A glimpse at the ancient lore of cattle brands
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.
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.
Cowboys pride themselves on their ability to read brands quickly, not as simple an attainment on the open range, with moving cattle, as it seems on the printed page. With many head of several ranches gathered into the same herd at roundup time, with the inevitable strays from distant ranges, it is the “lettered” puncher who can pick out and sing out the correct brand and identify the owner: “ Rafter L . Belongs to Smith in Dayton.” “ Bar Lazy Heart . Jones on American Flat.” His knowledge of brands and owners makes him as valuable to the ranch as the top roper with his specialized services. He is, after all, a member of the frontier College of Heralds, the bunkhouse genealogist of the West.