Saturday, January 22, 2011

The History of American West Cattle Branding

History of Cattle Branding

Cattle/Livestock branding is a technique for marking cattle/livestock so as to identify the owner. In English lexicon, the word “brand” originally meant anything hot or burning, such as a firebrand, a burning stick.

The origin of cattle branding dates from 2700 B.C. Paintings in Egyptian tombs document branding oxen with hieroglyphics. Ancient Greeks and Romans marked livestock and slaves with a hot iron.

By the European Middle Ages, branding commonly identified the process of burning a mark into stock animals with thick hides, such as cattle, so as to identify ownership. The practice became particularly widespread in nations with large cattle grazing regions, such as Spain.

Hernando Cortez introduced branding from Spain to the New World in 1541. When Hernán Cortés experimented with cattle breeding during the late sixteenth century in the valley of Mexicalzimgo, south of modern Toluca, Mexico, he branded his cattle. His brand, three Latin crosses, may have been the first brand used in the Western Hemisphere. As cattle raising grew, in 1537 the crown ordered the esta
blishment of a stockmen's organization called Mesta throughout New Spain. Each cattle owner had to have a different brand, and each brand had to be registered in what undoubtedly was the first brand book in the Western Hemisphere, kept at Mexico City.

The original Spanish brands were, as a rule, complicated, and beautifully rich in design, but not always practical. The early Spanish brands in Texas were more generally pictographs than letters. Most of the early Spanish brands found in the Bexar and Nacogdoches archives are pictographs made with curlicues
and pendants. A cattle raiser would compose his own brand. When his first son acquired his cattle, a curlicue or pendant was added to the father's brand, and as other sons acquired their own cattle, additional curlicues or pendants were added to what became the family brand. Only a few Spanish brands found in the Bexar and Nacogdoches archives are made of letters.

The early American ranchers wanted more simple designs that were easy to remember, easily made, that did not blotch, and that
were hard to alter. There has never been anything to take the place of a visible brand as a permanent definitive mark of ownership and deterrent to theft. Livestock people say "a brand's something that won't come off in the wash." In the American west, cattle branding evolved into a complex marking system still in use today.

The European customs were impo
rted to the Americas and were further refined by the vaquero tradition in what today is the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

Cattle Branding in the American West

In the American West, a branding iron consisted of an iron rod with a simple symbol or mark, which cowboys heated in a fire. After the branding iron turned red-hot, the cowboy pressed the branding iron against the hide of the cow. The unique brand meant that cattle owned by multiple ranches could then graze freely together on the open range. Cowboys could then separate the cattle at round-up time for driving to market.

One of the most serious criminal offenses in the old west and today’s cattle country is rustling, the stealing of another man's cattle. Rustlers often change brands in an attempt to transfer ownership of herds. They use a “running iron”—a round-surfaced piece of metal, which can be heated and used to trace a freehand change in the original brand. In the early days, a saddle cinch ring was often used as a running iron. It was easy to carry, and could be handled by placing a green tree branch through the center. Old-time justice for apprehended rustlers was swift and sure. The penalty for getting caught running a brand was usually a “necktie party” held beneath the nearest tree.

There's an interesting story about one rustling case that was solved by Roy Bean of Langtry, Texas. Bean, although he had no official authority for his actions, set himself up as “The Law West of the Pecos.” When a nearby rancher from the Bar S spread complained of losing calves, “Judge” Bean went to work on the case.

He rode out on the range and returned abo
ut a week later with a stranger and some 20 head of steers in tow. The cattle all bore the 48 brand which the stranger claimed was his registered mark.

Court was convened on the porch of Bean's store
and saloon. As Exhibit A in the trial, Bean shot one of the freshly branded 48 steers and peeled back the hide. On the animal's flesh, the blackish Bar S showed quite plainly. Over the Bar S were fresh burns which turned the original brand into a 48. This conclusive evidence sealed the doom of the unlucky stranger, and he was soon swinging from a nearby cottonwood tree.

Cattle Brands became so numerous that it became necessary to record them in books that the ranchers could carry in their pockets. Brand books followed no standard size or pattern—they were as individualized as their owner. Some of the wealthier cattlemen carried handsome leather-bound volumes filled with elaborate notes—while the ordinary cowboy packed a cheap paper tablet, curled and stained from use.

