In my January 27, 2014 Blog, The Aspen Message Trees, I mentioned the early Basque sheepherders who used Aspens as message trees. From the mid-eighteenth century until after World War II, they came to the tend the vast flocks of sheep that roamed the remote mountains and meadows of Colorado.
The Basque immigrants from the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain came to the U.S. between 1860 and 1930. They supplied mutton to the early Western mining camps.
The messages on the Aspen trees showed that the sheepherders were skillful carvers. I wondered what else sheepherders were known for besides the range wars with cattlemen. One argument for the disputes was that the sheep's pointed hoofs cut the range grass and made the ground stink so cattle wouldn't graze it. While some ranchers saw sheep as a meat and fleece commodity, others saw them as wrecking pasture land.
In the early 1890s, Wyoming sheep herds came into Northern Colorado. An area newspaper reported that raiders stampeded 3,800 sheep over a 1,000-foot bluff into the creek below. It was suspected that the raiders were men who owned adjacent cattle ranges. The feuds escalated even as the sheep herds were moved back to Wyoming for the winter.
It seems that everyone gets in on the disputes. In 1895, The Cheyenne Leader, Wyoming, reported "...people from Hayden to Steamboat, Colorado, had heard a "wild rumor" that 150 Pinkerton detectives were even then riding toward the sheep camp to support the sheepherders." Abuse of sheepherders was widely documented and prevalent throughout history.
Sheepherders also came from Peru and Chile on a three-year contract. For those herders, isolation was the hardest part of the work. These men were accustomed to going home to family at the end of the day. Although they could visit neighboring camps, it wasn't the same.
In 2009, Tom Acker, a Mesa State College Spanish professor, said "...in Colorado the required monthly wage for a sheepherder is $750, on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week- with no days off. It's a wage that was set in 1967."
No days off is not surprising since sheep have no natural defenses and need to be protected from predator attacks at all times. Historically in the western range land, sheep, and cattle, graze the high mountain meadows in the summer and move to the lower elevations in the winter.
|Sheep grazing the alpine meadows near Engineer Pass, Colorado 8/2013
|Courtesy of True West Magazine - 9/29/11
|Courtesy of Bayfieldcoheritagedays.org
|Courtesy of Bayfieldcoheritagedays.org
This was a new event for me and very enlightening.
|Photo of J. Paul Brown and herd is courtesy of Pine River Times, Bayfield
What tidbits did I learn about sheep from local sheep ranchers like Mr. Brown, Earnie Etchart, whose father was a French Basque herder, Dominic Inda, and Eddie Hansen?
• Popular breeds of sheep common in this area are Rambouillet, Merino, and Finn and mixtures of those breeds. Naturally, there are more breeds in Southwest Colorado such as the Navajo Churro;
• Herders pick up cues from the sheep when it's time to move on;
• Sheep will graze any one area for one-two days near camp, or up to two weeks on open range before moving on;
• This graze pattern keeps the vegetation healthy and vigorous;
• Sheep go to water once a day, but don't congregate around watering holes;
• Guard dogs are usually Pyrenees or Akbash;
Native to western Turkey, the Akbash is primarily used as a livestock guardian dog, but is also can be used as a shepherd dog.
Known as the Great Pyrenees, the Pyrenean Mountain Dog is a very old breed used by shepherds for hundreds of years including those of the Basque shepherds. It was bred to be agile in order to guard sheep on steep, mountainous terrain and slopes.
|Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog
• Herds have a minimum of 2 guard dogs, 1-2 herding dogs, and 4-6 pups in training;
• Recreationalists and their dogs often cause problems for sheep and herders.
The take-home message — Eat more lamb-it's delicious!
|Linda Farmer Harris
Lin and her husband, Jerry, live on a ranch in Chimney Rock, Colorado. She writes historical fiction for adults and children. Her enjoyment of genealogy and family history adds unique elements to her story.
Her novella, The Lye Water Bride, is included in the California Gold Rush Brides Collection (Barbour, 2016)