People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Basque Americans

About the Basque Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Basques and more.


Where They Came From: The Basque homeland straddles the present Spanish-French border where the Bay of Biscay meets the western part of the Pyrenees. The region has been continuously occupied for the last 70,000 years, making the Basque people one of the oldest in western Europe.

Why They Left: Hundreds of thousands of Basques entered the New World with the French and Spanish colonial ventures. When the Spanish empire collapsed, Basque migration stopped. It resumed in the 1850s, with peasants and the urban lower classes predominating. The French revolutions, the Napoleonic wars, and Carlist uprisings in Spain all had dire effects on Basque political autonomy. The industrial revolution encouraged emigration as well. The Basques are an agricultural people; as farming possibilities diminished, the growing factory system seemed an abhorrent alternative to them.

Where They Settled: The "Amerikanuak," or Basque Americans, consist of the French Basques and Navarrese who gained a foothold in southern California in the 1850s and then moved on to western Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana; and the Vizcayans, or Spanish Basques, who migrated in the 1880s to northern Nevada, eastern Oregon, and southern Idaho. San Francisco is the center of social activity for the French Basques, and Boise for the Vizcayans.

Numbers: There were probably no more than 10,000 in the western U.S. by 1895. Argentina received the heaviest number of Basque immigrants during this period. When restrictive policies were enacted there between 1910 and 1930, Basque migration to the U.S. reached its high point, with the arrival of 20,000 settlers. They are not classified in the U.S. Census, but the current Basque-American population is roughly estimated at 50,000.

Their Story in America: The gold rush lured several hundred Basques to California in the 1850s. The Basques' considerable knowledge of large-scale sheep raising and herding on the open range, which they learned on the Argentine pampas, proved highly adaptable to conditions in the American West. In the 1940s, when U.S. immigration quotas threatened to cut off the supply of skilled sheepherders, range associations started lobbying for increased Basque immigration; they also began actively sponsoring and importing Basque shepherds, which they still do today. Social clubs and festivals have helped this small group, though scattered throughout a vast area, to maintain a strong ethnic identity.

Basques have contributed more than any other ethnic group to the development of the U.S. sheep industry, occupying every step of the occupational ladder. Their reputation for physical endurance and stamina is reflected in their leisure activities as well. The games of pelota and jai alai, which resemble handball, attract large audiences internationally.

Famous Basque Americans: Basque-American Paul Laxalt, former governor of Nevada, is currently a U.S. senator from that state.

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