However, the contents of each book were much
the same. They contained brands of local herds, reports of stolen cattle, rough maps of cattle drives and other trail information that the cowboy needed for ready reference.

Laws were passed requiring the registration of brands and the inspection of cattle driven through various territories. Penalties were imposed on those who failed to obtain a bill of sale with a list of brands on the animals purchased.

No law dictated the exact spot on a cow's hide for the branding, yet through the years the left side of the animal, especially the hip, became the customary spot. Nowhere in old documents or recollections does anyone say why the left side was chosen, but the recollections of some old-time cowboys suggest that cattle have a peculiar habit of milling more to the left than to the right; hence brands on their left sides would be more visible to cowboys inside the roundup herds. Still other cowboys recalled that cattle were branded on their left hips "because persons read from left to right" and thus read "from the head toward the tail." As one cowboy added, "A right-handed roper would ride slightly to the left of the animal and could see the brand better if it were on that side." Regardless of the reason for the position of a brand on an animal, the position was recorded in brand books.

Free-range or open range grazing is less common today than in the past. However, branding still has its uses. The main purpose is in proving ownership of lost or stolen animals. Many western US states have strict laws regarding brands, including brand registration and required brand inspections. In many cases, a brand on an animal is considered “proof of ownership.” In the hides and leather industry, brands are treated as
a defect, and can diminish the value of the hide. This industry has a number of traditional terms relating to the type of brand on a hide.

Colorado Branded (slang Collie) refers to placem
ent of a brand on the side of an animal, although this does not necessarily indicate the animal is from Colorado. Butt branded refers to a hide which has had a brand placed on the portion of the skin covering the rump area of the animal. Cleanskin is the term used to describe an animal without a brand.

The traditional cowboy or ranch hand captured an
d secured an animal for branding by roping it, laying it over on the ground, tying its legs together, and applying a branding iron that had been heated in a fire. Modern ranch practice has moved toward use of chutes where animals can be run into a confined area and safely secured while the brand is applied.

Types of Cattle Brands and How to Read Them

Most cattle brands in the United States are composed of capital letters of the alphabet, numerals, pictures, and characters such as slash /, circle O, half-circle , cross +, _bar, etc., with many combination's and adaptations. Letters can be used singly, joined, or in combination's. They can be upright, XIT XIT ; lying down or "lazy," (lazy S); connected VB connected( V B connected) or combined,VB combined (V B combined); reversed, reverse B (reverse B); or hanging V hanging S (V hanging S). Figures or numbers are used in the same way as the letters.

Brands of this type have a specialized language for "calling" the brand. Some owners prefer to use simple pictures; these brands are “called” using a short description of the picture.

Picture brands are usually used alone, for example ladder brand (ladder) or rising sun (rising sun).

Reading a brand aloud is referred to as “calling the brand“.

There are three accepted rules for reading brands.

1. Read from the left to the right as ML (M L).

2. Read from the top to the bottom as bar M (bar m).

3. When the brand is enclosed, it is read from the outside to the inside as circle S(circle S).

The reading of a brand, especially the more complicated ones, in one locality or state may not correspond to the way it is read elsewhere.

Reading Brands

A definite method of identifying characters has been established. If a letter or symbol is made backwards from its normal position, it's read as a “reverse F” or whatever other letter it might be. A letter partially over on its face or back is said to be “tumbling.” If a letter lies horizontally on its face or back, it is called “lazy.” Letters with a curving flare at the top and rounded angles are called “running.” Adding a dash to the left an
d one to the right at the top, you have a "flying" letter. Add legs and it becomes a “walking” letter. A letter placed so that the bottom touches the inside of a curve is said to be “rocking.” Curves not attached to letters are known as “quarter circles” or “half circles,” depending on the arc. Letters or symbols formed together are called “connected,” except when one is below the other, then the lower symbol is said to be “swinging.” In registering brands, owners sometimes omit the “connected” or “swinging” Thus, might be read simply Diamond J rather than Diamond Swinging J.

Besides the traditional letter and figure brands, there are some marks known as “character brands.” Other common picture brands are the pitchfork and the key . The reading of picture brands depends upon the owner’s interpretation, and it takes an expert to identify some of the more complex brands. Below are some symbols which are commonly used in brands.

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