- Historic Sites
Lazy Y And Flying U
A glimpse at the ancient lore of cattle brands
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
The limitless possibilities for creating brands out of the combinations of letters, numerals, designs, and pictures is obvious. And in actual practice, in the western states alone, the brands which have been used top the 300,000 mark. At first the brands of neighboring ranchers were kept in small notebooks, merely a matter of informal record. As the West grew, however, and the ranches multiplied, brands were required to be registered by law with the county officials. And as a final development, the state brand books came into being, a central registry where all the brands in a given state are recorded with the names of the owners and the location of the ranges. These books are published annually on Bible-thin paper and in a handy hip-pocket size to fit the Levi’s of men working the roundups and riding the fences.
In these brand books any cowboy can locate a brand and owner as rapidly as you can find a word in the dictionary. The letters appear first. Under A , for example, the first entry would be A , followed by AA, AAA, AAAA; then AB, ABB, ABC, ABD, then AC, and so on with the multiple letters down to AX, AY, AZZ . Having exhausted the letters combined with A , there come the numerals A1, A2 , and combinations such as A3A, A4R . And still entered under A , there follow the A Bar, A Slash, A Diamond. The order is fixed and the brands easy to locate with a little practice. After all of the entries beginning with A , there follow those beginning with B , with C , and so on throughout the alphabet. Then come the separate entries under the numerals: 1, 1A, 1Z, 1 Bar , repeating in similar sequence the order followed with the letters, but with the numerals standing first. Following the letters and numerals, the entries begin with the designs—the Bar, Slash, Diamond, Circle, Box , and Heart —and lastly the picture brands are entered in alphabetical order, the Hat preceding the Ladder and followed by the Pitchfork and Spur .
A quick scanning of some of these brand books— from New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona-turns up varied and amusing entries. By way of “Warning” brands, to tell neighboring ranchers or rustlers to keep hands off, are these:
Most effective is the symbol of frontier law and order, the Colt Forty-Five:
Certain ranchers found it possible to make happy brand combinations out of their names:
Men who had a penchant for gambling or were simply amused with the combination of symbols created the Seven Up brand which is found in every western state, and also the widely common Keno:
The aces of diamonds, clubs, and hearts were similarly popular, but the ace of spades, interestingly enough, is conspicuous by its absence. The lucky Seven Eleven brand
appears often, as do other numbers borrowed from the game of craps and burned on the hides in boxed dice brands.
However valuable the brands might be, they were not always enough to protect the owners’ rights. There were rustlers in the West, and the brands were, of course, susceptible of alteration, sometimes very easily with the simple addition of an extra letter, bar, or slash. Even using the base of an original, the proficient rustler could reshape it into something totally different, as the Seventy-One brand in Wyoming was altered into the Rocking Chair , or the JJ in southern Colorado into an OU .
The brands themselves were, in the early days, burnt on the hide with a running iron—a short bar about the length of a poker—and the cowboy simply drew or wrote the brand in a large, freehand style, much as one might write on a blackboard. But since the running iron was an easy tool for the rustler and cattle thief to use, the carrying of it was banned by the various stock associations. A cowboy riding the range with one might be as innocent as the day was long, but on the other hand equally guilty of rustling intent. Consequently, the fixed iron came into use, with the full brand worked into a permanent stamp at the end of an iron bar which might vary from two to six feet in length.