Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ride for the Brand

Jacquie Rogers

You can't ride for the brand if you don't know what your brand is.  Each outfit had a man who kept a brand book and who could identify brands from far and wide.  Four-legged critters on the open range can mosey a long way.  When identifying a brand, the speaker uses a particular jargon that readers and writers of Westerns innately understand, even if they can't identify those same brands themselves.  So let's ride into the world of brands.

Exactly how were brands used?
For everything.  We all know about roundups and have read about branding calves with the same brand as their mamas, but brands were also used on horses, mules, fence posts, saddles, and nearly anything belonging to the ranch.  Brands were embroidered on saddle blankets, pillows, and hatbands.  Now we wear Nike's and American Eagle's brands, but in those days, they were proud of their own ranch's brand.  A brand constitutes ownership, the final arbiter.  (We'll get to those dern rustlers a little later.)

Were American ranchers the first to brand their livestock?
Spanish-grant brand
Brands were our nation's first trademark system, although branding is nothing new.  Egyptian carvings show brands on oxen three millenia BCE.  Throughout recorded history, livestock and slaves have been branded using a red-hot iron.   The practice was brought to North America by the Spanish conquistadors and later the vaqueros to Texas, then spreading across the North American continent, and on to Australia.  Spanish brands were quite a bit fancier than American brands, which used mostly letters numerals, bars, and circles or segments of circles.

How do you read a brand?
Brands are read left to right, top to botton, outside in.  The brand of the hero's ranch in my next book, Much Ado About Mavericks (May 2012), is Bar E L, so would look like this
and read left to right.  If the brand had been EL—, then you'd say E L Bar.  

The heroine's ranch is the Circle J, with a J surrounded by a circle, so read from outside in.  If there were two letters, say J O, it would be read Circle J O: outside in, left to right.

This is from Western Brands:
Lazy is a letter laid on its side to the left or right.
Crazy is an upside down letter.
Reverse is a backwards letter.
Bar is a dash or line before, after, between, over or under the letters.
Combined is when 2 letters share a common side or upright. (You need a common upright for this one.)
Connected are when 2 letters touch.
Offset is when one letter is slightly lower and to the side of the other.
Hanging is when a letter is hanging from the bottom of another.
Rail is a back slash ( \ ).
Slash is a forward slash ( / ).
Quarter Circle is 1/4 of a circle above, right or left of letters.
Rocking is 1/4 of a circle below letters.
Swinging is 1/4 of a circle above and touching a letter.
Circle is a full circle around 1 letter.
Flying is a set of wings on either side of a letter.
Tumbling is when a letter is leaning left or right

My family's brand is no longer registered to us since none of us are in agriculture anymore, but just to show a typical brand, I made up a crude version it.  We called it the Rocking J W, although it is actually a Rocking J W combined, since the J and the W share the same upright.  The brand was applied on the left hip.  We only branded cattle, not horses. 

Some states have the registered brands posted online.  Take a look at California or Kentucky.   There might be more because I didn't look up all the states.  Here are some examples of brands from Richard Beal's Blog:

String up those rustlers!
More than one famous rancher got his start by picking up a calf or two here and there for a long-term "borrow."  It was a risky business.  Many ranchers thought nothing of stealing cattle in Mexico and driving them north.  Of course, the Mexican ranchers did the same thing.

Cattle thievery wasn't confined to the Mexican border, by any means.  Men (and a few women) were hanged for rustling in every state in the West (probably in the East, too).  Usually when we think of rustlers,  it's the fellows who round up herds at night, brand the cattle, and sell them right away.  You know—the bad guys.

The tool of the rustling business was the running iron.  This was a straight or slightly curved branding iron that could be used to alter an existing brand or used to make nearly any brand on an unmarked animal.  The one pictured here has no handle, so don't get confused. 

The running iron was heated and applied "on the fly," meaning the iron was used more to draw the brand on the animal rather than stamping it on.  I've read different opinions on whether getting caught with a running iron in your possession would lead to an immediate hanging.  Some sites say this tool had legitimate uses.  Personally, I think it would be best to leave them home and use your own ranch's brand.

Some good sources:
Eastern Oregon Brand Book (1890), but has 1950s regulations, so not sure when it was published.  What's cool about this book is they have pictures of a bazillion brands.  Malheur County abuts Owyhee County in Idaho, which is where my books are set, so these brands are especially useful to me.

May your saddle never slip!

Hearts of Owyhee
Coming soon: Much Ado About Mavericks


Unknown said...

Jacquie, who would have thought branding could be so interesting. I swear you could make the phone book appealing. I enjoyed your post, and if I owned a cow, I'd go out and brand it right this minute. As someone who has branded animals, or at least witnessed it, do you think it hurts them? I guess not or PETA would have stopped it long ago. :) Great job, as usual.

Tabitha Shay said...

Since I write contemporary western romances, I found this quite helpful...Thx for sharing...very cool...Jaydyn/Tabs

Jacquie Rogers said...

Ginger, I would say it hurts like the very dickens, especially considering the calf is getting dehorned, castrated, notched, and immunized all at the same time. That would be one hellacious 30 seconds. But then it's done and within a couple days, the calf is all healed.

Jacquie Rogers said...

You're welcome! Now they have freeze branding as well. That makes ownership harder to identify without shaving the hair, but doesn't damage the hide. Most cattle are still branded by hot iron, but horses often are freeze-branded, plus the BLM uses freeze branding for their programs.

