Basque immigration

2011-02-06 07:06:25

The Basques make up a very small proportion of European immigration to North America. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 57,793 Americans and 2,715 Canadians claimed Basque descent, though the numbers probably underrepresent the actual figure. Until 1980, Basque Americans were included by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in aggregate figures for Spain and France. The majority of Basque Americans live in California. Canadian Basques are spread throughout the country. Though they traditionally worked the eastern fisheries and settled in Quebec, there is a substantial and growing community in Ontario, as well as other settlement in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia.
The Basque homeland is a historic region in the western Pyrenees Mountains, extending from southwestern France to northern Spain and the Bay of Biscay. Almost 90 percent of the region is in Spain, and all but about 200,000 of almost 3 million inhabitants are on the Spanish side of the line. The Basques are racially and linguistically unlike either the French or the Spanish, and the origins of their non- Indo-European language remain a mystery. The Kingdom of Navarre was largely a Basque state and managed to maintain its independence until the 16th century, when it came under the formal control of its two large neighbors. In 1512, Spain and France signed a treaty dividing their territory. Because the Basques had resisted the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, they were granted significant privileges that enabled them to hold important government and church positions in the Spanish colonial bureaucracy. In 1980, Spain constituted the provinces of Álava, Guipúzcoa, and Vizcaya as an autonomous community known as the Basque Country. Radical factions among the Basques were dissatisfied and began a terrorist campaign to gain complete independence.
Basques have had a tendency to migrate throughout their history, in part because of a strong seafaring tradition. They made up the largest ethnic contingent in Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World and served routinely on crews exploring the coasts of the Americas. They also played major roles in the Spanish exploration, settlement, and governance of the Americas between the 16th and 18th centuries. The upheavals of the French Revolution and ensuing revolutionary wars (1789–1815) and Basque support for the defeated pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos, led thousands more to emigrate in the 19th century; most went to South America and Mexico. Whereas the earlier Basques had generally been of aristocratic background, most of the second wave were of modest circumstances.
Basque immigration to the United States began in earnest during the California gold rush (1848), when South American Basques tried their hand in the goldfields. Most eventually went back to the sheep grazing that they had transported from the Old World to South America. By the 1870s, Basque shepherds were in every western U.S. state. Given that few Basques learned English and that most were isolated by their seminomadic work, they were often derided and exercised little political clout. They nevertheless continued to recruit family members from Europe until restrictive immigration legislation was passed in the 1920s. As a result of the Taylor Grazing Act (1934), free access to public lands was ended and with it much of the viability of Basque shepherding that depended upon the free movement of sheep from mountain pastures to valley grazing. Under the Johnson-Reed Act (1924), Spain’s entire annual quota was reduced to only 121 immigrants, virtually ending Basque immigration. As a result of the economic dislocations of World War II (1939–45), Basque shepherds were in much demand. Under pressure from groups like the Western Range Association, special legislation was passed to exempt them from the Spanish quota, enabling more than 5,000 to come between 1957 and 1970, though many of them were required to return to Europe after three years. As the Basque economy improved in the 1970s, immigration to the Americas was not viewed as an attractive option. By the mid-1990s, the number of Basque- American shepherds had dropped from 1,500 to a few dozen. While Los Angeles was the early center of Basque settlement in the United States, by the mid-20th century Basques had spread widely throughout the grazing lands of the West. Those settling in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and central Nevada tended to be from Navarra and France; those in northern Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon, principally from the Vizcaya province of Spain.
Basques were regularly fishing in Canadian waters by the early 16th century. Although hundreds of Basques worked the banks and made use of Canadian shores, there appears to have been no permanent settlements until the 1660s, when the French government founded Plaisance in Newfoundland. Inhabited mainly by Basque fishermen, the colony was handed over to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, when most of the inhabitants moved to Île Royale (Cape Breton). Although their numbers remained small, they often came from prominent families and served in responsible positions of government. Between 1718 and 1758, for instance, the king’s commander of the Labrador coast was a Basque Canadian. Most Basques in Canada remained itinerants, however, with permanent residents of New France seldom numbering more than 120. Although a handful of French Basques continued to settle the Magdalen Islands and along the St. Lawrence Seaway, their numbers remained very small until early in the 20th century. In 1907, about 3,000 Basque fishermen migrated from Saint- Pierre and Miquelon to Montreal, hoping to improve their economic condition, though most eventually returned to their homeland.