One of the most popular programs at the Santa Ana Zoo is the annual spring demonstration of the shearing of sheep. Once a commonplace sight on Rancho Niguel and throughout our surrounding Sheep Hills, sheep shearing is today a reminder of the talents brought by the large number of Basques who arrived in this area over one hundred years ago.

Coming to the Southland from their homes in the Pyrenees Mountains, the Basques brought their expert knowledge of the care of sheep. Their presence soon became the dominant force in the once large sheep industry.

Among the most prominent members of this immigrant group was Jean Pierre Daguerre, who became Lewis F. Moulton’s partner for operating Rancho Niguel. He arrived in America in 1874 with a number of other prominent Basques who came at about the same time: Miguel Erreca in 1873, Juan Glass in 1885 and Juan Ustariz soon after. More families arrived during the turn-of-the-century period including the Etcheberrias who would become well known for their cultivation of large fields of beans and barley as well as their herds of sheep.

Many other Basques made a contribution to our communities. Some became owners and leasees of farmland and others were foremen on the ranches. They were known for their beautiful singing and wonderful feasts of barbecued lamb. They had reputations as being good neighbors, hard workers and valuable additions to our communities, including contributing an El Toro postmistress, school board members, and many farmers and businessmen.

Their descendents live among us today as our communities have grown in a richness of diversity.

Laguna Niguel residents and local historians Donald and Mary Decker co-authored eight books including the new city history “Laguna Niguel: Honoring the Past, Fulfilling the Present.” Contact the writers: