What You Should Know About Cattle Brands

The practice of branding cattle is ancient. It is, in fact, older that Jesus Christ himself. What we know of the earliest livestock brands comes from paintings in Egyptian tombs, which depict a cattle roundup and branding from as early as 2700 BC. There are also references to the practice of branding cattle in Roman literature and in the Bible, namely with Jacob the herdsman.

Fast forward to the early 16th century as cattle are introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers, and the tradition of cattle branding came with them. The first recorded cattle brand is of three Latin crosses, which represented the brand of Hernán Cortés, one of the greatest of the conquistador in southern Mexico in the 1500s. As cattle raising grew, the crown ordered the establishment of a stockmen’s organization called Mesta throughout what was then referred to as New Spain in modern-day Mexico, and included several U.S. states, notably California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado and Oklahoma.

Spaniards bring their branding practices to New Spain

In New Spain, each cattle owner was required to have a different brand, and each brand was required to be registered in what was undoubtedly the original brand book of the Americas. Kept first in Mexico City, it was later moved to the largest Spanish settlement in Texas, the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar. Early Spanish brands were generally more pictographs than the combination of symbols and letters we associate with modern cattle brands. Spaniards being notably passionate people, they chose their brands to represent their sentiments and passions in the most beautiful of ways.

An early brand registration granted by the provincial governor of California to a Californio and ranchero named Don Roberto Pardo of the Rancho los Alamitos in what is now modern day Southern California. Note the combination of pictogram and letters.

A cattle raiser, or ranchero, would compose his own brand. When his first son acquired cattle, a curlicue or pendant could be added to the father’s brand, and as other sons acquired their own cattle, additional curlicues, pendants or serifs may be added to what became the family’s brand. By the 1700s, as the Spanish were moving herds north into Coahuila y Tejas to support the missions they had established in the Rio Grande and San Antonio River valleys, most Spanish brands were still made of pictograms rather than letters. 

The practice of branding spreads like a pasture fire

While the practice of branding free-roaming livestock was soon taken up by cattle owners throughout the Americas, branding was made iconic by the Mexican vaqueros and Anglo cowboys of the American West. Early Anglo-American ranchers in Texas utilized the alphabet for their brands, as they were unable to interpret the brands used by Spanish and Mexican rancheros. The Texians often referred to these traditional brands as “dog irons” or “quién sabes” (Spanish for “who knows?”) since they could not be easily read. Most of the early brands of Texas, by contrast, were made of symbols and initials and could be read with greater ease.  

Mid-19th century cattle brands of Victoria County, Texas, relying on the traditional Spanish style.

The earliest Anglo cattle brand recorded in Texas is believed to be that of Richard H. Chisholm, and registered in Gonzales County in 1832, as the “H C Bar” brand. Still other early mission brands relied more on traditional pictograms, including those of Fernando de Leon in 1838, Simon Gonzales in 1839, Cesario Garza in 1850, and Placido Benavides in 1852. Following independence from Mexico, the Republic of Texas encouraged ranchers to register their cattle brands but did not require it until after Texas joined the United States in 1845. In 1848, the new State of Texas passed a law that cattle theft could only be prosecuted if stolen cattle bore a registered brand.

By the 1870s, many West Texas counties begin brand registration with letters, numerals, and even names registered as popular brands. Although then as now, some brands are easily read, others have to be seen and interpreted. Among them are the “Hogeye,” “Fishtail,” “Buzzard on a Rail,” “Saddle Pockets,” the “Swinging Blocks” and countless others with intriguing names. Representations of such common objects as an anvil, a truck handle, hash knife, door key, bridle bit, spur, pitchfork, or rocking chair were commonplace for a rancher who needed to find a brand that would distinguish his cattle from another’s.

An early Texas brand registration book.
Photo courtesy of the University of North Texas.

