Is It Old Shep Or Old Aussie?

By February 17, 2015July 5th, 2017No Comments


by Red Oliver

This very short excerpt of a much longer dissertation on the Origin of the Aussie, is in response to a recent letter in the RDT. About ten years ago I started wondering where the name Australian Shepherd came from. An early premise that was the basis for my doubts and still is, is that if indeed, as some have stated, a few hundred dogs did come from Australia, how could it be possible that these few dogs ousted approximately seven million Old Sheps that have been around since the days of the colonists?

I think most Aussie fanciers believe, like the early ASCA people, that the Australia-origin theory goes like this: To develop the sheep industry in the Western States we imported great numbers of sheep, principally from Australia and that with each boatload of sheep came one or more professional Basque shepherds, who had earlier emigrated from the Pyrenees to Australia and then to the U.S., and that each shepherd had at least one little blue dog with him, unlike anything we had here.

I think what will surprise many of our present (and past) true believers in this theory is that even though, prior to 1849 when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, there were very few wool sheep in any of the three coastal states, there were millions of Mouflons (the ancestor of our Barbados) in California, West Texas, Arizona and principally in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, i.e., wherever the Spaniards had established missions. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, and the resulting flood of humans to the gold fields created a tremendous demand for food. There was an immediate response from the wealthy sheep ranchers of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The first overland drive consisted of 25,000 Mouflons in the summer of 1849, to be followed by many more. In 1852 a hundred thousand head of Mouflons went to the “diggin’s.” In total, in the decade of the ’50’s between 500 thousand and one million Mouflons were driven to the gold fields. This was in addition to the Mouflons already in California. What is of more interest to the question before us, is that in this same decade, beginning in 1853, at least 80,000 Merinos were driven overland from Midwestern States like Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin to provide the brood stock for the new sheep industry. With them went farmers-turned-shepherds, and Old Shep.

Wool sheep did come from Australia, New Zealand and other countries to help develop the brood flocks in these states and also as mutton. But influential sheepmen of the Eastern U.S. lost no time in driving their sheep overland, shipping them around Cape Horn or to the Isthmus of Panama and then overland to re-embark on the Pacific side.

One of the early strongholds of the sheep industry was that of the Mormons in Southern Idaho and Utah. It was in Idaho where Mrs. Ely’s (one of the more quoted personages of the Australia theory) husband bought two bands of sheep. The “Basque” shepherd who herded the sheep to Colorado for them had a little blue dog that he left with the Ely’s. This was about 1925 and was the first “little blue dog” she had seen, which would be a quarter of a century after the sheep industry was completely developed in the three coastal states. The Western sheep industry was pretty well established long before this. For instance, from 1888 to 1890 Eastern Oregon alone was producing an annual crop of between 600,000 and 800,000 lambs with half (wethers) going to the new feeder districts of Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas. By 1900, Rambouillet rams, developed in the U.S., had replaced the Merino rams in the Western States and, according to the records, very few Rambouillet were imported after this date.

The only records I found of dogs arriving with large importations of sheep into any of the Western States was the Spanish guard dog that accompanied the Mouflon drives from New Mexico. The Mormons took these as well as the old American farm dog with them into Idaho and Utah with the overland drives of Merinos from the Midwest during the quarter century following the Civil War.

The story of the Basque in the West is a most interesting one. They started out with nothing and even though their wages were extremely low, as they competed with the Indian and the Mexican peon for jobs, they literally starved themselves to get ahead, taking their pay in ewes. When they accumulated about a hundred head they would pull off and form what history records as “tramp flocks.” They owned not one acre of land or the rights to one single water hole. They drifted through the sheep country, i.e., the deserts and mountains, searching for grass, slipping into and out of the watering holes at night and keeping clear of the law and the big ranchers with many ending up owning the dream they brought with them.

While I found nothing on dogs coming with sheep by steam or sail, I did find documentation in the so-called Basque Series at the University of Nevada that no Basque had ever come to the U.S. as a professional shepherd. Here, the works of several scholars who made a lifetime career of documenting the life and times of the Basque in the Western U.S., dispel, quite convincingly, the myth that Basque shepherds had emigrated from the Pyrenees to Australia and then emigrated to the U.S. with boatloads of sheep from Australia.

Here are a few words taken from one of the major works, Beltran, “Throughout the American West ‘Basque’ has become so synonymous with `Sheepherder’ it is assumed that every immigrant from the Pyrenees has an extensive background in the profession. In point of fact there are few professional herders in the Basque country and ironically, practically none of them has come to the United States . . . It was here, under the tutelage of an experienced herder, that the new arrivals learned how to herd sheep.”

. . . Old Shep didn’t originate in the U.S. and neither did any other herding dog we know of. This one just happens to have a fascinating name.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine April/May 1994