Cattle brands still play an important role in identifying an animal's owner in Texas cattle ranching. 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. 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 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 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.
Many early Anglo-American Texas ranchers were unable to interpret the brands used under the Spanish and Mexican regimes. Texans often referred to them as "dog irons" or "quién sabes" (quién sabe? = "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. Richard H. Chisholm owned perhaps the first recorded brand, registered in Gonzales County in 1832. During the years of the Republic of Texas, the recording of brands was provided for but not rigidly enforced. The oldest brand records under state government are those found along the Texas coast. Harris County began keeping records in 1836. Stephen F. Austin recorded his initial brand in Brazoria County in 1838, about four years after he began using it. Galveston County records began in 1839, the year Gail Borden, Jr., first recorded his brand, the first one entered in the Galveston County brand book. When Nueces County was organized in 1847, brands were recorded, but the cattle industry in the county was not dignified by having a separate brand-registration book. During the first seven years brand registrations in Nueces County were sandwiched between marriage licenses, sales of slaves, declarations of citizenship, oaths of office, bonds for administration of estates, wills, and construction contracts. Beginning in 1848, Texas provided for recording brands with the county clerk, with the stipulation that an unrecorded brand did not constitute legal evidence of ownership. This provision was modified in 1913 after thefts went unpunished where unrecorded brands were involved. A considerable body of Texas law deals with brands. At one time the office of hide and cattle inspector was an elective county office.
Many western 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. A picture of a fish marked the cattle owned by Mrs. Fish of Houston. A. Coffin of Port Lavaca used a representation of a coffin with a large A on it. Bud Christmas of Seminole had his XMAS brand, and S. A. Hightower of Breckenridge placed "HI" beside a mushroom-like object.
C. C. Slaughter, who was instrumental in organizing the Texas Cattle Raisers' Association, established his cattle business on the Trinity River in Freestone County during the 1850s. He became dissatisfied with his location and moved twice, finally locating the Long S Ranch at the headwaters of the Colorado River in 1877. His brand, however, was not recorded until September 1879, when it was subsequently run in Howard, Martin, Dawson, Borden, Cochran, and Hockley counties. Many old-time Texas cattlemen believed that during the latter half of the nineteenth century more cattle were sold in the open markets with Slaughter's brand than with any other brand in the world. The famous XIT brand of the Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Company, once registered in nine counties, was designed by Ab (Abner P.) Blocker, a well-known traildriver.
No law dictated the exact spot on a cow's hide for the branding, yet through the years the left side of the animal, especially the hip, became the customary spot. Nowhere in old documents or recollections does anyone say why the left side was chosen, but the recollections of some old-time cowboys suggest that cattle have a peculiar habit of milling more to the left than to the right; hence brands on their left sides would be more visible to cowboys inside the roundup herds. Still other cowboys recalled that cattle were branded on their left hips "because persons read from left to right" and thus read "from the head toward the tail." As one cowboy added, "A right-handed roper would ride slightly to the left of the animal and could see the brand better if it were on that side." Regardless of the reason for the position of a brand on an animal, the position was recorded in brand books.
Marks besides brands were used. Some ranchers marked their cattle with a wattle, a mark of ownership made on the neck or the jaw of an animal by pinching up a quantity of skin and cutting it. The skin, however, is not cut entirely off, and when the cut is healed, a hanging flap is left. Wattles, however, were not as common as earmarks, which were used by nearly every cattleman during the open-range days and were recorded along with brands. As the name suggests, an earmark was a design cut into one or both ears of an animal. Sometimes a portion of the ear might be removed. A semicircular nick was an "underbit" or "overbit." A square clip at the tip of roughly half of the ear was a "crop," while cutting the ear close to the head was a "grub." A V-shaped cut in the tip of the ear was a "swallow-fork." The same mark on both ears became known as a "flickerbob." A "double over-bit" was the mark made by cutting two triangular pieces in the upper part of the animal's ear. One of the better-known earmarks in Texas was the "jinglebob," a deep slit that left the lower half of the ear flapping down. Many cattlemen considered it one of the most hideous earmarks ever devised. It was the mark of John S. Chisum, whose great ranch lay in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.
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, which was originated by Richard King in 1869 and reregistered in 1943. See also RANCHING, RANCHING IN SPANISH TEXAS.