NSS 75th Anniversary Convention
This 10-part essay originally appeared in Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada, published by the Library of Congress in 1980 and republished as a Bison Book by the University of Nebraska Press in 1981. The book marked the midpoint of the Paradise Valley Folklife Project and accompanied an exhibition mounted at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in 1980.

Buckaroo: Views of a Western Way of Life


The Cowman's Dominion

The broad region that encloses Nevada is variously called the Intermountain West, the Basin and Range Province, and the Intermountain Sagebrush Province. It includes southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho, southwestern Wyoming, western Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California's eastern slope. During his second long exploration of 1842-43, John C. Frémont called this massive continental trough spreading from the Rockies to the Sierras "the Great Basin," its most common name today. For a long time the region was called the Great American Desert. Everyone from Horace Greeley to the young Mark Twain to traveler-writers like Samuel Bowles joked about its desolate barrenness.

The region northern Nevada more particularly shares and represents includes southeastern Oregon, a piece of southwestern Idaho, and northeastern California. In this big heart of the Great Basin, both the land and the work define a cultural region with a special personality. It is chiefly the territory of the range cattle industry now, and settlement is mostly confined to clusters of ranches, ranching communities, and small cities spaced along Interstate Highway 80, where county governments function and the gaming and entertainment business thrives. Interstate 80, the modern superhighway, follows safely along the old emigrant trail, the Humboldt River, and at times the Southern Pacific Railroad mainline. It is a land of great distances, great panoramas, and great cattle ranches.

This huge Intermountain West comprises vacant, semiarid deserts and mountain ranges that rise up out of the distance like ghosts. It both frightened and lured the emigrants passing through on the California trails in the mid-nineteenth century. The great Humboldt River, the pioneer's lifeline, is unlike others that empty into the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean: it rises in the mountains and disappears in the desert.

The state of Nevada has a small population, and the majority of people live in the two main cities, Reno and Las Vegas. Only one United States representative is elected to serve in the House. Nevada's state flower is the sagebrush. Its state tree is the pińon pine, and the state bird is the mountain bluebird. It is the fifth largest state in size and nearly the smallest in population. With about four inches of rainfall a year, it is the driest. Federal agencies own and manage 87 percent of all the land in Nevada, as they control 54 percent of the entire Western United States.

Paradise Valley, the focus of the project and the exhibition, is about forty miles long and twelve miles wide. "Shelton lane" divides the "upper end" or "upper valley" from the "lower end" or "lower valley." The valley is walled in on the west and north by the 9,000-foot peaks of the Santa Rosa Range, where pine and quaking aspen grow, and on the southeast by the lower Hot Springs Range.

The lower end opens out around the Little Humboldt River, where Martin Creek and Cottonwood Creek join it, and spreads into the sagebrush flats south toward Winnemucca, the county seat and business center of Humboldt County. Paradise Valley, at 4,600 feet, is cattle and hay country with scarce water and a growing season of about ninety days. Its modern capacity to produce fine crops and cows is largely the result of intricate and efficient irrigation systems that pioneer farmers and ranchers checkered across the cleared fields. The region is at once inviting and threatening. With only seven to nine inches of rain each year, the people depend on the winter's snowfall and snowpack in the mountains, which produces the spring runoff that renews the bunchgrass, brings back creeks, and provides water for the irrigation of pastures and fields that sustain cattle herds through the following winter.

The summers are very hot but the winters are moderate. Spring comes early, and there is almost no summer rain. There are few permanent streams, and occasional dry years slow to a trickle even steady creeks like Martin and Cottonwood. It is a world of sagebrush, alkali flats, bare gray mountains, and stark beauty. Just over the valley's eastern apron lies the vast Owyhee Desert, where no farming has succeeded. The endless sagebrush and rocky hills are broken only by an occasional buckaroo camp nestled in a draw or canyon. Thin lines of aspens and willows in these places enfold the small creeks flowing on into the Owyhee and Little Humboldt rivers.