Branding of livestock can be traced all the way back to ancient Egyptian times. Paintings in Egyptian tombs have been discovered which display oxen being branded with various hieroglyphics. Livestock in the ancient Roman Empire were sometimes branded with specific symbols that were to act as “magical spells” to protect them.
In early branding practices, the brand would take up the entire side (and sometimes body) of the animal. The brand would tell that animal’s story: original owner’s brand, rebrands, transfers of ownership brands, sales brands, and/or cattle drive brands. However, as hides became more profitable, brands trended towards a smaller, 4″ high set of symbols, which would often be set on the left side of the animal.
Branding found it’s way to America via Mexico. Mexican cattle ranchers were known to mark their cattle with their family coat of arms. As the industry moved north, towards Texas, Americans saw this practice and gradually accepted it as the best way of proving ownership. As they say “A brand is something that won’t come off in the wash!”
The reason for branding is simple: to make it clear who the animal belongs to, and to allow these animals to roam freely on the range. Because cattle often roam free are social creatures that tend to intermingle with cows of different owners, they need some sort of unique mark or brand. Branding facilitates the “roundup” process, where the cowboys separate each owner’s stock.
Unbranded cattle always follow their mother, which makes it easy to determine to whom each unbranded cow belongs. During the roundup process, cattle are separated, unbranded cattle are branded, and they are then set free to roam the range once more.
While branding would seem like a pretty safe way to label your property, during the 1800′s crafty individuals found new ways to cheat the system. One of the most despicable criminal acts in the old west was perpetrated by “Rustlers.” Rustlers were individuals that would find easy and quick ways to alter the original brands on cattle, illegally transferring ownership of the cattle, effectively stealing another man’s cow. This was a very grave offense, and the punishment often ended with the perpetrator lying in his own grave.
The nomenclature of branding in the U.S. is quite convoluted, and for the more complex brands, you would need an expert to sort it out. However, there are some basic rules that apply to deciphering brands. Brands are always read from left to right, top to bottom, and from outside to inside.
Here is how to read a few of the common symbols used:
Upright symbols are read normally by the letters, or numbers
“Crazy” an upside down symbol
“Lazy” symbols turned 90 degrees
“Connected” or conjoined, with symbols touching
“Running” a letter with a curving flare attached to the right side of the top of the letter, like an italicized letter
“Bar” a short horizontal line
“Diamond” a symbol within a four-sided box, the box tilted 45 degrees
“Circle” a symbol within a circle, or a circle by itself
“Rocking” a symbol above a quarter circle, the open side of the quarter circle facing the symbol
You can see some examples of branding, and the work of “rustlers.” Can you decipher these brands?