Historians aren't sure of their origins. They speak a language unrelated to any other human tongue. For generations, they maintained their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness against the melting pot of history.
They are the Basque, one of Nevada's founding peoples.
Their contributions to the Great Basin will be discussed Friday at a talk at Galena Creek Park given by Marcelino Ugalde, lecturer and librarian with the University of Nevada, Reno's Center for Basque Studies. The lecture, part of the park's campfire program, begins at 8:30 p.m. and will last about 45 minutes.
"The Basque are an intriguing and important group," Ugalde said. "They dominated one industry in Nevada - sheep herding - from the turn of the century until the 1960s."
The Basque had earlier herded sheep on the South American pampas before being lured north by the U.S. gold rush of the 1850s and '60s.
The Great Basin drew the Basque once the gold ran out. They arrived in Nevada in the 1880s, and Pedro Altube, one of the first Basque settlers, built the Spanish Ranch outside Elko during this period. Elko, Humboldt, Washoe and White Pine counties are the traditional Basque strongholds in Nevada.
"The Basque had a strong entrepreneurial vision," Ugalde said. "They succeeded in harsh land where they couldn't relate to the language and culture." Other Nevadans came to admire the Basque work ethic and perseverance, Ugalde added.
These qualities served the Basque well when they first left their ancestral homeland, located in the Pyrenees range between France and Spain.
Some Basque traveled to the New World to escape political persecution, Ugalde explained, but most came "to take part in the colonial experience of the Spanish empire."
They were expedition leaders, clergy, lawyers, and administrators in Spanish territories in Mexico, Central and South America. Ugalde said history records them as Spanish, "but they were ethnically, distinctively Basque."
Ugalde, who is Basque, said a sense of distinctiveness is important to his people. "Within the Basque character, there's a strong sense of identity. We're not Spanish, we're not French, we're Basque."
Ugalde noted that many people's knowledge of Basque identity comes only from eating in a Basque restaurant or staying in a Basque hotel. "My intention (with the lecture) is to break down some of those stereotypes."
His other hope, of course, is that by teaching people about the Basque he can help preserve their language and culture.
The 1990 U.S. census reports 50,000 Americans identify themselves as Basque, with about 5,000 of those in Nevada. Prominent Basque families in the state include the Laxalts, the Ascuagas and the Arrascadas.