Pedro & Bernardo Altube

Pedro and Bernardo Altube, More than Cowboys of the West

The Zugastegi farmhouse, birthplace of Pedro and Bernardo Altube, in the Zubillaga neighborhood of Oñati. Photo by Iñaki Zumalde, “Pedro de Altube (Palo Alto) y los pastores vascos en los Estados Unidos.”

Pedro Altube is possibly the most memorable Basque pioneer in California. He was born in 1827, in Oñate, Gipuzkoa, at the Zugastegi farmhouse. His younger brother Bernardo was born in 1831, the same year their father passed away. In 1845, at the young age of 18, Pedro boarded the Yrurac-bat, a ship that was going from Bilbao to Buenos Aires. He wasn’t the first Altube to cross the ocean: a brother and two stepbrothers had previously settled in Argentina, and three stepbrothers from his mother’s first marriage lived in Montevideo. Pedro’s eldest brother, the firstborn, provided financial support for Pedro’s journey by leasing land from their Zugastegi farmhouse. Three years after Pedro’s arrival in Argentina, he followed his older brother’s example by paying for the younger brother Bernardo to travel to Argentina. The children of the Zugastegi farmhouse are the perfect example of chain migration, as all nine sons traveled to the Americas in similar fashion. 

Argentina, however, became merely a stopover for Pedro and Bernardo Altube. In 1850, tempted by the news of gold in California, Pedro and 30 other Basques mounted their horses in Buenos Aires, galloped west to Valparaiso, Chile, and embarked the first ship headed to San Francisco. A few months later, in February of 1851, the two brothers, along with the large group of Basques, arrived in Sonora Camp in Tuolumne County. It’s hard to know how lucky they were working the mines, but it certainly didn’t take them long to realize that livestock was a far more profitable business.

Rancho Centinela

The Altube brothers entered the cattle trading business by partnering with Juan Indart (“Juan Chico” or Little John), Juan Etcheverry (“Juan Grande” or Big John), and other partners. They would purchase livestock in Southern California, and then herd the animals to the Northern California Cattle markets. The only scheduled break in this month-long cattle drive was a stop in the pastures of today’s Santa Nella (“Centinela,” originally), near the northern point of the San Joaquín Valley. There, cattle could graze openly on the land, which helped them gain weight before resuming the march to the Calaveras or San Jose’s mines. The Basque partners split their earnings after each deal, almost doubling their investment. The partners used various routes back to Centinela because they feared the famous bandit Joaquin Murrieta.i

Centinela was public land at the time, only yards away from El Camino Viejo and abundant in water, so the team deemed it was a good place to settle. They built an adobe house and a garden, too. But the Altube brothers did not like to sit still. Pedro married a fellow Basque woman, Marie Ihitzaque, and moved to San Mateo. It didn’t take long before Bernardo joined them. Together, the two brothers opened a dairy business in Palo Alto, on what is now Standford University.

The Vasco Adobe

In 1857, Bernardo Altube was in a partnership with three other Basque men. They jointly purchased Rancho Los Vaqueros in Kellogg Creek Valley in Contra Costa County, adding to the 26-year-old Altube’s thriving business. Two years later, on New Year’s Day, 1859, Bernardo married Marie Recarte, whom he had met in San Francisco at the Recarte family’s laundry on Leavenworth Street. The newlyweds moved into the two -room Los Vaqueros adobe house that Altube and his partners had built and co-owned. 

Picture: Praetzellis, Adrian, Ziesing, H. Grace and Praetzellis, Mary. “Tales of The Vasco.”

Three of the partners lived in the house, Juan Bautista Arambide, Bernardo’s fellow passenger in the ship that brought them from Argentina and his business partner in many ventures since their arrival; 18-year-old Carlos Garat, son of pioneers Jean and Grace Garat and a young newlywed himself; and Bernardo Ohaco, of whom there is no record other than his name. According to the 1860 census, there were also three other workers and a cook living in the house. The group was known as “Los Vascos” and the house as “Vasco Adobe.” The area was known as “The Vasco” by the locals, even long after the Basques vacated the place. It remained so until the construction of Los Vaqueros dam submerged it in water in 1998. On the other hand, Vasco Road, connecting Livermore and Brentwood, and the Vasco Caves remain, preserving the footprint left by the Basques of Vasco Adobe.

