Basque Sheepherders
in Utah's San Rafael Desert

Far from habitation in Utah's San Rafael desert in the United States, I came across two mysterious metal plates mounted on wood inscribed with signatures and words of a language that looked to me like Spanish or Portuguese. I photographed the signs with the hope that someone would be able to translate them, but they proved to be difficult.

Years later, I met David Loope who as a student had worked for the United States Park Service in Utah, in the area of the signs. Dr. Loope is now a geologist at the University of Nebraska. He didn't know about the signs but knew someone who might; he asked Gary Cox (USNPS, Canyonlands National Park), who replied: "I believe these are French Basque sheepherder inscriptions. And I think that these sheepherders probably worked for the Chuchuru brothers, given the relatively late dates. The Chuchurus were running sheep in and around Horseshoe Canyon from 1945 to 1975."

Basque language! The Basque language (Euskara) is an ancient language spoken in an area between Spain and France. I found a website on the internet that offers to translate Basque to English, and submitted a request. My request was forwarded to Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, a historian at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno. Dr. Mallea has recorded thousands of sheepherder tree carvings ('arborglyphs'), petroglyphs, and other sheepherder artifacts in western United States over many years, and confirms that the inscriptions were indeed made by Basque sheepherders.

Dr. Mallea replied about the writings: "Much of what is on the plates are names and dates from the 1950s and 1960s. One sheepherder writes 'soy vasco' (I am Basque). The text is mostly in Basque, but three statements are in Spanish ... In the text there are several 'Long live the Basque sheepherder friends' and such. Another says that there's lots of snow. Another complains that someone (not identified) plays too much music. This is dated 1958 when sheepherders acquired transistor radios. This same herder says that he is taking the breeze--kind of windy--and has a pistol in his hand. Humor was important for the lonely herders as the next statement is meant to be, 'What a misfortune for a mother to have three daughters and all four of them are whores.' "

Move your mouse over the two signs below for translations by Dr. Mallea


Higher resolution images of the signs are available here: Sign 1 (788Kb), and sign 2 (973Kb).

Jim Elder
Ottawa, Canada
Feb 2005
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