The History of Cattle Brands and How to Read Them

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Article: The History of Cattle Brands and How to Read Them

The use of brands as a mark of identification dates back some 4,000 years. Inscriptions on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs indicate that cattle were branded as early as 2000 B.C.

The American custom of cattle branding was adopted from Mexico. The large Mexican cattle ranches marked their herds with their family coat-of-arms and, as the cattle industry moved northward into Texas, this method of indicating ownership gradually became accepted by American ranchers.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of cattle brands registered in the United States. When a rancher decides upon the type of brand he wants to use, the legal procedure is to register his mark.

Brand History and Info

Reading Brands

Brands are read from left to right, from the top down, or from outside inside. A definite method of identifying characters has been established.
  • If a letter or symbol is made backwards from its normal position, it’s read as a “reverse F” or whatever other letter it might be.
  • A letter partially over on its face or back is said to be “tumbling.” “Tumbling E”  
  • If a letter lies horizontally on its face or back, it is called “lazy.” Lazy P   
Letters with a curving flare at the top and rounded angles are called “running.” “Running N” – Adding a dash to the left and one to the right at the top, you have a “flying” letter. “Flying V” – Add legs and it becomes a “walking” letter. “Walking T”  A letter placed so that the bottom touches the inside of a curve is said to be “rocking.” A “rocking T” Curves not attached to letters are known as “quarter circles” or “half circles,” depending on the arc. Letters or symbols formed together are called “connected,” “Connected HE” except when one is below the other, then the lower symbol is said to be “swinging.” In registering brands, owners sometimes omit the “connected” or “swinging” Thus, “Diamond J” might be read simply Diamond J rather than Diamond Swinging J.
Besides the traditional letter and figure brands, there are some marks known as “character brands.” For instance, this “Turtle” is read as the turtle brand. Other common picture brands are the pitchfork and the key.  The reading of picture brands depends upon the owner’s interpretation, and it takes an expert to identify some of the more complex brands.
Here is a good resource for pictures of Vintage Cattle Brands.
Below are descriptions commonly used in brands.
Bar, a short horizontal line
Rail, a slightly longer horizontal line
Three or more rails are called stripes
Slash, a slanting line
Rafter, half diamond over a letter
Broken arrow

Edited Jan 2018

  • Previous brand images removed and commented.
  • Article is no longer available at: Kids Cowboy

The Brand Book

Back in the days of the cattle driving era, every cowboy carried his own personal brand book. This reference was as much a part of his trail equipment as his six-gun or lariat.Brand books followed no standard size or pattern—they were as individualized as their owner. Some of the more wealthy cattlemen carried handsome leather-bound volumes filled with elaborate notes—while the ordinary cowboy packed a cheap paper tablet, curled and stained from use.However, the contents of each book were much the same. They contained brands of local herds, reports of stolen cattle, rough maps of cattle drives and other trail information that the cowboy needed for ready reference.Through the scribblings in a brand book, it was often possible for stray cattle to be returned to the rightful owner. When a strange brand turned up in a herd being sold, the owner—sometimes several counties away—would receive a check for steers he had never even missed!

More Branding Topics in this article at WikiPedia

  • The Law vs. Rustlers
  • The Branding Iron
  • How Calves are Branded

Tags: cattle branding, livestock branding, Colorado Brand Book, livestock law, equine law, Littleton Law, Littleton Equine Lawyer, How to Read Cattle Brands, History of Cattle Brands