Idaho History

Whatever the Basques did in Idaho, they clung to their unique culture

By the 1940s most Basque sheep campers had rubber tires instead of wagon wheels.
By the 1940s most Basque sheep campers had rubber tires instead of wagon wheels. Idaho State Historical Society

It is possible to trace the history of Boise’s Basque community through the pages of the Idaho Statesman, as we have done for the past 40 years – their work, their play, their family life and their unique culture.

Although few Idaho Basques were sheepherders in their native Vizcaya, on the northern coast of Spain, like all immigrant groups that came to America, they took whatever work they could get. When they proved to be reliable and conscientious at caring for their flocks, sheep owners wanted more men like them. It wasn’t long before the herders acquired flocks of their own.

When Juan Augustin Yribar died at 79 in 1936, the Statesman called him the “unofficial mayor of the Boise Basque colony.” The use of the term “colony” suggests that the Basques took pride in a cultural heritage that made them unique.

One of the Basques who prospered in his new home was John Archabal. On Dec. 3, 1897, the Statesman reported: “John Archabal, foreman for W.C. Cleveland, was in the city yesterday, having recently brought down sheep from the hills. The flocks are between Black’s Creek and Boise, where there is said to be very good grazing.” As foreman of Cleveland’s herders, Archabal could leave the flocks in their hands while he came to town.

Boise’s City Directory for 1909-10 lists these Basque land owners: Archabal led the list with 1,200 acres, valued at $9,575. John Echeorria had 160 acres worth $2,350, and Benito Arego had 120 acres listed at $250.

A list of Ada County farmers and land owners published in 1917 lists Archabal and W.C. Cleveland as co-owners of 320 acres assessed at $1,600. John Archabal himself now owned 1,271 acres worth more than $10,000.

On Oct. 7, 1925, the Statesman ran a story headlined, “Archabals Home from Visit to Land of Nativity.” John had bought an automobile in Detroit, shipped it to Southampton, England, and then toured England, France and Spain. There followed a long account of the differences he noted in the Basque country after an absence of 20 years.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email