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Lazy Y And Flying U
A glimpse at the ancient lore of cattle brands
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
The tradition of branding cattle came to the Southwest with the Spaniards, but the present-day reading—the heraldry, if you wish—is purely American. The language of the brands developed as haphazardly as any language, but there was a logic to it—unconscious in the growth perhaps, but wholly reasonable in the end.
Brands, for example, are read in three ways: from left to right, from top to bottom, and from the outside in.
From left to right:
From top to bottom:
From the outside in:
Whenever the brands are designed to appear in any of these three ways, they must be read according to the western rules. Apart from the full reading of the brand, however, there are the lesser components which go to make up the whole. Take, for example, a single letter—the letter R —upon which the cowboy and rancher lavished their imaginations. The variations upon it make for a fantastic alphabet. The R (or any other letter, for that matter) became western, wholly unrelated to the classroom and copybook. It was designed and traced in the sands of Texas and Arizona by cowboys hunkered down around the campfire or killing time outside the bunkhouse. These men traced the brands in the sand, and then burned them with hot irons on the hide. And they named the alphabet of their own making, a rich and colorful one in a free land without fences:
And then, with the combination of other figures, the R also became:
These brands for the letters were fairly basic and were applied as well to the numerals. By way of example, here are some current in the western states:
Countless others as well were built on the same order. With the numerals, too, there were obvious combinations and natural designs which were read as the full numbers:
Backing up the letters and the numbers—and an integral part of thousands of brands—are the designs of the Box, Circle, Diamond, Triangle, Heart, Bar , and Slash . These have their lesser parts also, and again add to the colorful language of the range:
In the making of the brands, there are, of course, certain letters which have capabilities beyond those of others. The X , for example, cannot be a running letter. When it is designed as a brand, the stick must be lifted from the Texas dust to create the two lines of the letter. The running letters are those which can be drawn with one single, flowing line. The favorite running letters of the West are:
Also, certain letters when they are upended do not go completely “crazy” in the manner of the Crazy R or Crazy F:
When letters like the A or T are upended and stand alone, they are still termed “crazy,” but they also lend themselves to the so-called “Up and Down” brands in combination with their own normal or block letters:
Apart from the letters, numerals, and the basic designs such as the Box, Diamond, Slash , and Bar , there also came into being the picture brands. These are read, like the Sun and Quarter Moon brands, in terms of the pictures themselves, and the reasons for choosing them were often based upon whim or sentiment. A rancher, for example, might well be proud of his first cabin or house, and select the Cabin brand; another might design the Hat Creek brand because his ranch bordered the creek; still another would choose the Sunrise brand because he was appreciative of the sunrise over the mountains to the east; and many, hopeful of their future, chose the dollar sign as a symbol of success.