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Cattle Branding in Texas: Show Us Your Herd!

Sunday, April 19, 2020
By ALLISON HARRELL, Texian Time Machine & Outreach Coordinator

The Spaniards brought cattle with them to the New World (or America) in 1541. With the introduction of cattle to the ecosystem, they also introduced the occupation of ranching. Here in Fort Bend County, the Georges, Moores and Dews, to name a few, were all part of that grand tradition.

Like the Spanish before them, the Texian pioneers branded their cattle. Branding is a method of marking cows that can be traced back to the ancient world. (There are 4,000-year-old Egyptian paintings of cattle branding and it is even mentioned in the Bible!) Branding was important because, until the invention of the tattoo, it was one of the only ways that a person could differentiate their cows from the cows of another rancher.  Since most cattle ranged free much of the time, it was important to be able to establish ownership.

Early Texas brands.

Brands were important markers, and had to be unique to the owner. Richard H. Chisholm owned what might be the first recorded brand in Texas. To help keep track of each brand and ensure no markings were doubled, ranchers were required to register their brand with the government. Registration became even more important in 1848, when provisions were passed stating that unless a brand was registered with the county clerk, it was not a valid legal means of establishing ownership of a cow. Since that time, a great deal of legislation has gone into the finer points of branding — including the punishments for branding over someone else’s brand or using someone else’s brand in general.

Traditionally, brands were placed on the left hip of the cow (though the placement is not set by law).

Sometimes ear marks were used in addition to or instead of a brand. These were most popular among the early settlers of New England. An ear mark was a cut made into the ear of the cow, where shape and location functioned as a brand unique to the rancher. These ear marks were also registered with the government. In Texas, some ranchers used both the ear mark and the brand to identify their cattle, and both needed to be registered. Ear mark registries were filled with colorful language to describe the cuts that were made into the ears; each cut type and shape had a name to assist in the description. (The “jinglebob” was considered “one of the most hideous earmarks ever devised” and was unique to John Chisum of west Texas.)

This photograph from our collections, dating from 1945-1955, shows Pete Frost branding the wall with the “O” brand belonging to Polly Ryon.

Cattle were ready for branding somewhere between the ages of six months to a year. Calves were typically tied down in a pen, or roped and held down, for the duration of the branding.To ensure the clearest brand possible, a number of factors come into play:

  • You have to use a hot iron to brand, but you shouldn’t get the brand red hot, because this can start a hair fire on the cow.
  • The iron should be the color of ashes, and it is best if it is heated with a wood fire, and not a forge or a coal fire.
  • You should never brand a damp or wet animal, because this can create scarring that makes your brand difficult to read. Likewise, a brand should not be too thin because it can cut into an animal and scar it. 
  • It is considered bad form and can be illegal to brand over an existing brand. It is also illegal to use an unregistered brand.

In Texas, brands must be registered with the county clerk’s office. For a $5 fee, you can register your brand for 10 years. You must specify the symbol itself and the location it will be placed on the cow.

Create Your Own Brand and Show Us Your Herd!

Now it’s your turn!