Just who are the Basques and where are they from?
Today, about 3 million Basques live along the crest of the Western Pyrenees dividing France from Spain, but, ethnically, they are neither French nor Spanish. Historians believe they wandered into their present homeland between 70,000 and 5,000 years ago.
Roman historians called members of one of their tribes Vascones, from which the name Basques seems to originate. However, they continued to call themselves Euskaldunak and speak a language known as Euskara, unrelated to any other European tongue. After resisting domination by the Romans, they successfully warded off assimilation by invading Vandals, Visigoths, Franks and Moors, and the emerging nation-states of France and Spain.
Yet while they stubbornly retained their own culture, they were changing the face of the world. Robert Laxalt, a Basque descendant and brother of former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, wrote in a 1985 issue of National Geographic that Juan Sebastian Elcano became the first sea captain to circumnavigate the world after Magellan’s death. He also credits Basques Juan de Garay with founding Buenos Aires and Miguel de Urrutia with introducing sheep to Argentina.
Accustomed to being at the vanguard of exploration in South America, it was little surprise that the Basques were some of the first to arrive for California’s Gold Rush. A few Basque sheepherders discovered that because of the great demand for fresh meat in the mining camps and the abundant range land, they could make more money raising sheep than panning for gold.