Omaechevarria v. State of Idaho
The worth of Basques in Idaho
Had early pioneers and settlers in Idaho witnessed events in Boise this past summer, they would not have believed their eyes. More than 25,000 people attended the Jaialdi Basque festival, with an estimated 2,000 coming from the Basque Country and around the world. Each day of the last week in July The Idaho Statesman featured articles on different elements of the festival. The president of the Basque Country traveled with a dozen other representatives from the Basque government and a press entourage that beamed back live coverage for those still at home. On behalf of the state, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne received the Lagun Ona (Good Friend) award, the most prestigious honor given by the Basque government, and the secretary of state and mayor of Boise, both of whom are of Basque ancestry, served as hosts for delegates from the Basque region. The festivities filled venues such as the Morrison Center, the Egyptian Theatre, the Fairgrounds and of course, Boise’s Basque Block in the heart of downtown. Yet this snapshot of an ethnic group fully integrated into the community while maintaining a distinct ethnic identity differs severely from scenes decades earlier as Basques initially made their way across the Nevada desert into southern Idaho.
On August 15, 1914, local law enforcement officers cited Basque sheepherder Secundio Omaechevarria, an employee of R.F. Bicknell of Boise, for the misdemeanor offense of grazing a band of sheep on land “previously occupied by cattle.” George Swisher filed the complaint on behalf of a number of cattle growers in Owyhee County, in the southwestern corner of the state. Duly arrested, Omaechevarria was found guilty on September 3, 1914, and fined $150 plus court costs. As the case made its way through the system, court testimony revealed other characteristics of the case. E.A. Stauffer, a longtime rancher in the area testified:
I first established, or assisted in establishing, the exterior boundaries of this cattle range ... along about 12 years ago. I did not erect any monuments, in particular it was not necessary ... Sheepmen respected it without. Sheepmen in that time were a different class than is now. They were white men and they could speak English.
This seemingly minor case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court on December 20, 1917, and was decided on March 18, 1918. On the surface, the case appears to be merely another legal chapter of the Western range wars, where many levels of government intervened between cattle and sheep interests. While the role of the government remained decisive in sheep-cattle interests of this case, the backdrop to the legal process revealed the simultaneous social battle waged between diverse settlers over acceptable definitions of land use and American identity. Until Basques were willing to accept these definitions they would remain outsiders.
Conflicts in the range wars climaxed with the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, which forever altered grazing practices. With this legislation, the federal government carved out grazing districts on much of the public domain and placed them under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management. However, the passage of this controversial legislation came only after countless disputes – ongoing disagreements between cattle, sheep and agricultural interests, legal proceedings attempting resolution, and a number of violent clashes. Omaechevarria v. State of Idaho resides in the midst of this contentious context, just past the chronological midpoint between the emergence of large-scale sheep and cattle interests in the later half of the 19th century and the federal government’s watershed decision – the Taylor Grazing Act.
Sheepherding provided an employment opportunity for impoverished Basque immigrants, yet at times it also left them sandwiched between the contentious interests involved in grazing animals on the range. Indeed, Omaechevarria, the Basque herder involved in this case, literally stood between the interests of large-scale cattle ranching and his employer, who represented the interests of the sheep industry. Moreover, these other interests seemed “more American” than Omaechevarria and others like him. Pronouncing and spelling the name alone left many tongue-tied. Moreover, Omaechevarria v. State of Idaho emerged in the midst of an American xenophobia that would crest with the closing of America’s ports to open immigration in 1924. While many have longed for and written of a West devoid of these prejudiced attitudes, the facts of this case argue for greater continuity than disparity. And just as the government played a prominent role in limiting immigration, in the West it also participated in an especially pronounced way through land policy and court decisions such as this one. Proceedings often sided with cattle interests, largely due to a notion of squatters’ rights and the low political, economic, and social class of many sheepmen. This position often afforded cattle interests’ disproportionate influence in state legislatures and over early grazing regulations.
Attitudes and actions towards Basques were often revealed in local papers. In 1909, the Caldwell Tribune stated: “The scale of living and the methods of doing business of the Bascos are on a par with those of the Chinamen. However, they have some undesirable characteristics that the Chinese are free from.” Although the Chinese had been excluded earlier and generally remained near the bottom of social levels of acceptance, the author revealed his desire to place the Basques at society’s lowest rung. The article continued by describing the Basques as “filthy, treacherous, and meddlesome. However, they work hard and save their money. They are clannish and undesirable,” the author warned, “but they have a foothold and unless something is done will make life impossible for the white man.” On the floor of the Senate, Key Pittman of Nevada delivered a vituperative description of Basques herders. “[The sheepmen] get that class of labor because they seem to be adapted for sheep herding, and they are lacking in intelligence, independence, or anything else. They are just about as near a slave as anybody could be under our present existing conditions.”
These herders and their practices continued to be the target of much American animosity. Ironically, while most of the settled livestock interests had recently migrated to the area and started their businesses in a similar fashion, they continued to view these “tramp” sheepmen as the epitome of the anti-American. Their argument held that these rootless wanderers trespassed on their land, cared little to nothing about local affairs, and merely stripped the land of its value and returned with their riches to their homeland.
The need for sheepherders
Railroad expansion changed Idaho from a thoroughfare for migrating flocks to an industry hub. In 1890 the state counted 501,978 head of sheep, by 1910 that number jumped to 3,010,478. This explosion in numbers meant there was a tremendous need for herders. Setllers, however, did little to create a favorable image of them, describing herders as “outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, shifty characters too undependable to be hired in the mines or by cattlemen.” One author noted that the sheepherder, the once-honorable figure of the pastoral age, now “has only one consolation left, and that is the secure knowledge that he is working on rock bottom.” A common adage held that “you could not fire a shotgun into the average crowd in the range country without hitting a man who had at some time herded sheep, but it would probably take the charge in the other barrel to make him admit it.”
Moreover, the National Wool Growers came out against these “alien sheepmen” for ruining public grazing land and returning to their countries. Additionally, an early Forest Service report heavily criticized itinerant herders. “[The] public range is fast being destroyed by transient sheep owners who have no thought of preserving the range for future generations. These owners are for the most part Basques, who are not citizens of the United States, and are here simply to get what they can from the natural resources of this country with the least possible expense to themselves.” One western paper reported that five Basque sheepmen returned to Spain, some of them to visit but “two of them have sold their bands of sheep and will remain in the old country. Incidentally, these latter took away with them several thousand dollars, which will also remain.”
Omaechevarria’s records reveal the common profile of early Basque immigrants. Secundio (misspelled Lecundino) Omaechevarria landed at Ellis Island in 1911 at age 31, slightly older than the average male Basque coming to herd sheep. Like 96 percent of the Basque immigrants in Idaho, Omaechevarria followed the chain migration from a small region of the province of Bizkaia to the high country deserts of Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. Most early herders to Idaho were single males under the age of 30 with little money or education. On average, the 53 Boise-bound Basques who arrived in New York between 1897 and 1902 brought $36.50 each. In 1910, only 50.9 percent of the Basques in Idaho could read and write. Of the few that were married, half had left their wives behind. These statistics point toward the intent of a short migration to make money before returning to the Basque Country and the new opportunities afforded by their savings.
It was precisely this transience that most bothered earlier residents in the state. From its inception, the sheep industry had numerous “tramp bands” that did not operate from base ranches. Rather, the absentee owners of these “tramp bands” hired non-English speaking immigrants such as the Basques and sent them onto the public domain. These ventures required little or no investment in buildings or land and often resulted in handsome profits. Yet, precisely because these owners paid no taxes, had no community roots, and hired alien herders, they drew the ire of landed stockmen. Nevertheless, as these bands flourished and agriculture pursuits grew, itinerant sheepmen sought less crowded range conditions.
This nomadic search for grazing opportunities resulted in constant friction between land interests. For instance, two Basque herders charged with setting fire to range and timber were bound over on $2,000 to appear before a grand jury. Accounts claimed that the herders habitually bedded their sheep in the timber and protected them from coyotes and wolves by setting fire to several trees around their flocks. This practice eliminated the need for a night watch; in the morning the herders drove the sheep away, often leaving the fires burning. Oftentimes, the cattlemen and other sheepmen believed that the herders feigned ignorance as they attempted to run them off their grazing ground. The herders “would wave [their] arms and say ‘no savvy, no savvy’,” but cattlemen suspected that “they ‘savvied’ more than they let on, acting upon instructions of their employers.”
Testimony by George Swisher during the Omaechevarria case echoed many of these familiar complaints. “I have known these herders to run cattle off of the salt grounds when they came in with dogs ... I have known the Basques to do that lots of times.” Swisher emphasized that no sheepmen lived in the area. “I do not know of any men engaged in the business of raising sheep who live in the territory described in the complaint. If there were any there I would know of it.” Swisher assured the court that he and the other ranchers had gone to lengths to explain to herders that this was cattle range. “We asked them to move out. We interviewed them, and they moved out, with the exception of one man, a Basco...
