Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Colorado Sheep Camps

by Linda Farmer Harris

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
Many early herders lived in distinctive wagons called Campitos - a mini trailer-type wagon with no electricity or running water.

Courtesy of True West Magazine - 9/29/11
Herders today follow that tradition as they trail their animals from the Colorado high-country pastures to valleys nearer owner ranches during the winter.

Courtesy of Bayfieldcoheritagedays.org
Courtesy of Bayfieldcoheritagedays.org
In September, 2015, J. Paul Brown, his family, and their sheepherders brought his herd through Bayfield, Colorado, for the 16th annual Heritage Days and Sheep Trailing event. 

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)


  1. I loved this post, Lin! Probably because I've enjoyed working with sheep on our farm, but also because I enjoy travelling and camping. But the best part was the photos as they add so much. Thank you for sharing this post with us.

    1. Hi Anita, thank you. We raise cattle and it was a treat to talk to the sheep ranchers and learn the difference in caring for the herds. We inherited a Great Pyrenees when we lived in Austin. She was the sweetest dog, and she she didn't have anything to herd, she herded us. She was very protective of our godchildren. It was a joy to have her in our home until she died of cancer.

  2. I like the signage on the Aspen trees and th campitos! Like our tiny campers today. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  3. Hi Sharon, thanks for stopping by. The Aspens are fascinating. We see more graffiti carved into trees than true messages. Such a pity. The campitos look charming in the fields, but I'd hate to live without running water and electricity. Have you guessed I'm not a camping/roughing it sort of gal.

  4. My name is Joseph F.Aguirre my dad was Rocky J. Aguirre he was 3rd generation sheep herder was known for ha d shearing 280 sheep in 1 day zI need info he's