Basques - History and Cultural Relations

Basques, as Europe's earliest and most efficient whalers, may have entered North America prior to the voyages of Columbus. There is documentation of Basque whaling and codfishing activity along the Labrador coast by the early sixteenth century and evidence of Basque loan words in some of the Atlantic coastal Canadian Native American languages. Canadian archivists and archaeologists have discovered a sixteenth-century Basque whaling station (used seasonally) and sunken whaling ship at Red Bay, Labrador. Place names such as Port-aux-Basques, Placentia, and Biscay Bay also testify to a Basque presence in Canadian coastal waters. This activity remained intense through the eighteenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth. With the exception of this maritime involvement, the Basque presence in Canada remains virtually unstudied. Some French Basques became established in Quebec as part of that area's overall French Immigration. In recent years there has been a Basque festival in the town of Trois Pistoles. In the twentieth century, a small colony of Basques (associated with the timber industry) has emerged in western British Columbia, and several of its Families have relocated to the Vancouver area.

Basques entered the western United States as part of the Spanish colonial endeavor. Several administrators, soldiers, explorers, and missionaries in the American Southwest and Spanish California were Basques. After Mexican Independence and subsequent American annexation of the area, there was a renewal of Basque immigration as part of the California gold rush. Many of the prospectors came from Southern South America, where Basques were the established sheepmen on the pampas. Some saw an opportunity to repeat in California a sheep-raising pattern under frontier conditions. By 1860, there were established Basque sheep outfits roaming the public lands in southern California. In the 1870s they spread throughout California's central valleys and had expanded into parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and western Nevada. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Basques were present in the open-range districts of all thirteen western states. The Basque sheepherder was the preferred employee in Basque- and non-Basque-owned sheep outfits alike.

Restrictive immigration legislation in the 1920s, with its anti-southern-European bias, severely limited Basque Immigration into the United States, and by the 1940s, the Basque-American community was evolving away from its Old World cultural roots. But a labor shortage during World War II and the unwillingness of Americans to endure the privations of the sheepherding way of life prompted the U.S. government to exempt prospective Basque sheepherders from immigration quotas. Between 1950 and 1975, several thousand Basques entered the United States on three-year contracts. The general decline of the sheep industry over the past fifteen years, coupled with full recovery of the Spanish and French economies, has all but interdicted the immigration of Basques into the American West. Today there are fewer than one hundred Basques herding sheep in the United States.

A secondary source of twentieth-century Basque Immigration derived from the Basque game of jai alai. Nuclei of professional players who have married U.S. citizens or otherwise gained permanent residency have formed around the legalized jai alai frontons in Florida, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Political refugees form a third modern, if modest, stream of Basque immigration in North America, as some individuals rejected Franco's Spain and others fled Castro's Cuba.

User Contributions:

Paul Fortin
My great great grandparents settled in Tres Pistoles in 1700-1800's last name Fortin, are they of french basque decent
very cool my grand father on my fathers side was a carpenter in Kern county and Vysalia. just beginning to learn about my heritage. thanks for the info

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: