Malheur County Community Profile
Portraits of Oregon Home Page
Malheur County was created February 17, 1887 from the southern portion of Baker County. The county was named after the Malheur River that flowed through the area.
Malheur County is located in the southeast corner of Oregon. It is bordered by Baker County on the north, the State of Idaho on the east, the State of Nevada on the south and Harney and Grant Counties on the west. Malheur County is the second largest county in the state with an estimated 9,874 square miles.
Malheur County was first settled by miners and stockmen in the early 1860s. Gold, discovered in 1863, drew people to the area resulting in the establishment of settlements and stock ranches. Agriculture, livestock, food processing and tourism support the economy in the county.
Maps and county historical facts verified through the Oregon Bluebook at http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us and http://bluebook.state.or.us.
Ethnic groups represented in the county include Hispanics, Japanese and Basques. The Portraits of Oregon project explored Basque customs and people living in the county.
Basques settled in the region in the 1890s and were mainly sheep herders. From the 1890s through World War I, great numbers of Basques emigrated to Malheur County from their native Pyrenees Mountains bringing with them their traditional games, customs and festive occasions. The Pelota Fronton, a court for playing the game, is the main landmark of the Basque culture in the region. It was first built in the spring of 1915 at the peak of Basque immigration to the area.
(L-R): Kyle Osborne, Alyssa Shaw
(L-R) Julie, Isabel, Anne-Marie and Elisa Eiguren
Malheur County 4-H Club Members
Five club members explored Basque culture and traditions in Malheur County. They began community documentation by visiting the Boise Basque Museum which has an abundance of Basque artifacts. Musical instruments, traditional clothing, historical photos, sports equipment, a fully equipped sheepherder’s wagon and many more objects provided participants with background about the Basque in Boise and surrounding areas, including Malheur County. Youth took pictures of a mural painted on the entire side of a building and toured a boarding house where Basque sheepherders stayed when they came into town after spending months watching over the sheep. They learned about the foodways, what the Basque eat and their celebrations. After leaving the museum the participants met a Basque man who works at the Basque Cultural Center and they asked him questions about his culture and the people. They asked permission to take his photograph and that became their first community documentation fieldwork experience. By the time they finished the Portraits project, club members had gathered historical photographs, interviews and completed three recorded stories: Aichicha Fred, Basque Foodways and Fransisco J. Yraguen. Tony Arrubarrena, Ann Bolin
Echanis Boarding House
Fransisco ‘Frank’ Yraguen: Family Historian and Circut Court Judge
Alissa M. Shaw, participant in the Portraits of Oregon project said, “I thought this was a great learning opportunity. It was interesting to learn about a different culture in my community. During my study of the Basque history I found out things I would never have known. I was really nervous about interviewing Frank Yraguen and Jim Arritola but these men were wonderful to talk to. This was an experience I know I will never forget."
“My grandparents came from the Basque country located on the Bay of Biscayne. The Basque region includes four provinces in northern Spain and three provinces in southern France. It is similar in size to Connecticut or Massachusetts. Many Basque came to America because they had fewer opportunities in their own country. In the Basque homeland, the oldest son is the one who would acquire the family's business or farm.
My grandfather, Jose Yraguen, lived in Nachitua. My grandmother, Claudia Accordagoitia, lived in Ereno. There was a large valley that separated them. My grandfather left Nachitua when he was 14 years of age. Before he left Spain, he was bethroed to my grandmother. When she was only 10 years old. He did not return to the Basque Country from America to get my grandmother until 1909. When he first arrived in America, he worked on a ship shoveling coal. His intent, rather than to stay working on the ship, was to ‘jump ship’ when he got to America. The first port the boat landed was New Orleans so that is where he ‘jumped ship’. That’s how he got into America.
The Basque would follow others who came. My grandfather’s older brother, Manuel, was the first to come and that is why my grandfather traveled across the United States southern Malheur County. The Basque operated boarding houses and basically Basque people would simply go from boarding house to boarding house as they traveled across America. It was like a railroad. My grandfather traveled across American and came to southern Malheur County to the White Horse Ranch. The Echanis family had a boarding house in Ontario on North Oregon Street. The boarding house was a place where the Basque maintained their cultural ties. Most of them could not speak English." -Frank Yraguen
Jim Arritola: Sheepherder
“I like sheep. I like to work with them. It gets in your blood. My father died when I was 14 so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I learned about the sheep industry from them. Many Basques came to America around the turn of the century hoping to carve a better life for themselves and their families. The Lequericas and Arritolas were counted in that migration.”
