By Their Brands, Shall You Know Them
The use of brands as a mark of identification dates back some 4,000 years. Inscriptions and picture writing on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs indicate that cattle were branded as early as 2,000 BC.
History also shows that use of the branding iron has not always been restricted to the hides of livestock. Slaves, fugitives and criminals were often stamped for life with the indelible mark of the brand. The practice of branding human beings was followed in England until as late as 1822.
The American custom of cattle branding was adopted from Mexico. The Mexican Dons marked their huge herds with their family coat-of-arms and, as the cattle industry moved northward into Texas, this method of indicating ownership gradually became accepted by American ranchers.
Today there are hundreds of thousands of cattle brands registered in the United States. When a rancher decides upon the type of brand he wants to use, the legal procedure is to register his mark. State laws designate a brand inspector or similar official who is responsible for assigning and recording brands. In some states registration must be made with the county clerk in each county or counties where the rancher expects to operate. This makes it possible for men in different parts of the country to use the same brand, although the reading of the brand may differ from one locality to another.
In Colorado, at the settlements of Guadalupe and San Luis, and the settlement near the first county seat of Weld County at Ft. Vasquez, brands were being used on livestock 100 years ago. One of the principal reasons for the creation of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association a century ago was to solve the problem of cattle rustling. One of the first steps to this was the establishment of a brand registration system and in the first three months of its existence, the CCA registered 40 to 50 brands.
A round up and inspection tax was imposed by the new state of Colorado in 1879 and a 3-member Board of Inspection Commissioners was created; with power to hire brand inspectors to inspect cattle at markets inside or outside of Colorado, and to inspect herds of cattle being shipped or driven out of the state.
Statutes covering this activity were printed in two languages - Spanish and English - and brand inspection reports in this department date back continuously to 1884. In 1885 all brand recording was transferred from the county clerks' and CCA offices to the Secretary of State, and in 1899 all brand registration and recording was placed under control of the cattlemen, in the State Board of Stock Inspection Commissioners, and taken out of political office.
The first State Brand Book, published by the Secretary of State's office, showed there were 13,228 brands on record in 1885-1888, and the last brand book showed 33,329 active brands on record.
At one time there were no fences in the vast West. And even today much of the cattle area in the West and South is designated "open range." Cattle wander far in grazing and herds become mingled. The roundup permits separation of each owner's stock, and because calves always follow their mother, the ownership of unbranded calves is easily determined. The annual spring roundup has as its principal purpose the finding and branding of the past year's calf crop.
The act of 1879 which created the Board of Inspection Commissioners, and 16 roundup districts, was repealed in 1881 and re-enacted, increasing the commissioners from three to five and the roundup districts from 16 to 17. There were five roundup commissioners in each district and one roundup foreman. In 1881 the brand inspectors had their pay increased from $85 to $100 per month. Roundup foremen got $3 per day.
In the early days of the cattle business, ranchers used huge, big brands that almost covered an entire side of an animal's body. But when cattle hides began to bring a good price, ranchers began to use smaller, carefully forged stamping irons that left a neat, easy-to-read mark, usually on the left hip of high on the left ribs of the animal.
The legibility of a brand demands a great deal on the skill of the cowboy doing the branding and the type of iron used. Best branding irons are made from high quality metal, one-quarter of an inch. Letters and symbols are usually about four inches high and the handle of the iron is usually about 36 inches long.
APPLING THE BRAND
Branding, de-horning and castrating are all usually done at roundup time. Unmarked calves are cut out of the herd by a horseman, roped and brought to the fire where the branding irons are being heated. Two cowboys, called flankers, approach the calf on foot. One seizes the calf by the foreleg and flank, pulls the animal off balance and throws it to the ground. He then places his knee on the calf's neck and pulls up and back on the foreleg. His partner grasps the uppermost hind leg, pulls it back and at the same time places his foot on the hind leg next to the ground. The calf is then in position for branding.
The hot branding iron is then placed momentarily on the calf's hide. The burn is not painful and the bawling of the calves is caused mostly by fear of the unusual.
After branding, the calves, with the rest off the herd that are not cut out for marketing or for shipment to feed lots, are turned back into the open range, and the rancher is secure in the protection of his property by the traditional sanctity of the brand.
READING A BRAND
The reading of picture brands depends upon the owner's interpretation, and it takes an expert to identify some of the more complex marks.
Brand books followed no standard size or pattern. They were as individualized as their owners. Some of the more wealthy cattlemen carried handsome leather-bound volumes filled with elaborate notes, while the ordinary cowboy packed a cheap paper tablet, curled and stained front use.
However, the contents of each book were much the same. They contained brands of local herds, reports of stolen cattle, rough maps of cattle drives and other trail information that the cowboy needed for ready reference.
In 1897 the Gunnison County Stock Growers Association published a brand book which included the constitution and by-laws of the association and a complete list of brands and their owners in Gunnison and northern Saguache Counties. The little red, hard-cover book, 3 inches wide and 5 inches deep, printed by the Gunnison Tribune Book and Job Printing Co., included 293 cattle and horse brands.
Through the scribblings in a brand book, it was often possible for stray cattle to be returned to their rightful owners. When a strange brand turned up in a herd being sold, the owner, sometimes several counties away – would receive a check for steers he had never even missed!
Old-time justice for apprehended rustlers was swift and sure. The penalty for getting caught running a brand was unusually a "necktie party" held beneath the nearest tree.
There's an interesting story about one rustling case that was solved by Roy Bean of Langtry, Texas. Bean, although he had no official authority for his actions, set himself up as "The Law West of the Pecos.' When a nearby rancher from the Bar S ranch complained about losing calves, "Judge" Bean went to work on the case.
He rode out on the range and returned about a week later with a stranger and about 40 head of steers in tow. The cattle all bore the 48 brand, which the stranger claimed was his registered mark.
Court was convened on the porch of Bean's store and saloon. As Exhibit A in the trial, Bean shot one of the freshly branded 48 steers and peeled back the hide. On the animal's flesh, the blackish Bar S showed quite plainly. Over the Bar S were fresh burns which turned the original brand into a 48.
This conclusive evidence sealed the doom of the unlucky stranger, and he was soon swinging from the branch of a nearby cottonwood tree.
When the Colorado Cattlemen's Association was formed in 1867, the cattle population of the state was 147,000 head, with an average value of $22.10 per head. That was a pretty fair price, when Texas Longhorns were only bringing $6-$10 per head, delivered to the Arkansas River.
President Allen G. Reed had been authorized to hire range detectives to cut down rustling and eventually the CCA developed an undercover organization so efficient it was catching and convicting cattle thieves at an average cost of $85 per rustler. A "black list" was invoked against cattle thieves who branded "slick' calves - calves with no brands on them yet - following "stray" mothers.
Cattle rustling is still not completely a thing of the past. In the last 10 years 47 persons have been arrested for larceny of livestock or wrongful branding. Two have been acquitted by juries, two are still to be tried, and the other 37 have been convicted, pled guilty, or signed admissions of guilt. None have received probation.
But today the brand on the side of a cow, bull, steer, calf or horse as is as solid as the signature on a check. It's the mark that establishes the legal evidence of livestock ownership in Colorado - and a lot of other Western states.