Archeological excavations made before the construction of the dam suggest that the Basques from Vasco Adobe lived in greater luxury than their local contemporaries. Instead of the cheap tin plates used by the average miner, the Adobe Basques served their meals on English china, all types of plates, trays, tureens, and sauce boats in many sizes were found. They also drank wine and, occasionally, champagne and spirits. They even had a bread oven built in the style of their homeland.ii

These remains offer limited information about their personal lives beyond economic prosperity from their business endeavors. In the 1860s, Bernardo and Marie lost three young daughters, and later on, their 7-year-old son. Pedro and Marie, too, during their time in Santa Barbara, lost two young daughters; and as a result of successive draughts, floods and locust pests, Pedro lost all his livestock. Both brothers were forced to reconsider their investment options.

Spanish Ranch, Elko, Nevada

At the beginning of the 1870s, as pressure over livestock grazing increased, the Altubes decided to move to open rangelands. They combined their resources and purchased 3,000 head of cattle in Mexico, then herded them to Independence Valley, near the mining town of Tuscarora in Elko County, Nevada. The brothers used Indian Americans from adjacent Duck Valley Reservation to help them construct the ranch. The Indians helped transport tree trunks from the surrounding mountains and built the toolshed, warehouse, and barracks for the workers.iii

Year after year, Spanish Ranch grew to the point of occupying more than a third of Independence Valley. The Altubes would pack cattle in Elko on the train for San Francisco, supplying the city’s butcheries with beef. The Altube brothers became a livestock empire of the remote Nevada high desert.

Despite years of hard work and success, the harsh winter of 1889-1890 sent them back to square one. Northern Nevada cattle were dying of cold and starvation by the thousands, and the Altube brother’s efforts to bring hay from California was to no avail. Both approaching 60 years old, the brothers were in no state to start over again. Pedro quickly talked his brother Bernardo into trying once more, however, saying, “What the Lord took away from us, the Lord will give back. We will do better a second time around, and in a few years we’ll be worth a million pesos.”iv

No sooner said than done, in 12 years, the duo was able to generate as much profit as before — and even more. By the end of the century, their Palo Alto Land and Livestock Company extended across approximately 35 miles long and 5 to 10 miles wide.

Chain Migration Continues in the Zugastegi Farmhouse

Pedro Altube in Spanish Ranch (Bernardo Altube watching from the door.) Photo: William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

Chain migration of the Zugastegi family did not stop when Pedro, Bernardo and their seven brothers left Oñati to try their luck in America. The next generation followed suit, when three nephews and a niece said good-bye to their mother Francisca, the Altube sister who never left their Basque Country homeland. One of Francisca’s sons, Severio, was invited by his uncle Pedro to go to California, rather than head to Argentina. With the help of a scribe, Francisca wrote this emotional and appreciative letter to her brother Pedro:

In Anzuola, on April 13, 1871

Mr. Pedro Altube

Dear brother, I have received your pleasant missive in which you encourage us to send our son Severio to you if that is what we wish. I very much appreciate our arrangement about my son. When we asked him if he wanted to go, he got so excited he wanted to leave immediately. Our family in Marquina said that in 15 days they will let us know about the departure day and told us to be ready. We have prepared everything already, so that everything will be in order by the time they send word.

Severio tells me he will do as you say always, not only now that he is 14 but when he grows up, too. May God grant that promise and have my son bring you lots of happiness. I am absolutely positive that you will do your best for Severio, for which I am forever grateful.

 I don’t send much with my son, but I hope that the elastic I am sending each brother is broken in health and in honor of all our family. I also send a cheese for my sister-in-law, not because of its value but because I want her to have a taste of this land […] v

Pedro Altube, “The Father of All Basques in America”

Pedro Altube’s daughters. Photo: William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

Some biographers who recount Pedro Altube’s story do so under the label of “Legendary Cowboys of the Far West.” His towering height of 6’6” gained him the nickname of “Palo Alto. “He had the habit of greeting anyone who would run into him with a drink of whiskey from the flask he kept in his pocket, with the following phrase: “Hey, you, my friend! You better join me for a drink, you son of a bitch.”v
He was an exceptional horse rider and, allegedly, unbeatable at poker. Besides typical cowboy qualities, Pedro had other characteristics that did not conform to the stereotype of cowboys of the American West. He was a shrewd businessman. The livestock at Spanish Ranch was famed for its high quality, and Pedro was respected within the trade for his “honorable work ethic.” (Daily Nevada State Journal, 07-09-1902.) It was believed that he paid his workers until the day of their death, even years after they were no longer able to work.

