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Sheep Wagons, The Basque, and a Long History of Mobile Living

  • Posted on Mar 8, 2017

 

Modern mobile living owes a lot to the rich pioneering spirit of the American West. Over the past 300 years individuals and then entire communities of people packed up their belonging and traversed great distances to discover, settle, and economize the vast swathes of land west of the Mississippi, across the great plains and over the Rocky Mountains. It is easy to find those iconic images of long lined of covered wagons and handcarts used to transport and transpose families and cultures. As inspiring as these are, it is tough to view them as anything but transitional: shelters to be used then replaced at the end of the journey with a solid house on a new homestead. But what about when the nature of one’s daily life is transitional at its core? How can a wagon become a home?
In at least one culture’s case, the sheep wagon was a remarkable solution to that exact problem. Looking at photographs of sheep wagons from the late 19th/early 20th century, sheep wagons seem like photos of modern tiny homes with an old school Instagram filter. They are small, versatile living spaces on wheels that can be taken just about anywhere a flock of sheep can go. But where did these sheep camps come from? Who introduced them to the American West and why have they made a comeback in recent years?

From The Basque to the Frontier

The name “Basques” refers to an ethnic group of Europeans who have lived in a specific region of land straddling France and Spain for thousands of years. Speaking a unique language unrelated to any other Indo-European language, the Basques were relatively self-sufficient and self-governing through the late 1700s until French and Spanish politics intervened. By the middle of the 1800s, Spanish conflicts (and the discovery of gold in California) led the the creation of a global Basques diaspora with groups settling throughout North, Central and South America.
Interestingly, the original Basque homeland was not a wide and extensive space amenable to animal husbandry (the basque region is only about the size of New Hampshire). So how did the Basque identity in North America become nearly synonymous with sheep herders and with their iconic sheep wagons? Many early immigrants who made the journey with hopes of working gold mines in California soon realized the prospects of getting rich were exaggerated and began looking for alternative work. In southern California and throughout the American Southwest they found this work tending herds of sheep. In the mid 1960s, there was still significant need for sheepherders such that owners began sponsoring immigrants to come over from Basque.
Having a sponsor and job lined up in a sheep camp worked well for many young Basque men who were looking to immigrate but faced significant financial and linguistic barriers. The solitary life in a sheep wagon, setting up camp with 2,000 sheep and a couple of dogs meant they could work immediately without having to learn a new language. Additionally, they could choose to forego monetary payment and take their wages in livestock, slowly growing their own sheep holdings to the point of building or purchasing their own sheep wagon.
This popular method of setting up camp in the United States as a Basque immigrant was not easy, however. The Basque culture is communal and Basque Identity is closely tied to one’s relations so much so that the solitary life on the sheep range was extremely difficult. One historian noted that  “Sprinkled throughout the rural newspapers of the American West in the early 20th century you get these reports of the mad Basco sheepherder, talking to themselves. Amongst Basques there’s this whole vocabulary of madness: the sheepherder who goes over the edge, who becomes sage brushed or sheeped.”
With such difficulty, having a sheep wagon in which to make a home became very important. It was likewise important that the home be mobile to not only follow the flocks but also to meet up with fellow Basque sheep herders and creating temporary communal sheep camps in common spaces.

The Sheep Wagon

On the range, the sheep wagon becomes the centerpiece of the campsite. While early iterations of the wagon resembled the covered wagons of the pioneers, the months long duration of herding quickly necessitated the creation of a home more than a vehicle. Thus, early sheep wagons began to resemble the wagons of other Nomadic populations such as the Romani people of Central and Eastern Europe (known by some as “gypsies” despite their heritage being South-Asian and not Egyptian). These wagons became more comfortable and versatile as time progressed with many eventually including hard-wood ceilings covered with canvas to increase durability and strength. They also included functional doors with locks for added security.
The mobile comforts also included small, wood-burning stoves with built-in chimneys for warmth and cooking. Most had a single bed for the sheepherder and, overtime, become highly customized to the individual preferences of the owner (or in many cases the occupant). They were made to traverse rugged terrain and take a beating and could be pulled by horse or other work animal. Unlike many other mobile solutions, though, sheep camps maintained their light profile while other covered carriages began to trend toward more stationary and heavy designs.

From then to Now: Modern Sheep Camps

Modern sheep wagons are manufactured with many of the same challenges in mind that faced these early sheepherders from the Basque old country. While many draw design inspiration from the early wagons, modern amenities such as communication equipment, natural gas cooking ranges, and electricity enhance the traditional feel of early mobile living. For the modern sheepherder, the sheep wagon is more than a footnote in the modern tiny living culture. It is a lifestyle that has a long and rich history connected to the very land it traverses and the expanse of geography over centuries of time.

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  18. Joseph M. Crane says:

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