 1850s to the 1930s.

“The Basque are a genetically and linguistically distinct people from a region of the western Pyrenees straddling France and Spain. They speak Euskara and are believed to be the oldest indigenous group in Europe. Many came to the United States in the 19th century in search of opportunity—often in the form of gold or jobs—and ended up in parts of the Great Basin—Southeastern Oregon, central Idaho, and Nevada. Some started ranches, while others found themselves in sagebrush-covered hills and mountains, alone but for hundreds of sheep, a donkey, and some dogs to keep them company.”

The full article by Kelsey Kennedy can be found at:


“Sheepherders”? Say it ain’t so, Joe. The word is shepherd.
Also, when we lived in central California in the 1970s, there were Basque shepherds caring for the sheep on the hills surrounding us. They came over for a few years, I was told by locals, and then returned home and others would come. So this custom went on long after the 1930s.


Love this piece! Thank you!


There is always something interesting in your newsletters! Thank you for sharing! I learn something new every time I open one.


Interesting topic, one which brings up a question. I’ve just finished reading “The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny” by Michael Wallis in which several sites along the California Trail were mentioned as places where the pioneers carved their names, dates, etc. or wrote them in axle grease or other seemingly durable (to them) media. Although I have no ancestors who crossed the country during these migrations to reach California or Oregon, I have several friends whose ancestors did make the trek. Has anyone published lists of the names and other information found at places like Chimney Rock in what is now Nebraska and Cache Cave in Echo Canyon in what is now Utah?


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