In the Beginning
Nearly everyone who is native to the western United States has at one time or another met an individual with a polysyllabic surname who is fiercely proud to report that his or her heritage is Basque.
In Utah, as in Idaho, Nevada, California, Wyoming, and Montana, these people are likely to speak of pasts that include lonely months spent working as shepherds for the large ranching operations of the West. In fact, "shepherd" was at one time virtually synonymous with "Basque," as Basques earned a reputation as the most diligent, conscientious, and capable ranch workers available.
While most Utahns of Basque descent no longer claim sheep herding as a profession, the opportunity to earn money herding sheep is what brought most of them to the United States. About fifty Basque families now call Utah home, and while a few Basque men work as shepherds on Utah ranches, most were drawn away from the Idaho and Wyoming sheep ranches where they first began their lives in the United States to work in the Bingham Canyon copper mines and other Utah industries.
Basques have no nation of their own, but are a staunchly tight-knit ethnic group with a unique language and a culture that is unlike any other in Europe. The Basque homeland, called "Euzkadi" in the Basque language, spans both mountainous and coastal areas of northeastern Spain and southeastern France in the Pyrenees Mountains regions. The Basque region includes seven provinces - Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, Araba, and Nafarroa in Spain, and Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea, and Zuberoa in France.
Basques first appeared in the New World as members of Christopher Columbus's crew, and may have made their first journeys to the Americas as fishermen long before that. More recent migrations to North and South America, however, were brought about by poor economic conditions in the Basque region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during which time many Basques experienced poverty working as fishermen, farmers, and miners. Some Basques also left the region and migrated to the Americas as political refugees following the Spanish Civil War.
As Basque immigrants made their way to Utah and other Western states, a mainstay of local Basque culture was the Basque hotel and boarding house. Such residences run by recent immigrants for new arrivals once existed in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Price, Bingham Canyon, and Park City.
Among the most well-known Basque boarding houses was the Hogar Hotel, owned by John and Claudia Landa and located at 126 South 200 West in Salt Lake City. The Landas, who immigrated from the Basque province of Bizkaia, are fondly remembered in Utah's Basque community as grandparents to all.
The Hogar Hotel, built in 1927, became a stopping point and a haven for Basque immigrants making their way to ranches throughout the West. It also offered a familiar atmosphere for local Basque families, who used it as a restaurant, meeting place, and a cultural center of sorts.
Basque Club of Utah
The Hogar Hotel's closure in the early 1970s spawned the creation of the Utah Basque Club, which held its first annual picnic at Saratoga in Utah County in 1974. Since the founding of the club by Rose Camara Hoover and Robert Ithurralde, the Utah Basque Club has grown in size and now includes about 200 members of Basque descent.
The Utah Basque Club is a member of the North American Basque Organization, and sponsors various cultural events throughout the year. Basque club members meet regularly to preserve their culture through traditional Basque dances, music, language, games, and food. Perhaps the Utah Basque Club's most visible contribution to Utah ethnic culture is the Utah'ko Triskalariak Basque Dancers, a traditional dance troupe known throughout the western United States. The group of about twenty-five dancers performs Basque dances locally and also travels to perform with other dance groups at Basque festivals in California, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming.
Although migration of Basques to the United States is now rather uncommon, the Basque culture in Utah and other western states remains strong, having been built on a vital and important heritage.