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The Humboldt-Basque Connection

The Humboldt-Basque Connection

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Sheep on Humboldt

Sheep graze along the Humboldt River in this historical photo.

The state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. Although the Spanish word “Nevada”–which means “snowfall”– finally superseded the first option, the German name still stands in some places of this state and elsewhere. Over all of the American continent, many places and locations are named Humboldt. In Nevada, this name appears in several corners; perhaps the most representative is the longest river which runs through it: the Humboldt River. Pathfinder John C. Fremont named this river in honor of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) on his first expedition to the Great Basin in 1845. Curiously, Alexander von Humboldt was never in Nevada.

This summer in early June I drove to southeastern Wyoming, where I was going to participate in a state history conference. It was a good pretext to make another road trip in the Interior West. Thus, I quickly pulled a duffle bag out, grabbed some clothes, and stuffed it into my car’s trunk. In Reno, first, I checked oil level, tire pressure, filled the gas tank, and grabbed one of those bitter gas-station coffees. My car and I were ready.

On my way to the High Plains, I drove the highway 80 eastward traversing the state of Nevada. As I left behind Battle Mountain, entering the county of Elko, heavy rain started. While crossing the Carlin Canyon, my car’s windshield wipers stopped working. What luck! Since I could not see clearly, then, I decided to stop at one of those emergency refuge areas for breakdowns in the highway. I asked myself: “This is the Nevada desert in the current context of the greatest drought in the American West?” I was twenty miles from Elko. I stayed in my car and waited few minutes. Nevertheless, rain continued hard.

The weather was close and hot. The sky was cloudy. Despite the heavy rain, I got out of the car. I stood in the rain, looking around, at the Humboldt River. It was running high. After no more than 30 seconds, I was totally drenched. But it went down well. The heavy rain and strong northerly winds made me remember my beloved Basque Country. For those who are not familiar with the climate of this country, briefly put, it generally is characterized by close, moist and rainy weather. As soon as it stopped raining I continued on my eastward way. I had still a long drive and so more watery-coffee to drink.

This breakdown moment made me think about the significance of this river in the history of Nevada and the West, as a crossroad of many different peoples with different pursuits. Among other things, hundreds of men and women experienced dramatic episodes along this stream in Nevada, while crossing the plains on their way to the West. Also, in the late 19th century, many Basque immigrant workers drove huge sheep flocks down this river. Besides the bad weather of this day, there are some interesting transatlantic and environmental connections between the Humboldt family, the state of Nevada, and the Basques.

The Humboldt brothers. We cannot fully understand the two brothers’ lives separately. German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), Alexander’s older brother, was born in 1767 in Potsdam, at that time Prussia. Then, in 1769, Alexander was born. In 1787, Wilhelm and Alexander began their studies at the University of Frankfurt (Oder). Four years later, in 1791, Wilhelm married to Caroline von Dacheroden. By marrying Caroline, the two brothers gained a close relationship with the Prussian aristocracy and scholarship, relating to persons like the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although Wilhelm studied law, he became interested in philology and classical studies. On the other hand, Alexander, more interested in natural history, graduated at the mining academy of Freiburg, in present Germany.

After completing their education, the Humboldt brothers went to work, but still had their dreams to pursue. Wilhelm became state’s attorney, but soon after he turned his attention to social problems affecting the western world. Alexander, for his part, became increasingly interested in botany. This passion, along with his enthusiasm for scientific exploration and discovery, led him to find new worlds overseas.

In October 1799, after living in Paris for two years, Wilhelm Humboldt traveled to the Basque Country for the first time. In his first trip there, he found this country and its people of great scholarly interest. He was amazed to find and learn about this people, culture, customs and particularly their strange language. His interest for the Basques was sparked and he already began thinking about returning there to carry out systematic and rigorous research.

In the summer of the same year, his brother Alexander embarked on another kind of adventure. He boarded a ship in Marseille towards Central and South America, where he spent four years collecting information and carrying out important geographical surveys. During these years, the two brothers maintained contact and kept each other posted about their investigations.

Later on, in April 1801, Wilhelm returned to the Basque Country with the intention of conducting anthropological research about the local people. He compared the Basque language with other tongues, but he did not find any similarity or relationships. Humboldt noted that this primitive language did not derive from Latin. The singularity of the Basque language was manifold, the syntaxes being one of the most remarkable indicators. Thus, the Basque Country had become a laboratory for many anthropologists, ethnographers and other scholars. After him, other researchers rushed there to find answers about the Basque language, customs and culture in general.

By the 1850s, during the days of the Far West’s mining economy, a significant group of Basque immigrants began to settle in California. Primarily, these early Basques began producing and marketing livestock in the hinterlands of San Francisco. Among them were the Altube brothers and the Garat family, who had moved from Argentina, where they had lived for a short period after they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In the late 1860s, competition for land and water made them find new rangelands in the Great Basin. By the early 1870s, following the adjacent pastures to the Humboldt River, these early Basques established their operations in Elko County, where they built up prominent ranches. Those early Basque immigrants found cheap labor back in their country, among their family and friends. Then, it became a common practice to employ Basque immigrant labor, instead of other population groups already residing in the West. Thus, they forged a chain of migration that lasted for many years.

Far from the land where the Basque immigrants grew up, the Great Basin presented a new environmental and economic situation. Wilhelm Humboldt could appreciate this and told his brother about this peculiar territory when the latter was somewhere in South America. The influence of Alexander von Humboldt’ work upon 19th century explorers and environmentalists such as George Melville, John Muir or John C. Freemont, is evident. This legacy has been labeled by historian Aaron Sachs, in his The Humboldt Current, as “Humboldtianism.” According to Sachs, the roots of the American environmentalism are in the German naturalist’s work. It seems understandable enough that John C. Freemont named the major river of Nevada after the German scientist.

By the 1890s, as the first wave of Basque immigrants arrived in the western ranges as wage laborers to work in the sheep industry, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s and other scholars’ writings on the Basques had already reached the American public opinion. Typically, Basque immigrants were mostly young bachelor boys who emigrated alone or in small groups from rural areas, leaving their families at home. They intended to work intensively for several years, and then return with their savings. They were birds of passage. Nonetheless, most of them stayed for more years or forever. They came to the New World to earn their fortune, but that required a lot of sacrifice: long working hours and usually conditions were not good.

Basque immigrants in Nevada and other Western states were employed to graze large bands of sheep, of about one or two thousand head. In one way or another, every Basque sheepherder confronted the Great Basin desert extreme environment and exposed themselves to many unexpected setbacks in the wilderness. Their exposure to extreme natural settings involved interrelationships with the rugged landscapes and wildlife that they encountered in rural Nevada. How nature impacted the sheepherders and, in turn, these immigrant workers must be seen in the context of socio-ecological relationships in the American West.

I know. Before my departure, I could have checked out one of those Humboldtian isobar maps and anticipate this bad weather front. However, less preparation always made the trip more exciting. All in all, this Humboldt connection that I found in Elko County enables us to understand better the transatlantic and environmental history of the Basques, through the Humboldt Current. The Humboldt River seems to be a linkage between 19th century science and western exploration, as well as the socio-economical relations and environmental tensions in the Nevada’s Northeast economic frontier.

In one way or another, every Basque sheepherder confronted the Great Basin desert extreme environment and exposed themselves to many unexpected setbacks in the wilderness.

In one way or another, every Basque sheepherder confronted the Great Basin desert extreme environment and exposed themselves to many unexpected setbacks in the wilderness.


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