OregonScape: Summer 2015

Summer 2015, 116:2

The southeast corner of Oregon is thought of by many as empty land. It is not. Watered by the Owyhee River and its tributaries, it is a land of cattle and sheep. Since the late nineteenth century, many immigrants, especially Basques, have settled in the area. Perhaps fifty percent of the residents of the Jordan Valley area in the 1920s were Basque immigrants or their descendants. Sheepherding attracted many of those new settlers, because the solitary life did not require fluency in English to earn a living. Once the sheepherder had saved a bit, he could buy sheep of his own. Raising sheep produced two money crops each year: lamb and wool. Unlike meat cattle, it was not necessary to slaughter the animals to make a profit on them.

The Basques came to the United States initially in search of gold. Moving north from the mining areas of Nevada, these pioneers from the western Pyrenees saw the livestock potential of the Oregon desert. Many of those men were younger sons, unable to inherit the family estate in the old country, but willing to work to build estates of their own. Many of them began their own flocks while still caring for the larger herds of their employers. Eventually those second generation herds grew large enough for sheepherders to go out on their own and hire their own herders.

Unfortunately, immigration quotas that began in 1924 brought an end to this heyday of the eastern Oregon sheep industry. Though there are still thousands of sheep in Malheur and Harney counties and the surrounding areas, their numbers are no longer growing exponentially as they did in the early twentieth century.

This image shows one of the many herds crossing the Owyhee River on a bridge built of juniper logs. The bridge was built by sheepherders Joe Navarro and Pasco Eiguren around 1920.