STOP SNORTIN’ and fussin’ and sayin’: “Why, shore I can read brands! Ain’t I been born and raised on a ranch and ain’t I been handlin’ critters all my life?”

Written by By Jay Mack, February 1951


Mister, all that still doesn’t mean you can read brands. Oh, I’ll admit you can read the brands in your own neighborhood and maybe a few you’ve seen when you took your herd to market. Even so, ‘fess up, didn’t you have to ask the cowpokes riding herd on cattle from other parts of the state how their brands read? Or suppose some newcomer bought a spread in your own neighborhood and slapped this brand SquiggleBrand on his cattle; could you read it? I doubt it, because this particular brand was read incorrectly by the person in charge of brands of the state in which it is registered! Yet, state registrars can hardly be blamed for reading brands incorrectly because a brand owner can write one name on his brand application but still call it another name. Proof of this is in a letter sent to me from a certain Western state to which I had sent a list of brands asking for correct readings of them. The brand clerk admits in the letter: “These are only our names for the state for the said brands.”

About the most interesting story I’ve ever read concerning the difficulty in reading brands is the one where a group of vaqueros, driving a herd of cattle north from Mexico was approached by some American cowhands and asked how to read their (Mexican) brand QuienSabe  whereupon the vaqueros replied: “Quien sabe ?” They themselves couldn’t name it, although this isn’t too strange, as Mexicans, more so than Americans, use flowery designs rather than letters and symbols for brands. Incidentally, the Quien Sabe brand is now registered in practically every Western state.

The first time this difficulty in correctly reading brands came to my attention happened while conversing with a brand inspector and a group of ranchers. We had all been looking over a brand chart and taking turns reading them. One particular brand CrossL  was read by a rancher from Texas as Bar L. Immediately one of the other ranchers, owner of a ranch in California, said: “You’re wrong; that is a Cross L.” Both men were proved to be right after brand books of Texas and California had been checked.

Someone once asked me: “Why is it that all similar brands, no matter in which states they are registered, nor by whom owned, couldn’t be named alike?” The only logical answer that I could give them was that long before anyone had ever thought of a county or state registration of brands in order to avoid complications in round ups or at the stockyards, ranchers were branding and had their own names for their brands. Even when the states started registering brands it would have been too difficult and much too dangerous to tell ranchers who had been branding for years prior to registration of brands that they should call their brands by names given to them by a brand commission. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell some rancher: “You will have to change the name of your brand Screwplate  from the Screwplate to the Bar Diamond Bar.” That would be the same as telling Joe Jones, of Waco, Tex.: “You look exactly like Bill Smith of Reno, Nev., so henceforth you will be known as Bill Smith.” Man, it would be safer to jump into a nest of rattlers! Why, that poor devil would be so hated even the cattle would snarl at the mere mentioning of his name.

The state registrars in all the states that publish brand books are to be highly praised for the remarkable accomplishment in explaining and arranging the thousands upon thousands of brands recorded by them. It is by no means an easy job; it’s not enough to have to deal with a disgruntled new ranch owner who is told he can’t register the first brand he sends to them, because there is one exactly like it already recorded; they get complaints as to how a certain brand was printed: it wasn’t slanted correctly; if the brand included a bar the bar was too long; if a slash it was too short. Or some maverick will harass them with a letter attacking their suggestions for reading brands, left to right, top to bottom, saying he has a friend who reads his brand from right to left. With a state full of brands to care for, is a brand commissioner to worry about the whimsy of an individual? Notwithstanding these weak criticisms, the brand commissioners and registrars can be justly proud of their brand books in which they arranged and cataloged so well one of the most interesting and intricate languages of the world.

Read “Rites of Spring” 

Not a subscriber? Click here to subscribe to Western Horseman magazine.


Write A Comment