History Told on Trees: The Basque Shepherds

Lake Tahoe, like the rest of the American West had been the territory of native people, "Indians", as Columbus named them. Then discoveries of gold, silver and other abundant resources attracted immigrants from around the world.  At Lake Tahoe, the Comstock Silver Strike in nearby Virginia City transformed the landscape from Washoe Indian country into a frontier for extracting resources by people from around the world.  The Basque people from Spain and France were among these new arrivals, contributing their language, culture and expertise to the patchwork culture and society that would become "America".

The First Family of Europe

photo: Black and white image of Basque immigrants. The Basques are known as Europe's "Indians" or Europe's "First Family", since their language and culture is more ancient than any other in Europe.  It is likely that the Basque are descendants of the artists who created the astonishing Stone Age paintings of the Pyrenees Mountains 30,000 years ago.  Basques were Europe's first whalers and accomplished sailors and navigators.  The Basque were the first to sail around the world and Basque sailors accompanied Columbus to the New World, where they had pivotal roles in the Spanish colonial government and the expansion of the church for the next 300 years.

Shepherds

In 1849 Basques joined throngs of other young men from around the world seeking their fortune in the American West.  Before long most were employed in the sheep business and by the turn of the century, "Basque" and "sheepherder" were synonymous.  To pass the long lonely days of summer in the "high country" Basque sheepherders created a unique western cultural phenomenon. They carved on aspen trees, tens of thousands of them in ten western states.

Arborglyphs

Photo of an arboglyph with the dates 1949 and 1945 carved into an Aspen tree. Called arborglyphs, these carvings give us information we could not find elsewhere.  If you want to know when and where sheep grazed or who the sheepherders were, chances are only arborglyphs could provide answers.  Though carving was a widespread activity, the sites were remote and often the trees died before their messages from the past could be recorded.  Today, there are very few left dating before 1900, since aspens only live about 100 years.

Most carvings are names and dates, the dry stuff of history.  Most of the messages are hard to understand as most are in the Basque language, Euskara.Photo of more arboglyphs.  Here a name and the number 74 are carved into the aspen tree.  The pictures, however are easily read (if not necessarily suited for children).  Carving topics include: news on sheep herding, erotic messages and graphics, Old Country memories, loneliness, references to America, interpersonal matters among herders, humor, swear words, the "good bye ritual", self portraits, and Basque symbols.  These personal details regarding the lives and thoughts of young Basque men shed light on roughly one hundred years of American Western history.
 

Enjoying the Carvings

While exploring the Nevada and California mountains, you may find carved some well-known names, like Laxalt or Borda.  Mostly you will encounter the musing of lonely and unknown herders like Arnot Urruty, whose spirit still clings to the trees he carved.  In the summer of 1926 while watching his flock, Arnot had a terrific view of Lake Tahoe but he was not enjoying it:

"Here I am bored to death.  Some day the time will come to leave this place."

A few years later, on the 4th of July, another herder complained that the rich were enjoying the holiday, but he could only hope for God's pity.

Many inscriptions refer to loneliness and especially to the pervasive longing for female companionship.  Matxin Lanathoua was an exception, carving images from ancient Basque legends, inspiring bizarre carvings of huge snakes suckling from a donkey.

At first glance these carvings seem simple until you realize how candidly human they really are.  Best of all, they have preserved a slice of the Old West that is gone. Please respect these aspen trees, canvases of Basque artists.  Their carvings are skillfully done without injury to the living tree but carving can cause injury and reduce the life span of these trees.  If you are lucky enough to see them, enjoy them, respect these historic finds, but leave no new carvings of your own.

Finding Out More

If you would like more information on Basque culture, the Basque studies Department of University of Nevada Reno has a fine library. Dr. Jose Mallea, a Basque historian and an expert on Basque arborglyphs, organizes tours to these sites. He may be reached through the University (775) 784-4854.

The following publications are also recommended:

  • "The First Family of Europe" National Geographic Magazine, November 1995
  • "History that Grows on Trees: The Aspen Carvings of Basque Sheepherders" in Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 35 (1)

Please honor this rich heritage and help protect these sites.  If you find artifacts, please leave them and report finds to the:

Heritage Resource Manager of the U.S. Forest Service, 
Lake Tahoe Basin (530) 543-2600.