The incidence with Omaechevarria merely represents one of the many conflicts, both litigious and violent, that played out in the West. On May 30, 1896, and August 14, 1897, the Basque language newspaper Californiako Euskal Herria (The Basque Country of California) reported shootings of Basque herders in California and Arizona. The August 4 paper in Winnemucca, Nevada, reported, “Armed men are visiting the sheep ranches near Disaster Peak, shooting the sheep and stealing horses. It is supposed the invaders were cattlemen, who took this method of driving the sheepmen from the country.” On September 1, 1905, the Nevada State Herald reported that a man named Wallace shot a Basque herder, Simon Salas, in the shoulder. Wallace, who had homesteaded in the region, had shot at another herder in a separate incident a year earlier.
In Idaho, on June 4, 1915, the Owyhee Avalanche reported, “Little Can Be Learned About Tragedy on Account of Nationality of Victim and Associates.” County officials held an inquest regarding the body of the sheepherder, Domingo Garaitandia, who was found dead presumably from a poor heart condition. He was a new herder who had been in the area barely a month since emigrating from Spain, where he left behind a wife and two children. The paper reported that, “it looked as though he had died naturally but he had been shot.” While the article acknowledged a possible future investigation by the Spanish consulate, it revealed a key element to the lack of interest in this matter. “Nobody knew much about it and since they all spoke Spanish then nobody paid much attention.”
Meanwhile, in Malheur County, Oregon, just over the Owyhee County border, no doubt remained about the identity of the victim. On May 7, 1910, The Idaho Statesman headlines read, “Jury Convicts Murderer of Basque.” On April 3, Charles Wear shot and killed Domingo Aldecoa in “the most cold blooded [murder case] in the history of Malheur County.” While the two fought over land access, witnesses reported, Wear took a rifle and killed Aldecoa. “Because of the prominence of the defendant in the sheep industry,” the case was bitterly contested. One witness testified that when informed that Aldecoa was dead, Wear responded, “That’s good; that is seven of them.” Although the number reference remained nebulous the attitude rang clear.
While they turned violent on occasion, ranchers more commonly turned to the state for protection of their interests. In Blaine County, for example, two grazing violation cases rose from the fourth judicial district court up to the state supreme court. In another case, Basque herders Peter Bidegain and John Etcychar attempted to repeal state charges of running sheep on range reserved for use by the cattlemen. Additionally, the State of Idaho charged Miguel Goitia with a misdemeanor for pollution of water on Last Chance Creek by a band of sheep. Each of these cases strengthened the government’s role as an arbiter.
Court records further reveal the conflict between these groups and help explain the attitudes of those who brought the case against Omaechevarria. In the 1911 case State of Idaho v. Luis Yturaspe, James A. Percy sent his dogs to scatter four Basque sheep bands. Later, he chased one of the herders, Luis Yturaspe, with a hammer and claimed that Yturaspe pulled a gun on him. In 1911, cattleman Harry Hoyt charged a Basque herder with assualt, claiming that he had asked the herder to remove 2,500 lambs from property near Boise. When Hoyt began to drive the sheep away, the herder fired his rifle in the air and, according to court records, mustered enough English to say, “Stop you son of a bitch or I will shoot you.” The herder was fined $500.
Americanization and World War I
Another set of definitions surfaced simultaneous with the establishment of these land practices and policies. Specifically, acceptable delineation of American identity emerged, and the Basque immigrant community divided over these stipulations. At the core, land ownership and citizenship emerged as key characteristics of this definition; staying became impossible for some Basques and represented too high a price for others. The result curbed opportunities for most Basques in the United States and limited the development of Basque-American identity.
The involvement of the United States in World War I heightened the importance of a proper “American” identity. For Basques this further exposed a division within the community and demonstrated one group’s desire to meet the requirements of this definition. Only those willing to adhere to respectable “American” practices gained a favorable reputation. Those living contrary to these practices operated clandestinely, emigrated back to the Basque Country or, in the most extreme situations, were killed.
While the issue of alien laborers and land practices continued with conflict, during the World War I era Basques with residency worked hard to assure the public of their loyalty. In unprecedented resolutions sent to the mayor of Boise and Idaho’s Governor, Basques assured their desire to be an asset to the “Greatest Nation Beneath the Sun.” Signed by prominent members of the Basque community, the resolution stated that, “the Spanish born citizens expressed their desire to participate in any patriotic rally held in this city.” Even more explicit, these “natives of Spain, who are now residents and citizens of the United States,” viewed it as “their duty to manifest their loyalty to the government of their adoption during the present international crisis.” The group pledged full support and strongly asserted the desire to demonstrate their value as “an asset and not a liability.”