Meg said...

OH MAN!! Fascinating, as usual -- you FLOOR me with your in-depth knowledge, Jacquie. Who'd a-thunk... well, not this greenhorn. Notching? De-horning? I knew about the branding and the... um... yeah, that. Poor calves. So the hot iron is just burned on the hair, not the skin? De-clawing is considered painful. Imagine this! Er, what's BLM?

blcsdina said...

I learned something new! Terrific interview/article. Had no idea how involved it all is. Glad I stopped by. Dina Rae

Caroline Clemmons said...

Jacquie, I consider you an expert on all things western. You proved it once again. I am glad ranchers have switched to ear tags instead of branding irons.

Devon Matthews said...

Hey, Jacquie. I loved your post! So much good info and your wonderful voice just sings through everything you write. My current wip has the ox-yoke brand, a B flipped on its side with the loops hanging down. Hmm, now that I look at that B, I might've called it the bosom brand. ;) Thanks for the great post!

Alison E. Bruce said...

This is great. I picked up the terminology, but never saw examples like you've provided. I knew what the Lazy E brand would look like for the Egan Ranch but now I know what the Rocking R would look like and (my little bit o' humour) the Bar B. Since these ranches will all be featured in the sequel to Under A Texas Star, I am duly thankful to you.

Paty Jager said...

Great info Jacquie! Our brand is T crazy Y we bought it from my father in law. I run the squeeze chute when we brand but I back away when the iron hits the hide. I can't stand the smell of burning hair. Bad trait for a cattle rancher.

Lyn Horner said...

Jacquie, you are a font of knowledge! Thanks for this amazing post. It's a keeper.

Peggy Henderson said...

I remember branding cattle in college. Not my favorite part of the class (and pig castrating, ear notching, etc. but that's another story) Ah the memories. Nothing like the smell of burned hide. At least we had squeeze chutes, and didn't have to rope 'em and wrestle 'em to the ground like the cowboys way back when.

Lauri said...

Wow, awesome post! Thanks so much for sharing. I'm saving it in my research links. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

No, the brand is burned through the hair onto the skin--it's a permanent mark. Here's how the painful vs. not painful concept works: if it's politically correct, it's not painful. So neutering is not considered painful, declawing is. Branding is necessary, whether politically correct or not, so isn't considered painful, except from those who don't use animals for any form of subsistance. Too many of us like our McDonald's hamburgers so there you go.

Jacquie Rogers said...

You're welcome, Dina Rae. :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

They have? I think most cattle are still branded in Idaho. Will check with my buddies over there. Ear tags can't be used for ID from afar, so I don't know how that would work. A brand can be seen dozens of yards away.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Devon. Hahaha! Love the bosom brand--well, but maybe not a brand on the bosom....

Jacquie Rogers said...

Alison, the terminology was what got me curious. I know the brands from around our area but wasn't sure about the difference between "connected" and "combined," since we didn't bother to use those terms. And you've just gotta love Bar B. Hahahah!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Ew, burning hair (and hide) is nasty. Not sure you ever get used to it--one nice thing about living in the 'burbs now. LOL. And there's the answer to Caroline's comment--yes, we still do brand. I thought so because I see brands every time I go back home.

Jacquie Rogers said...

You're welcome, Lyn! :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Yes, squeeze shoots have been used for the last 50 years or so. Some of the ranches still rope and throw 'em, but the chute is so much better because the calf can't move so all the procedures can be done faster and safer for both the calf and the cowhand.

Jacquie Rogers said...

You're welcome, Lauri. I'm glad you got some good out of it. :)

Ellen O'Connell said...

Did your research show anything specific as to horses, Jacquie? I've never looked into it, but was told years ago that horses have thinner skin and to brand a horse without making an ugly mess you do it differently. Can't remember - shorter application, narrower iron or what. I do remember the brands on the Quarter Horses that caused the discussion. They used a Diamond J. So a diamond with the lowest corner leading to the stem of a J. It was so well done it actually was like an attractive addition on the horse instead of a blemish. I've also seen big ugly splotchy brands on grade horses. Needless to say the Arabs and Morgans I spent time with were never branded. Some Arab people did a freeze brand under the mane. I thought it did show as white hair and grays were the only ones where you have to shave to read. It's been some years since I thought of it, so my recollection is shaky.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Ellen, they didn't have freeze branding in the Old West so yes, they did use hot-iron branding. We didn't brand our horses so I don't know anything about it personally, just that others around our area did brand their horses. Often, ranches had a slightly different brand for horses than for cattle, and those brands were often more simple and a little larger. Maybe that's to compensate for the difference in hide? Like I said, I don't really know, just that horses were then and sometimes now hot-iron branded.

Maggie said...

This is a wonderful post Jacquie. Everything you wanted to know about brands but was afraid to ask. Now I understand a few that I've seen and could only shake my head at them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the branding info, always great to learn new things

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Maggie! I've seen some brands that I couldn't figure out--then again you don't know if the brand is complicated or botched. If they don't do a good, clean brand it can heal in strange ways.

Jacquie Rogers said...

You're welcome! This started a few years back when I was researching Much Ado About Mavericks. I didn't want to use any of the brands in our area for obvious reasons. LOL

Crack You Whip said...

This was very interesting! I had no ideas brands had meanings!