Holten: It’s that time of year again
Branding season is upon us and I’ve been to three of them this past week, with a few kicks in the chins to prove it and with more brandings to come.
I’ve been doing this cattle thing for a long time now, way back to when I almost lost my thumb as a teenager while dehorning steers, a gruesome task that I’m all too happy to avoid now.
But this branding thing is a little like taking your newborns back to the doctor for the first time with a neighborhood gathering thrown in, a few beverages, some good food, jokes and hearty laughs. It’s an event that you don’t want to miss, like Christmas, your sister’s wedding and your 21st birthday party.
Still, if you think this branding thing was invented in the Wild West, you’ve got a big surprise coming. Branding livestock can be traced all the way back to ancient Egyptian times or at least 4,000 years ago, which is long ago and even before Dick Chaney was born.
In fact, the Romans branded livestock with specific symbols that they believed acted as “magical spells” to protect the animals.
And way back in those days, brands would take up the entire side of the animal and would tell that animal’s life history, like who the original owner was, anything about rebrands and all about any transfers of ownership, so that reading the side of a cow was like reading the morning newspaper from front to back with an Espresso and a caramel roll.
Then hides became more profitable and brands got smaller and became 4-inch high symbols usually set on the left butt cheek.
But like many things Western, branding snuck into America via Mexico where they marked cattle with a family coat of arms. Texan’s liked that and said, “Hey, that’s a good idea!” and now, many decades later, we are all still doing it.
Of course, the reason for the invention of branding was simple: to make it clear who the animal belonged to when, in the old days, they roamed the range freely and intermingled with Bessie and Polly, who were owned by different ranchers. So ultimately branding made the roundup process a whole lot easier and settled a lot of potential arguments between the Cartwright’s and the Barkley’s before they started.
Then again, all is not lost if calves are not branded because they tend to follow their mommy anyway, which makes it easy to determine who each calf belongs to.
But as with all new technology, crafty people eventually move in to buck the system and profit illegally and one of the most despicable criminal acts in the Old West was perpetrated by “rustlers,” who would artfully alter the original brands on cattle, illegally transferring ownership and stealing another man’s cows, which usually ended up with the perpetrator lying six feet underground. So when choosing a profession it might be best to avoid that one.
Of course, Hernán Cortés brought the first cattle to the New World from Spain in the early 16th century — as well as the practice of branding, and his personal brand — three Latin crosses — is believed to have been the first one in the Western Hemisphere. You see, early Spanish brands were usually ornate and, the conquistadors also branded their horses, as well as — get this — their Indian slaves, which isn’t too cool.
That reminds me of the story of a New York family that came to the Dakota Territory in the late 1800s and bought a ranch out west of Medora so that they could raise cattle. Some friends came to visit and asked if the ranch had a name.
“Well,” said the would-be-New York-cattleman, “I wanted to call it the Bar-J. My wife wanted to call it the Suzy-Q, one son liked the Flying-W, and another other son wanted the Lazy-Y. So, we’re calling it the Bar-J-Suzy-Q-Flying-W-Lazy-Y.”
“But where are all your cattle?” asked the visitor.
“Well,” said the new New York rancher, “So far, none have survived the branding.”
Holten is the manager of The Drill and the
executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.