The signers pledged their “undivided allegiance and loyalty to this great, free government,” and promised to “uphold this government, and to help sustain it in any controversy or armed conflict in which it may engage.” They hoped to participate “as freely, loyally and cheerfully as if we were native born citizens” and cited the purchase of Liberty Bonds as further evidence of their loyalty. The Chairman of the Liberty Bond drive stated, “It is gratifying to see these representatives of a great industry respond so freely in the country’s hour of need, there isn’t a class of people anywhere who are more loyal.” For financially conservative Basque immigrants, these bonds and stamps represented an ideal investment. They could demonstrate their loyalty while securing a low-risk investment.
Finally, the Americanization and loyalty drive did not solely rest with men; women and children also participated. A paper reported, “Entertainment Begins Boise Organization’s Attempt to Get Acquainted With Other Races.” To get acquainted with the foreign-born women of the city, the Americanization committee of the Good Citizenship Club invited “about 20 of the Basque women” to gather with leaders from the Columbian Club, the Catholic Women’s League, and the state regent of the D.A.R.
These activities continued in towns such as Boise and demonstrated the Basque community’s desire for acceptance. However, the court case continued as well and exhibited the experience of another segment of the Basque population. On March 18, 1918, more than three and a half years after Omaechevarria had been cited for trespassing, Justice Brandeis issued the decision. In it, he affirmed the earlier court decisions and decided in favor of the cattlemen. The decision reveals how favorably government treated cattlemen.
While the outcome of Omaechevarria v. State of Idaho affirmed the cattlemen’s position, the true termination for the itinerant herder came with the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. Indeed as anthropologist William Douglass commented, Basques mark this legislation as a kind of Old Testament and New Testament division of their time in the American West. This legal process represented one more step toward that final legislation. In this case, cattle, sheep and Basque interests converged and cattle interests won. However, to properly understand the case and its ramifications one must place it within its international context. The migration of laborers, the transnational livestock industry, and the all-encompassing changes brought on by World War I played key roles. As international forces played out in this scenario, individuals, assisted by governmental decisions, shaped proper definitions of an American identity in the western United States.
District Court Transcript, Omaechevarria v. State of Idaho, 14.
United States Supreme Court Transcript, Omaechevarria v. State of Idaho, 31.
Court of the United States. October Term, 1916. No. 379, Secundino Omaechevarria, Plaintiff in Error, vs. State of Idaho. In Error to the Supreme Court of the State of Idaho. Judd & Detweiler (Inc.), Printers, Washington, D.C. , November 4, 1916., 1-3. This document contains transcripts from all of the court cases at all levels and will be used throughout this chapter.
The Reno Evening Gazette, June 18, 1913; Caldwell Tribune, 17 July 1909.
Archer B. Gilfillan, Sheep (Boston: Little, Brown 1930), 5.
Earl Templeton, “Annual Grazing Report, District 6.” Humboldt National Forest. Winnemucca, Nevada.
The Humboldt Star, December 5, 1913.
Marie Pierre Arrizabalaga, “A Statistical Study of Basque Immigration into California, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming, 1900-1910” (Master’s thesis, University of Nevada, Reno, September 1986), 88-92.
Douglass, and Bilbao, Amerikanuak, 258-59.
Owyhee Avalanche, November 7, 1913.
Supreme Court of the United States. October Term, 1916. No. 379, Secundino Omaechevarria, Plaintiff in Error, vs. State of Idaho. In Error to the Supreme Court of the State of Idaho. Judd & Detweiler (Inc.), Printers, Washington, D.C. , November 4, 1916.
Owyhee Avalanche, June 4, 1915.
The Idaho Statesman, May 7, 1910.
Adams, Owyhee Cattlemen, 8-10; The Idaho Statesman, April 1, 1917; also Owyhee Avalanche, August 29, 1913.
The Idaho Statesman, March 30, 1917.
The Idaho Statesman, October 21, 1917.
The Idaho Statesman, Decision taken from Supreme Court of the United States. October Term, 1916. No. 379, Secundino Omaechevarria, Plaintiff in Error, vs. State of Idaho. In Error to the Supreme Court of the State of Idaho. Judd & Detweiler (Inc.), Printers, Washington, D.C. , November 4, 1916.