The practice of searing a cow’s hide with a hot iron dates back to 2700 BC but is surprisingly still the best method of marking ownership and preventing theft. On the open plains in the era of cattle driving, unmarked animals were fair game for incorporating in a herd and weren’t considered stolen – in fact many a rancher started in business that way – but ‘professional’ cattle rustlers were a serious threat. One of their most insidious practices was to alter the brand on a cow so that it became something quite different and, if relevant, conformed to one which they had registered as their own. A brand therefore had to be designed so that it was difficult, or ideally impossible, to change.

Branding cattle was not a job for one person
Branding cattle was not a job for one person

The process of branding was both traumatic and painful for the calf. In a round-up where more than one ranch and therefore more than one brand was involved, the mother’s brand determined how her calf would be identified. The calf was roped and dragged to the branding fire in spite of its mother’s efforts to protect it. Two cowboys called flankers turned the calf on its side and held it there while the ironman held the hot branding iron to its skin. The temperature of the iron had to be just right so that it seared the skin without causing it to be burnt. The calf must not wet either because steam could cause serious damage. Almost invariably, the calf bellowed in fear and pain and sometimes shot right up in the air, bursting away from the flankers.

The brand itself was, and still is, part of a complete language. Obviously the larger and more complicated the design, the more skin was burnt on the calf and the more it was hurt and damaged. There was therefore no question of using whole names or large, complex logos: the distinction between the brands, their uniqueness and the ease of their recognition was created by means of simple shapes and bold letters with small distinctions, all of which had names and were standardised.

A capital ‘A’ for example could be adapted as follows:

  • Turned upside down it was called ‘Crazy’
  • On its side (as if lying down) it was called ‘Lazy’
  • With little marks at the top like wings it was called ‘Flying’
  • With serifs that looked like feet it was called ‘Walking’
Crazy, Lazy, Flying and Walking A's
Crazy, Lazy, Flying and Walking A’s

The adaptations to the letters were all part of the brand as it was described verbally and the brand name was often the name of the ranch as well. So for example ‘Circle R’ was the name of the ranch which used the brand logo of a capital letter ‘R’ inside a circle.

The location of the brand on the animal was a crucial element in the identification. If for example it was applied on the shoulder of the animal it was one distinct brand, and if it was applied on the rump it was another, even in the same area.

Brands began to be registered and regulated in the latter part of the nineteenth century and most ranchers recognised and followed the system as being the best way to combat cattle theft and generally control the industry. There was one famous exception, however. This was in the person of a Texas lawyer and politician called Samuel Maverick who didn’t brand any of his cattle and gave his name to the unbranded cow and also to the notion of refusing to follow the social norm. The story was that he was given a herd of cattle and had no use for it, so therefore let it roam freely without branding. The neighbouring ranchers seized the opportunity to swell their own herds with the ‘mavericks’ – until he realised what was going on and sold what was left of the herd.

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