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The History of Cattle Brands

The practice of branding is ancient. Some Egyptian tomb paintings at least 4,000 years old depict scenes of roundups and cattle branding, and biblical evidence suggests that Jacob the herdsman branded his stock. The practice of branding came to the New World with the Spaniards, who brought the first cattle to New Spain. When Hernán Cortés experimented with cattle breeding during the late

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sixteenth century in the valley of Mexicalzimgo, south of modern Toluca, Mexico, he branded his cattle. His brand, three Latin crosses, may have been the first brand used in the Western Hemisphere. As cattle raising grew, in 1537 the crown ordered the establishment of a stockmen's organization called Mesta throughout New Spain.   Each cattle owner had to have a different brand, and each brand had to be registered in what undoubtedly was the first brand book in the Western Hemisphere, kept at Mexico City. Soon after the Spaniards moved north into Texas and cattle raising developed on a large scale during the middle eighteenth century, the crown ordered the branding of all cattle. The early Spanish brands in Texas were more generally pictographs than letters. The Spaniards chose their brands to represent beautiful sentiments in beautiful ways. Most of the early Spanish brands found in the Bexar and Nacogdoches archives are pictographs made with curlicues and pendants. A cattle raiser would compose his own brand. When his first son acquired cattle, a curlicue or pendant was added to the father's brand, and as other sons acquired their own cattle, additional curlicues or pendants were added to what became the family brand. Only a few Spanish brands found in the Bexar and Nacogdoches archives are made of letters.

Here are a few early mission brands from Victoria County, Texas

Benavides.jpg (7003 bytes) Placido Benavides
Garza.jpg (6762 bytes) Cesario Garza
Gonzales.jpg (7322 bytes) Simon Gonzales
De Leon.jpg (6549 bytes) Fernando de Leon

Many early Anglo-American Texas ranchers were unable to interpret the brands used by the Spanish and Mexicans. Texans often referred to them as "dog irons" or "quién sabes" ("who knows?") since they could not be read. Most of the early brands of Texans, by contrast, were made of initials and could be read with ease.   Like books, brands are read from top to bottom and left to right.  Brand reading is akin to an art that almost requires a language of its own.  Amazingly, every numeral and letter of the alphabet can be made with an iron shaped a brandsJ.gif (1079 bytes)configuration.

Brands were used by ranchers to prevent theft.  Cattle on the open range land or being driven accross country were particularly susceptable to rustlers.  Rustlers used "running irons" and were ingenious in changing brands.  The most famous brand change involved making the "XIT" brand into a star with a cross inside.

Many western Texas counties did not begin brand registration until the 1870s or 1880s. By then letters, numerals, and even names were popular brands in Texas. Though such brands were easily read, others have to be seen. Among them are the "Hogeye," "Fishtail," "Milliron," "Buzzard on a rail," "Coon on a rail," "Saddle Pockets" or "Swinging blocks," "Quién sabe," "Grab-all," and countless others with intriguing names. Representations of such common subjects as an anvil, truck handle, hash knife, door key, bridle bit, spur, pitchfork, old woman, doll baby, broadax, boot, shoe, hat, rocking chair, frying pan, and so on were commonplace.

In branding terminology, a leaning letter or character is "tumbling." In the horizontal position it is "lazy." Short curved strokes or wings added at the top make a "Flying T." The addition of short bars at the bottom of a symbol makes it "walking." Changing angular lines into curves makes a brand "running." Half-circles, quarter-circles, and triangles were frequently used in late-nineteenth-century brands. An open triangle was a "rafter." If a letter rested in a quarter-circle it was "rocking." There were "bars," "stripes," "rails," and "slashes" that differed only in length and angle. When a straight line connected characters, a "chain" was made.  Brands are read from left to right and top to bottom.

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By the 1940s numerous brands that were no longer in use had been registered in county records. On April 14, 1943, the Texas legislature passed a bill designed to deregister many of the unused brands. The bill included a grace period until October 1, 1945, giving cattlemen the opportunity to reregister their brands. Among the oldest continual brands is the Running W of the King Ranch,qv which was originated by Richard Kingqv in 1869 and reregistered in 1943.

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