BRANDED: A brief history of branding throughout the world |

BRANDED: A brief history of branding throughout the world

Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
for Tri-State Livestock News
Branding calves in Colorado between 1898 and 1905. Photo created by Detroit Photographic Company. Library of Congress.
Library of Congress |

Old western music is liberally sprinkled with mention of runnin’ irons, smoky fires and branding.

“Well they stretches him out and they tails him down

While the running-irons were getting hot,

And they cropped and swallow-forked his ears

And they branded him up a lot.”

-Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail

The Ghost Riders in the Sky were chasing phantom cattle, “their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel…”

The Strawberry Roan packed a big 44 brand on his left hip, and the bronc buster from the Flying U met his match trying to ride a bull that seemed a little familiar–”the brand on his hip was the old Flying U.”

The old-time balladeers wrote songs about their lives, and apparently branding was a big part of those.

But the history of marking ownership of cattle by burning a specific design into their hides precludes jinglebob spurs and chuck wagons by a couple thousand years.

Pre-American History

Branding was initiated a couple millenia ago by some ambitious Egyptians along the Lower Nile. According to a Nebraska Folklore Pamphlet produced through a Federal Writer’s Project in 1938, “The first recorded description of cattle branding was made 2,500 years ago on a tomb which was recently excavated near Thebes..One side of its walls bore mural decorations of a cow tied down and a man branding her with a geometric design.

“It is known that branding irons were used in England in the eighth century; while a French writer, Jean J. Jusserand stated that, in the year 1400, horses kept for rent were branded ‘in a prominent manner, so that unscrupulous travelers would not be tempted to leave the highway and keep the steeds.’”

An article by David Dary on the Texas State Historical Association website suggests the practice may be even older than that, with Egyptian tomb paintings estimated to be at least 4,000 years old depicting roundups and cattle branding. “Biblical evidence suggests that Jacob the herdsman branded his stock. Burning an identifying mark into the hide of an animal was, until the invention of the tattoo, the only method of marking that lasted the life of the animal.”

The Americas

The Spaniards brought the practice of branding to the New World, when they brought cattle to New Spain, Dary writes. “When Hernán Cortés experimented with cattle breeding during the late sixteenth century in the valley of Mexicalzimgo, south of modern Toluca, Mexico, he branded his cattle.”

Cortés branded his cattle with three Latin crosses, which may have been the first brand used in the Western Hemisphere.

According to Dary, “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 Spaniards’ brands tended toward curlicues and pendants, rather than letters, and a cattle raiser got to choose 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,” Dary writes.

The Spanish and Mexican brands were a puzzle to Anglo-American Texans, who often referred to them as “dog irons” or “quién sabes” (“who knows?”).

Across the Rio Grande, on the Anglo-Texas frontier, cattlemen used much simpler brands, made with “dotting irons,” according to The Texas State Historical Association Texas Almanac, by Mary G. Ramos. These irons were usually three shapes, a straight line, a small half-circle and a large half-circle. With these three irons they could create nearly any letter or number, but required numerous applications.

Anyone who’s ever used a branding iron will tell you simple, straightline brands are best. Intricate, curving designs tend to “blot” where intersecting pieces of the branding iron create and hold in too much heat, scarring adjacent hide as badly as where the iron is actually placed. My dad called such unreadable, scar-smeared brands “dogbites.”

Brand Registry

Richard H. Chisholm registered the first brand in Texas in 1832, in Gonzales County. Following independence from Mexico, the Republic of Texas encouraged ranchers to register their cattle brands but did not require it until 1848, after joining the United States. After that, no one could be prosecuted for stealing cattle unless they were branded with a registered brand.

In 1881 George B. Loving published The Stock Manual in Fort Worth, Texas. It contained the name, post office address, ranch location, marks and brands of all the principal stockmen of western and northwestern Texas, showing marks and brands on electrotype cuts as they appeared on the animal.

From Mexico and Texas, branding followed the flow of cattle and horses northward and westward across America.

Though some ranchers marked their cattle with a wattle–created by cutting a piece of skin on the neck or jaw, or earmarking, nothing ever caught on like branding, Dary says.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture says, “Branding is one of the oldest and best ways to permanently identify livestock. It serves as an excellent safeguard against livestock theft, loss or dispute. In fact, the International Livestock Identification Association considers livestock brands to be as important as return addresses on mail.” Missouri currently maintains a list of about 5,000 recorded brands.


Montana author Ivan Doig calls brands, “the classical language of the American West.” Because brands owned in past generations are an important part of genealogical research in Montana, in 2002 Doig and his wife Carol made a donation to the Montana Department of Livestock. That Department then joined forces with the Montana Historical Society to place historic brands on microfilm, resulting in Montana brands from 1873 to 1950 now being accessible on microfilm.

