"Well," said the would-be cattleman, "I wanted to name it the Bar-J. My wife favored Suzy-Q, one son liked the Flying-W, and the other wanted the Lazy-Y. So we're calling it the Bar-J-Suzy-Q-Flying-W-Lazy-Y."
"But where are all your cattle?" the friends asked.
"None survived the branding."
We know from Egyptian hieroglyphics that branding livestock dates back to 2700 BCE. The Romans used symbols that were part of a magic spell to protect the animals... at least until the owner wanted to slaughter them. By the Middle Ages, the custom had spread through Europe. From Europe it emigrated with colonists to North America where, even with our modern technology, it is still one of the most effective means of establishing ownership -- or proving theft.
The term brand may come from "firebrand" or heated stick, which was the oldest way of applying your brand. (Or from the Norse "brandr" meaning burn. Take your pick.)
Obviously, only one end of the stick was brought to a smouldering temperature. That lead to the term being applied to people who were hot-headed. An iron rod, or running iron, eventually took the place of the stick, but don't be caught with one in the Old West. Honest ranchers had their brands made by blacksmiths. Carrying a running iron suggested you might be a rustler, adept at changing one brand to another.
To work, brands must be unique. Like Coca Cola and Pepsi, the marks are registered. Unlike other product brands, however, the blacksmith hammer (and the beeves' hides) can only handle so many flourishes. So a simple hieroglyphic language was developed.
|2 Lazy-2 P Ranch - from The Smithsonian site|
I promised a little philosophy and for that I'm going to go back to Coca Cola and Pepsi and brand loyalty.
Branding livestock was a practical necessity. Menkahf had to make sure that his goats didn't find themselves in Sebni's herd when it was time to bring them in from the pasture. Branding merchandise started about a thousand years later to identify the product with the maker. Both types of brand engendered brand loyalty.
The cowboy's loyalty to the brand is an ethical issue. I learned the concept from Louis L'Amour, particularly in his collection Riding for the Brand, but best expressed by Conn Conagher:
"I've covered a lot of country in my time but when I take a man's money I ride for the brand."If you have a problem with your employer, you come out with it. If it can't be solved, you suck it up or ride on. An ally who wasn't loyal might have to be tolerated, but he'd never be respected. An enemy who stood by his villainous employer until the end, would be respected and couldn't be seen as entirely evil. He was redeemed by his loyalty.
Louis L'Amour, Conagher
The History of Branding, Smithsonian Magazine
Livestock Branding, Wikipedia
The History of Brands, Wikipedia
US Legal Definitions