Some Basque Folklore
“There is an interesting legend about the Basque language. The old Basque say that it was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden…that’s folklore. Others say that the devil tried to learn Basque and after a short time he gave up and to this day the Basque people are not bothered by the devil because he could not speak our language!” -Jim Arritola
Scholars do not think that the Basque language is an Indo European language, becuase it shows no resemblance to languages in neighboring countries. There are a variety of hypotheses to explain its existence. Owing to some similarities with the Georgian language, some linguists think it could be related to languages from the Caucasus. Others relate the language to non-Arabic languages from north Africa. One of the most likely hypotheses argues that the Basque language developed "in situ", in the land of the Basques.
Kyle Osborne and Ben Plaza
Ben Plaza: Basque Foodways
Kyle Osborne- Teen Documentarian
“During my study of the Basque in Malheur County I learned interesting things about a group of people I didn’t know existed. I had an opportunity to interview Ben Plaza. Going into the interview I was very nervous but it turned out to be over nothing. I learned that the Basque people have a long history, thousands of years long. I was learning and having fun throughout the whole process in Portraits of Oregon. That was the best part!" -Kyle Osborne
Ben Plaza arrived for the interview with a loaf of sheepherder’s bread in his hands. Ben has a deep passion for the food of his heritage, and he said that he has been interested in cooking Basque food his whole life. When he was young Ben paid attention and asked questions whenever there was Basque food around. He has learned a lot from different people, generally the older women, about how to make the food. Ben loves to cook with the traditional ingredients such as garlic, chorizos and pigs’ feet and he makes the national dish of Spain called paella.
“My grandparents came from Spain but my grandmother died before I was born. My grandfather remarried a Basque lady. My grandfather originally came to Paradise Valley with a Basque man who didn’t speak English. This was in 1910. He went to school but didn’t like it. My grandmother came in, I think, about 1918. Her last name was Anduiza. She went to work in a boarding house in Boise. She met my grandfather and they got married. I have memories of going to Christmas Eve dinner at my grandparents' house. We would eat garbanzo soup with noodles. It was a light soup with some garbanzos and some vermicelli. But the base is flavored with chorizos and beef bones.”
“Basque food is generally mild. People think it’s going to be spicy. A major spice is garlic and also paprika and pimentos-little red bell peppers. Probably the prettiest dish is paella. There are about 1000 versions of paella. The traditional one from Valencia, Spain has lots of seafood, clams and mussels in it. I like sweetbreads, pigs’ feet, tripe and tongue... Pigs’ feet are probably my favorite Basque food but nobody likes it. I love oxtail soup. The Basque use every part of the animal... When I was growing up we would go to the Basque picnics in Boise. They were real social events. You watched all the weightlifting contests. The Basque had contests where they could see who was the strongest. It is mostly all contests of strength where people would chop wood, carry stones or throw balls.”
On Being Basque
“I like being part of something that other people are proud to be part of. There’s a communal aspect to the Basque culture that if you meet a Basque person you may not be related but you almost feel like you are. There’s an instant bond between Basque people and they’re very big on traditional values and family values. There is a strong work ethic. They approach life with gusto. The Basque like food, drink, hard work, music and dance. They like fun.” -Ben Plaza
Fred and Isabel Eiguren: Arock, Oregon
Fred and Isabel Eiguren live in Arock, Oregon located near Jordan Valley in southeastern Oregon. Granddaughters Julie, Elisa and Anne-Marie are following in the sheep and cattle herding tradition begun by Fred’s father, Pascual Eiguren. They are also learning how to cook Basque foods such as paella from Isabel. One spring day, Fred met Julie, Elisa and Anne-Marie in the barn to share his thoughts on the Basque who settled in the Jordan Valley area and to show how to brand and castrate sheep. Elisa and Anne-Marie saddled their horses and herded the family sheep into the barn. Julie tried her hand at branding. She branded the family dog as well! The oldest building in Malheur County, the Sheep Ranch Fort (listed in the National Register of Historic Places as Sheep Ranch Fortified House), is on their property.