South Dakota

According to the State Brand Board of South Dakota, their brand law dates back to Dakota Territory 1862, when the Land Office was legally required to maintain a record of brands in the county or area. In 1897, a Brand and Mark Committee was established by the Legislature to oversee the registration of livestock brands. The Committee published a Brand Book in 1898-99 containing 2,066 registered brands. This Committee was dissolved in 1925 when the Legislature transferred brand registration authority to the Department of Agriculture Division of Animal Industry under the supervision of the Department Secretary.

When the State Legislature convened in 1937, the State Brand Board was created and given authority for livestock brand registration and ownership inspection.


Nebraska’s Federal Writer’s Project tells us, “Nebraska pioneers began using brands as soon as their herds had grown to a sufficient size to need protection against cattle rustlers, or when the danger of intermingling between differently owned herds arose on the open range. The problem of identifying cattle became more involved after the building of railroads,…every cattle owner became brand-conscious, zealous for his own brand and knowing the brands of the other cattle owners around him.

“By 1879 the herds of cattle became so numerous that the legislature passed a law whereby brands could not be duplicated within the same county. In 1899 the law was changed to avoid duplication of brands within the borders of the state. All brand designs had to be accepted and recorded by the Secretary of State.


Colorado’s Brand Board was formed in their Territorial days, around 1865. It became a State agency in 1903 and a division of the Colorado Department of Agriculture in the early 1970s. Today it’s comprised of five members, appointed by the Governor. They say, “Brand inspection serves several important purposes, including (1) deterring theft, (2) facilitating commerce, (3) protecting livestock producers and lenders, (4) providing accurate tracking of livestock movements for use in disease traceability, (5) facilitating the return of stolen or stray livestock, and (6) helping keep the livestock industry healthy and viable.”

The 68 men and women serving within Colorado’s Brand Inspection Division administer over 34,000 Colorado brands and annually inspect more than 4 million head of livestock, scattered across 104,000 square miles. This necessitates over 1 million miles of travel and an annual budget of over $4 million – all cash funded by the livestock industry through brand inspections and assessment fees.


According to the Wyoming Stock Grower’s History book “70 Years Cow Country” by Agnes Wright Spring, Wyoming’s first Brand Committee consisted of Laramie County Clerk Jeffery along with T.A. Kent and Thomas Sturgis, appointed in January 1878, according to a mandate from the 1877 Territorial Legislature.

The book also tells us the oldest brand in continuous use in Wyoming is the M hook or Yoke 9, first used in 1857 by John Walker Myers.

A stenographer friend had suggested to Myers that “the M hook used in Pittman shorthand” would be a good brand design. Myers added “a quarter circle…later embellished with an upturn at each end.” In 1942 the brand was being used by the third generation, Charles Myers, then president of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association.

Mrs. Eliza A. Kuykendall recorded her “rolling M” as the first brand in Laramie County, Wyoming, on December 3, 1870. In his book “Frontier Days” Eliza’s husband Judge W.L. Kuykendall reported “she brought a few cows and other cattle with her when she and my two sons, then small children, crossed the plains in wagons to Denver in 1886. The cattle were driven to my ranch when the family moved to Cheyenne in the winter of 1867.”

Agnes Wright Spring said, “This M brand, belonging to Mrs. Kuykendall was transferred later to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to be used in marking mavericks on the round-ups. It subsequently became the official maverick brand of the Territory.”

On a side note, the origin of the word “maverick” itself has ties to branding culture, according to another article by Dary.

Samuel A. Maverick, a Texan who moved there from South Carolina, had repeated problems with his cattle being neglected and not branded by those he had hired to care for them. Neighbors began referring to any unbranded cattle as “one of Maverick’s.” After the Civil war, when there were numerous unbranded cattle, the term took on a more general meaning.

What’s in a Brand

The Balloon Bar brand, recorded to the Schnebly family of Ellensburg, is the oldest registered brand in the state of Washington. A great-great-grandmother, Mrs. Phillip Painter, originally brought the brand into the Willamette Valley from Missouri when Washington State was still a part of the Oregon Territory. On June 11, 1868, when the Washington Territory began registering brands, the Painter family, then living in Walla Walla, submitted the brand to authorities on a piece of burned leather for recording. Six generations later this brand is still found on livestock grazing in the Kittitas Valley.

Some cattle brands show a sense of humor, like S. Omar’ Barkers “lazy SOB” and the infamous 2 lazy2 P. Or perhaps they’re just practical, like the AND connected, recorded for the Anderson Children of Platte County in Wyoming’s 1919 Brand Book.

Jimmy Stamp, writing for in April, 2013 called branding “bovine pyroglyphics.”

So, really, what’s in a brand? Sometimes letters, numbers, symbols, lines and circles, your initials, the outline of your favorite butte or most hated bug…But always, and most importantly, there’s pride of ownership. Those irons hangin’ in the barn, that brand traced in the cement step or burned into the doorframe and the livestock wearing it wherever they go, representing you. F