Bernardo Altube, Spanish Ranch, Nevada. Photo: William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

As for Basque workers, Pedro employed hundreds of them at the Spanish Ranch throughout the years. All his business relations, as well as family and friend connections, were always arranged between Basques. This is likely the reason why Pedro Altube is considered the Father of All Basques in America.

The Altubes, San Francisco Townspeople

Spanish Ranch. Pedro Altube, fourth from the left. Photo: William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

The Altube brothers always kept a place of residence in San Francisco. From spring to the first snowstorms of winter, the men of the family lived at Spanish Ranch. The women joined them during the summer. They all spent the winters in San Francisco.

Spanish Ranch. Photo: William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

Both families believed in the importance of a good education. Pedro Altube hired a tutor to teach his wife Maria how to write and read English. Pedro could speak English, but was unable to write or read, so he hired a gentleman for himself who visited him every evening. He read history and science books to him, as well as classic and contemporary literature. Their daughters were sent to French schools. Both became fluent in French. The sisters were excellent pianists, too. They were students of Santiago Arrillaga, a church organist from Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, who played at the Notre Dame des Victoires and Our Lady of Guadalupe churches. Bernardo and Marie’s sons, too, attended academies during the winter, and both were also musicians.

Cowboys taking a break at Spanish Ranch. Photo: William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.
Herding the cattle, Spanish Ranch.

By 1894, Bernardo’s family lived in a beautiful two-story house on Van Ness Street. Bernardo had opened a hotel on Powell Street, too, near Juan Miguel Aguirre’s and Juan Francisco Yparraguirre’s hotels. In 1901, Pedro’s family moved into a mansion in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. It was a 21-room four-story building. It was in that house that Pedro died of a heart attack in 1905. Two years after his death, his widow and Bernardo sold the Spanish Ranch (Palo Alto Land and Livestock Company) to the H.G. Humphrey et al. company. Included in the deal were the lands where the ranch stood, 20,000 sheep, 20,000 cows and 2,000 horses. The remaining properties of the Altubes, knows as Taylor Canyon Horse Ranch, were sold by the family in 1917, after Bernardo’s passing. 

Inside of the barracks, Spanish Ranch, 1900. Photo: William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno.

The Altube brothers truly made a name for themselves, far from their little Basque hometown.

Pedro Altube, A Candidate for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame

In 1960, Pedro Altube was voted to be Nevada’s representative in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. The organization celebrates men and women who contributed to the advancement of the West and its traditions. Inductees include pioneers, ranchers and cowboys, among others.

Spanish Ranch


Bilbao, Jon (1998.) “Altube, Pedro,” in The new encyclopedia of the American West, Lamar, Howard Roberts edit., Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 31.

Garikano, Asun (2009.) Far Westeko Euskal Herria, Pamiela, Iruñea.

Hovey, Carol W. “Pedro and Bernardo Altube: Basque Brothers of California and Nevada, in Portraits of Basques in the New World, edited by Richard W. Etulain and Jeronima Echeverria. University of Nevada Press, Reno, 1999, 57-80.

Praetzellis, Mary and Praetzellis, Adrian (1998.) “Elegant dining on California´s cattle frontier” in Historical Archaeology, 32(1): 55-65.

Praetzellis, Adrian, Ziesing, H. Grace and Praetzellis, Mary (1997.) “Tales of The Vasco.” Anthropological Studies Center. Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California.

Ziesing H. Grace edit. (1997.) “From Rancho to Reservoir: History and Archaeology of the Los Vaqueros Watershed, California,” Contra Costa Water District, Concord, California.

Zumalde, Iñaki. “Pedro de Altube (Palo Alto) y los pastores vascos en los Estados Unidos.” Boletín de la Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del País, Donostia, 36, 1-4 (1980), 75-104.

i Hovey, 61-62.

ii Praetzellis and Praetzellis, 58.

Iii Hovey, 72.

Iiv “Francisca Altuberen eskutitza anaia Pedrori,” in Antzuola, on April 13, 1871. William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies Archives.

The scribe added “Two” where it says “For my sister-in-law,” meaning the cheese was for the two sisters-in-law.

VHovey, p. 59.