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The History of Australian Shepherds


Chapter III:  Australian Shepherd History Revisited: Part I: Influence of the Basques


Las Rocosa Scooter of TTT
(Champion Las Rocosa Just Jake CD, ATD-d, OTD-s, STD-c and Champion Las Rocosa Justa Sinner)


In an interview, Louis L’Amour once said, “Historians follow the main line.  One historian follows another one, adding maybe a detail here and there or questioning something the other fella has said.  They don’t go off to the right and left and they don’t go out there in the boondocks to see what was happening.”  But that is what has occurred with the history of the Australian Shepherd.


Much of the breed’s written history was compiled by dog historians whose association with the early Aussies was no closer to the subject than a library shelf.  The thoroughly researched “facts,” for the most part, are gleaned from library sources and then laced with suggestion and imaginary reasoning, “probably was,” “would have been,” “may have.”  The eyewitness accounts from actual owners who knew and used the breed were, in most cases, discounted for lack of published documentation.


One historian’s view, which has been published over and over, proposes the Basque and Spanish herders and their sheepdogs had very little to do with the breed’s foundation stating, “It appears that the theory of Basque origin probably came about from the understandable assumption by some breeders who obtained their first dogs from Basque sheepherders, that the dogs themselves must be of Basque background, and it makes a romantic picture to envision the Basque sheepherders being followed around the world by ‘their little blue dogs,’ but this picture, nonetheless, is erroneous.”  Another author wrote that many of the Basque immigrants to both Australia and North America were not shepherds in their homeland.


In actuality, the Basques who lived along the coast at the western end of the Pyrenees were fisherman and have a long history with the sea.  However, those living inland were among the earliest people to domesticate animals and sheepherding has been a way of life for them since the beginning of time.  Not all Basques who came to the United States to herd sheep on western ranges were shepherds in their homeland.  However, a fair number of were, and when they came to the United States they brought their dogs with them.  They arrived on a three-year visa under contract the Western Range Association.  Large numbers of Basques with their sheepdogs were recruited to the western sheep ranches due to the labor shortage created by the war.


CH Just Jake of Las Rocosa CD ATD-d, OTD-s, STD-c


During WWII, The Western Range Association negotiated an agreement with the government of Spain to recruit sheepherders.  “Severe labour shortages in the 1940s led to Public Laws 587 and 307 in 1950 and 1952, respectively, which authorized recruitment of greater numbers of Basque sheepherders (Land & Douglass, 1985).  Basques came by the thousands from Spain to Idaho, where they comprised much of the work force in sheep operations.”  But, in the mid-1950s, with the return of troops from Korea, Idaho sheepmen lamented that ‘the Immigration Department started sending our Basque herders back to Viscaya…and we had to work out an agreement with the Department of Labor to secure H-2 status [for the sheepherders]’ (Shadduck, 1990).


“By the mid-1950s, labour had become a serious problem and, in 1956, Drumheller hired Gregorio Zorrozua as foreman who soon hired an exclusively Basque crew of herders and tenders (Washington Wool Growers, 1983).  Despite references that insisted that few Basque immigrants had previously worked as sheepherders (Douglas & Bilbao, 1975), sheepmen in Washington State recruited Spanish Basques who had worked with livestock for many years before their arrival in America, including ‘herding sheep for a transhumant outfit that trailed from the arid lowlands to the Pyrenees summer ranges’ (McGregor, 1982).  The Drumheller sheep business lasted until the 1970s.


“One of the few legal channels for Spanish immigrants in the twentieth century were contracts for sheepherding, with Basques from northern Spain receiving strong preference by potential employers (Douglass & Bilbao, 1975).  Although imports of livestock as well as packing materials and crop seed were strictly regulated (for diseases and contaminants) after the first half of the twentieth century, little attention was paid to wool (R. Westbrooks, pers. Com.) or to the personal possessions of immigrants, such as dogs (J. Kirkelie, pers. Comm..).  A retiree in Aragon [bordering on France with the Pyrenees] related that, when he went to California to herd sheep in the early 1970s, sheepherders coming from Spain brought only a few personal items; but in his father’s generation (i.e. during the period immediately after World War II), many of the immigrants brought their herding dogs with them. (A. Oros, pers. Comm.).  That herders brought their dogs was corroborated by another interview in which a Basque immigrant and his four brothers all brought their dogs, with sheep fleeces as bedding, when they flew to the U.S. in the 1940s under sheep herding contracts (J. Larranaga, pers. Comm.).” *1


* 1.

Roche, C. T., Vilatersana, R., Garnatje, T., Gamarra, R., Garcia-Jacas, N. Susanna, A., Thill, D. C., “Tracking an invader to its origins: the invasion case history of Crupina vulgaris,” Weed Research, Volume 43, Issue 3, European Weed Research Society, 2003.


* Note:

The Warren Livestock Company ran 25,000 head of sheep over 284,000 acres between Casper, Wyoming, and Greeley, Colorado.  It was one of the largest sheep companies in the west.


Copyright © 2010 by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor and Ernest Hartnagle. All Rights Reserved.


For more on the Australian Shepherd see also: All About Aussies: The Australian Shepherd from A to Z and The Total Australian Shepherd: http://lasrocosa.com/education.html


No part of the material covered by this copyright may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.


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Chapter I:

The Australian Shepherd and Breeds From a Common Root

Chapter II:

Timeline:  Breed Development From Obscurity Into Mainstream Popularity

Chapter III:  Australian Shepherd History Revisited: Part I: Influence of the Basques  
Chapter IV: Australian Shepherd History Revisited, Part II: Documented Early Imports  
Chapter V: Australian Shepherds and Sheep Ranching on the Open Range  
Chapter VI: Jay Sisler  

For more historical information about Aussies, click on any of the links below:

The History of Las Rocosa Aussies

The History of the Australian Shepherd Club of America


For a much more detailed account of the origin and history, richly documented with historic photos, please see the book:

The Total Australian Shepherd:  Beyond the Beginning
by Carol Ann Hartnagle & Ernest Hartnagle


Telephone: 303.659.6597
Fax: 303.659.6552
Breeding Sound Versatile Aussies Since 1955
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