Julie videotaped the events of the day, including a trip along a rutted dirt road to view rockboys (stacked rock sculptures) built by Basque sheepherders when they were out in the sheep camps. It was an exciting event locating these on the open range and then hiking to them during a thunder and lightning storm. Participants agreed that they learned a lot about the Basque heritage and culture, particularly the Eiguren family heritage. Fred is pleased that his granddaughters are interested in learning the Basque traditions.
Fred Eiguren: Rancher
“I’m proud of my heritage. I love my heritage. Basques are all good people that I know of. I imagine there are some rotten ones in the basket too. They’ve been a good people and if they weren’t good people and a thriving people I don’t know how they could survive the last five to six thousand years. . . They can’t trace their language. They’ve been in northern Spain and France all this time surviving and doing well. I love being Basque, but I’m an American Basque.
Joe Navarro and Antone Azcuenaga were the two Basques that first came to Jordan Valley. The Basques that then came to Jordan Valley came on the basis of knowing Joe and Antone. There were not many people here, a few Indians and a few white men. They (Joe and Antone) walked out of Winnemucca, and Paradise then McDermott, and headed for Boise, Idaho which was kind of the center of the Basque. They got their provisions and bought a horse and they got over to around Battlecreek. Somehow the horse got away from them and left them afoot. Antone was a big, strong man, one of the strongest Basque men that ever came to this country. Antone was a blacksmith. Joe Navarro wasn’t that big of a man. I think it was written in a book that we’ve got at home that Antone said if it hadn’t had been for Joe Navarro, he would have died out there. The horse got away and they didn’t know what to do so Joe headed for somewhere to get help if he could. He ended up down here at the Owyhee River and sure enough the horse was there. . . Joe got the horse and went back for Antone and after they rested a couple of days they went on into the Jordan Valley. That’s the story of how they got here and why they came.
My father, Pascual Eiguren, was brought over by Joe Navarro, his uncle, as a foster son. They went into business. Joe retired and sold the sheep ranch to my father and we are here ever since.”
“Sheepherders took care of the sheep twenty four hours a day, everyday. That’s why they built those rockboys to let them know where the camp was in case they got into a fog…and the fog overtook them and they could get back to camp (by following the trail of the rockboys). Some froze to death out there so they started building these rockjacks and so they’d know where there campsites were.”
“The branding was very simple. You branded their (sheep) on this docking board. You castrated them, cut their tails off and if you ear marked them then you ear marked them. You branded them, that was the last thing. You put the sheeps’ heads over the docking board and then released them. You didn’t have to register your sheep brands in the county courts. Until Dad (Pascual) started running cattle, this brand wasn’t recorded. It was just to give you identification if your sheep wandered off. But it wouldn’t work well because all you had to do was get a pocket knife and scrape the paint off. Then it was anybody’s sheep.” -Fred Eiguren
Isabel Eiguren: Basque Foodways
“My name is Isabel Mendiara Eiguren. My mother and father both came from the Basque country in the Pyrenees but met in a little town called McDermott. I make paella. In any Basque family you made paella which is also called Spanish Rice. They call it red rice. The traditions were what my parents did before you came to the United States and you just naturally followed the same traditions and what you did in your families. There’s always a big banquet of food so there are different kinds of food for each celebrations. Easter and in Springtime there were egg dishes. Christmastime it was pigs’ feet which was a specialty for me. It was made in a tomato mixture and a lot of onions. Cakes and flan, a caramel custard, were always made. I don’t think there is ever a Basque dinner made without a flan.
I’ve been to several Basque picnics. My brother use to say that we were the only people who worked for entertainment. We’d chop wood, lift weights, like a big stone or big iron ball. Everything is competitive in the Basque way of having fun.”
Fred’s Comments about Isabel’s Cooking:
“I love everything she cooks, the beans she cooks, the chili she can make, the rice pudding and the flan. Tomatoes and eggs we usually eat with potatoes and the garbanzos with boiled meat. Everything she makes is wonderful.”