Basque sheepherders left their mark with bark art

Basque sheepherders left their mark with bark art

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Through Lockett Meadow and other parts of the San Francisco Peaks, graffiti abounds on the soft and pale bark of the aspen trees. But among the carvings that declare "John Loves Sue" and "Ed was here, 1996," a rich and often overlooked history of Spanish descendants is cut into the trunks.

With dates that extend well back into the 1920s, many of the aspen carvings — known as dendroglyphs — were left by Basque sheepherders. They arrived in northern Arizona in the late 1800s after a series of events led them to the Southwest's mountain regions.

I learned about how this came to be and picked up some skills in spotting Basque aspen carvings during an interpretive hike led by John Westerlund. He's a Flagstaff historian who works as an interpreter for the National Park Service out of its Flagstaff area monuments office. Westerlund leads hikes in the Coconino National Forest as part of a cooperative agreement.

The trek along the Inner Basin Trail out of Lockett Meadow can quickly turn into a scavenger hunt for the earliest carved date. I found a 1924 and 1927, both linked with a Spanish-looking name. The latter date was underneath the names "Navarra" and "Espana." Another 1920s date was connected with "Costo Tolosa," all names originating from the Basque country of Spain.

Some of the sheepherders carved special companions on the tree as well.

"They were men, and they did get lonely," Westerlund said.

Much of what could be considered pornography is difficult to find, and the growth and expansion of the tree has made many of the figures much rounder. I found one figure on a dead aspen trunk still standing near the Inner Basin Trail.

The figures and carvings remain because when someone carves an aspen, the cuts make the tree susceptible to a type of tree fungus known as aspen canker. The canker leaves sores on the tree that look like eyes, and it also makes the carvings grow and blacken over time.

The carvings also can kill the tree. For this and other reasons, it is now against the law to carve an aspen. It's considered resource damage, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.

However, for the Basque sheepherders, it was a way to pass time and mark territory.

The Basque arrived to northern Arizona in a rather convoluted way. In the 1800s, a number of them worked menial jobs in South America when they traveled to California for the San Francisco gold rush.

The Basque men joined many others in not striking it rich, so they turned to a commerce that had a long tie to their history: shepherding. In the 1870s, the Basque migrated east when a drought crippled the West Coast. Places such as Arizona were not as affected, bringing the Basque here.

The Basque country is located in the northeast section of Spain and a small part of southern France. They're now famous for the Basque separatist movement, as many Basque people seek independence from the Spanish government.

Despite their ties to the gold rush, the Basque did not give the San Francisco Peaks their name. That came in the 1500s, when the Spanish Franciscan friars traveled to the Hopi lands, saw the snow-capped Peaks and named them after themselves, according to Westerlund.

But over time, the Basque became part of Flagstaff's rich tapestry of cultures and backgrounds as they tended to their sheep in the mountains. In town, the lot behind the "Tourist Home" on South San Francisco Street served as a Basque ball court — where a game similar to jai alai was played — and social gathering place for the Basque people.

And as the last of the aspen they carved remains, a chapter of Basque history stands as part of the mountain.

Reporter Seth Muller can be reached at 913-8607 or at

Want to go?

Check out the Basque carvings near Lockett Meadow by taking U.S. 89 north past Flagstaff. Turn left at the "Forest Access" sign across from the Sunset Crater turnoff. Follow signs to Lockett Meadow. The day-use parking is located at the back of the Lockett Meadow loop drive. For more information, call 526-0866. Call 526-1157 to learn more about interpretive hikes.

— Arizona Daily Sun


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