Rachel Roberts. But why does Idaho have such a strong connection with a small region situated between southwestern France and north-central Spain, near the Pyrenees Mountains and on the Bay of Biscay?
It’s a story that begins with the search for a better life.
Beginning in the late 1800s, young Basque men came to America hoping to earn money to send home to their families. Many came to the U.S. West.
“Their trips were long and riddled with challenges,” wrote John and Mark Bieter, authors of the book “An Enduring Legacy: The Story of Basques in Idaho.”
“They departed from their Bizkaian villages, and though almost all left with the intention of returning in several years, they often said good-bye to parents, siblings, and friends that they would never see again.”
Some of the first Basque immigrants arrived in Idaho in 1890 with little money and little education. They took the jobs no one else wanted, largely in Idaho’s sheep industry.
“Although held in low regard by most Americans, sheepherding offered one of the few passages for Basques to the United States; it was the only alternative for a young man with few skills and no knowledge of English,” the Bieters wrote.
As the sheep industry grew — from 614,000 head of sheep in the state in 1890 to 2.1 million in 1900 — so did the Basque migration to Boise.
To help ease the transition, established Basques began opening boardinghouses, where sheepherders could stay when they came down from the mountains in the winter. Downtown Boise was once full of these establishments.
“The boardinghouses allowed them to undertake their first forays into American culture and simultaneously form small Basque enclaves in towns throughout Idaho, which served as ‘safe havens’ of retreat from American society,” the Bieters wrote. “Sheepherding helped Basques get started in Idaho, but boardinghouses helped keep them there.”
What began as a temporary stay in America for many Basques turned into a permanent home, and the Idaho Statesman reported in April 1911 that “Marriage Game Growing Quite Popular Among the Basques.”
“Most of them were married in Boise,” according to previous Statesman reporting. “It is said that most of the Basque herders are exceedingly thrifty and that they manage to save enough from their poor salaries as herders to take up land and become sheep owners themselves and to employ others of their countrymen who happen to be playing in circumstances not so fortunate.”
The Bieters became a prominent Basque family. Dave Bieter was a longtime mayor of Boise. John Bieter runs the Basque studies program at Boise State University. Mary Bieter is a teacher at Bishop Kelly High School. Mark Bieter is an attorney in Washington, D.C. Chris Bieter is an Ada County magistrate judge.
Their father, Pat Bieter, was a professor at Boise State University for 40 years and was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1996, according to previous Idaho Statesman reporting. He married Eloise Garmendia, the daughter of two Basque immigrants who met each other in Boise.
While many Boise Basques trace their roots in America back to sheepherding, others arrived during the reign of military dictator Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, when Basque language and culture was oppressed.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Basques now living in Idaho, one of the largest communities in the United States.
“The Basque subculture thrived in Idaho because the state helped make it possible,” the Bieters wrote. “Idahoans were glad to hire Basque immigrants, especially because the work they were willing to do was work nobody else wanted.
“Whatever early prejudices and suspicions Idahoans carried were transformed into a high regard for the Basques, for their reputation as hard workers who also knew to to have a good time. They came to respect Basques for their ability to combine pride in their ethnicity along with pride as Americans.”
Boise has become known as a Basque epicenter. Every five years starting in 1990 it played host to Jaialdi, an enormous summertime festival that attracts people from all over the U.S. The COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation in 2020, but it will be back in 2025.