By the 1940s numerous brands that were no longer in use had been registered in county records. So, on April 14, 1943, the Texas legislature passed a bill designed to deregister many of the unused brands. The bill included a grace period until October 1, 1945, giving cattlemen the opportunity to reregister their brands. It was during this time that one of the oldest continual brands in use in Texas, the “Running W” of the King Ranch was re-registered in 1943.

Brands deter theft, most of the time

Brands were, and still are, used by ranchers to prevent theft as cattle on the open range or being driven across country are particularly susceptible to rustlers.  These cattle thieves of the old west used “running irons” — a branding iron not bent into the shape of a mark such that it allowed the user to free hand write the desired brand, which was essential when thieving cattle or changing brands. 

One of the most famous brand changes involved making the “XIT” brand into a star with a cross inside. During the 1880s, the XIT Ranch was the largest ranch in the world under fence, with one fence running 150 miles without a single turn! According to legend, the X represents the ten counties that made up the ranch, and the IT meant “in Texas.” Another version of the story says the brand was designed to make it hard to alter in order to thwart rustlers.

But as fate would have it, one rustler was known to run cattle bearing a “star cross” brand, a star with a cross inside. The XIT outfit complained that the cattle being run by the Star Cross were actually stolen from them. No one was able to figure out how he did it until the thief was arrested, and paid to reveal how he turned the letters XIT into the altered brand by use of a running iron. He used the “X” and “T” to draw a star and then burned a line across the “I” to make a cross.

Freehand brand a star over the “X” and “T” and cross the “I” and you’ll have turned the XIT brand into the Star Cross brand.  
Images courtesy of American Cowboy magazine.

So, how can you “read” a brand?

Brand reading is an art form that almost requires the reader to be fluent in a language of its own. Brands, however, like books are read from top to bottom and left to right.  In branding terminology, a leaning letter or character is “tumbling,” while in a horizontal position it’s being “lazy.” Short curved strokes or wings added at the top of the letter R, for example, make it a “Flying R.” The addition of short bars at the bottom of a symbol makes it “walking,” and changing angular lines into curved lines makes a brand “running.” Half-circles, quarter-circles, and triangles were frequently used in late-nineteenth-century brands. An open triangle was called a “rafter” and if a letter rested in a quarter-circle it was said to be “rocking.” There were also “bars,” “stripes,” “rails,” and “slashes” that differed only in length and angle. Essentially, the creativity or simplicity of a brand is matched only by the creativity or desired simplicity of the brand’s owner.

Modern livestock branding

Today, many ranchers still utilize cattle branding to mark their stock, much as they did in the 1800s. It’s part of the rich history and culture of the cattle ranching way of life. Advancements in cattle branding include the use of an electric brander where the metal is heated with electricity rather than with fire. Some ranchers may rely solely on ear tags to identify individual animals and to prove ownership. However, ear tags are said to have the drawbacks of getting lost by the animal’s movement or being removed and replaced by thieves.

Another option ranchers are turning to, is freeze branding. Liquid nitrogen or denatured alcohol and dry ice are used to cool branding irons, which are then applied to the animal’s hide. Rather than burning the skin, freeze branding alters the natural pigmentation of the animal’s hair, making the hair of the branded area grow back white.

In many states, including Texas, branded livestock must be registered in the respective county where they are run. And while there may not always be a statewide registration database, ranchers in Texas, for example, can work with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (“TSCRA”) who in turn cooperates with the county clerk’s offices in all 254 Texas counties to provide a Texas brand registration site.

In addition to marking livestock, brands represent the trademark of a ranching family and therefore also represent pride, duty and stewardship, which inspires loyalty and dedication. Many cowboys still refer to “riding for the brand” to represent their commitment to their employer. The Official Cowboy Poet of Texas Red Steagall summed up the value of a brand best in one of his poems,

Son, a man’s brand is his own special mark that says this is mine, leave it alone. You hire out to a man, ride for his brand and protect it like it was your own.”

So, that’s about it as far as the basics of cattle brands. What kind of brand would you design? Let me know in the comments section below.

And, until next time mis amigos, happy trails! ★


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