Ogden, Utah was a crossroads community for Basques that brought tradition and social activities to otherwise lonely Basques in Utah and throughout the Intermountain West. Proud of their heritage and slow to assimilate, Basque peoples thrived at hotels and boarding houses built in Ogden that gave sheepherders and Basque students a place to live. Basque immigrants come from the Pyrenees Mountains on the southern border of France and the north west border of Spain. The Basque people are fiercely patriotic to their country, the Republic of Euskadi, that remained a separate entity until 1839. A hard-working group, the Basques roamed the French and Spanish coast and countryside while fishing or herding sheep. They brought their talents to America and quickly became known as the best ranch hands around.
Although Basque history in America goes back to Christopher Columbus and his crew, it was the nineteenth that originally brought a significant number Basque immigrants to the Americas. The settlement of Basque peoples in the Intermountain West was a wave of secondary migration from Basques who lived in Argentina and California mixed with a few immigrants directly from Europe. Basque peoples in Utah first began settling in the state around 1870. Because census records showed Basque individuals as either Latino, Spanish, or French, it is difficult to put a number on Utah’s Basque community. Today, however, the Basque Club of Utah claims over 50 families of Basque descent.
To be a Basque immigrant living in the Intermountain West meant isolation. Sheep herding jobs kept Basque men in the wilderness with no one but their dog to talk to. This isolation prevented the creation of many large ethnic enclaves, although a few were formed in Idaho, California, and Arizona. Instead of a major community, a tree carving phenomenon left the Basque’s mark on the west. Over 27,000 documented tree carvings are attributed to bored and lonely Basque herders. These arborglyphs were scratched into aspens and were often mini autobiographies by Basques who felt alone and unheard.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s, about the time when Basque immigration slowed, that the Basque community became more visible in America. Through clubs and hotels Basque tradition was preserved and taught to others. Although sheep herding is still a trade practiced by some Basques, many Basques in Utah work various trades and gather a few times a year to dance, play traditional games, and eat traditional foods such as blood sausages or sheep milk cheese.
Despite the isolation that defined early Basque immigrant life, Basque community was created wherever there was a crossroad of travel. Ogden’s railroads presented just such an opportunity. Thousands of Basques found themselves gathering in hotels such as the Pyrenees French Basque Hotel built in 1910 or the Allies Hotel run by a Basque family for generations. So, despite the lack of a community more permanent than a few hotels, Ogden became a sustained hub that bridged the worlds of newly come immigrants, elderly sheepherders, Basque students, and isolated herders who needed winter boarding.