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    SXSW 2002


    The Venezuelan Lava Herders

    In 1862, while still part of the Washington Territory, Idaho experienced one of the most tragic events in it's short history. In May of that year 9 immigrant sheep herders, known locally as the Venezuelan lava herders were eaten by rabid sheep.


    The herders, originally from the Basque region of Venezuela, were brought to Idaho in the early part of the 19th century to look after the flocks of sheep native to that region. In addition to great skill at sheep herding they also had developed a technique for diverting lava flows using hydraulic technology previously unknown in North America. Since Idaho at that time contained many active lava flows, this skill proved to be a vital one for the burgeoning sheep ranch industry.

    Since all of the herders in the group were killed and at least partially eaten, we will never know what truly happened on the fateful day. But we are lucky in that the group of rescuers who fought their way through the pack of ravening, man-eating sheep included a young, then unknown, scientist by the name of Bertrand Russell. It was Russell's careful documenting of the grisly scene that has allowed modern forensic specialists to construct a rough time line of the events.


    It appears that early in May 1862 the sheep being tended by the famous Venezuelan lava herders were infected by rabies. Russell believed this infection had come from rats, but recent evidence indicates the culprit may have been the North American Camel, which became extinct at about the same time as the attack.

    Russell's careful notes and diagrams show that the brave lava herders fought a futile retreat into a box canyon where they were attacked and killed by dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of rabid sheep who leap from the cliffs above to gnaw the lava herders to death and devour their brains.


    These brave sheep herders were but one of the many groups of pioneers who tirelessly worked to tame Idaho and shape it into the industrial and cultural mecca it has become today. They join the Hawaiian fur traders, the Lithuanian log eaters, and the famous "Dog Boy of Penzance" as pillars of Idaho history.

    Today visitors to Idaho Falls can visit the little known Venezuelan Lava Herders Memorial by taking 5th Avenue out of town and turning south at Ben's My-T Mart.




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