History of Brands


The American custom of cattle branding was adopted from Mexico, though inscriptions on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs indicate that cattle were branded as early as 2000 B.C. The original Spanish brands were, as a rule, complicated, and beautifully rich in design, but not always practical. The early Spanish brands in Texas were more generally pictographs than letters. 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 his 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.

The early American ranchers wanted more simple designs that were easy to remember, easily made, that did not blotch, and that were hard to alter. There has never been anything to take the place of a visible brand as a permanent definitive mark of ownership and deterrent to theft. Livestock people say “a brand’s something that won’t come off in the wash.” In the American west, cattle branding evolved into a complex marking system still in use today.

At one time, there were no fences in the vast ranges of the west. And even today some cattle graze in “open range.” With unique brands, cattle owned by multiple ranches can graze freely together on the range. The roundup permits separation of each owner’s stock.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of cattle brands registered in the United States. A brand must be registered with the State Brand Inspector. This makes it possible for the same brand to be used in different parts of the country by more than one owner.

In the infant days of the cattle industry, ranchers used large, outsized brands that nearly covered an animal’s entire body. Later, when cattle hides began to bring a good price, this practice gave way to the smaller, carefully forged stamping iron that left a neat, easy-to-read mark—usually on the left hip or high on the left ribs.

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 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.


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. 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!


One of the most serious criminal offenses in cattle country is rustling — the stealing of another man’s cattle. Rustlers change brands in an attempt to transfer ownership of cattle. They use a “running iron”—a round-surfaced piece of metal which can be heated and used to trace a freehand change in the original brand. In the early days, a saddle cinch ring was often used as a running iron. It was easy to carry, and could be handled by placing a green tree branch through the center. Old-time justice for apprehended rustlers was swift and sure. The penalty for getting caught running a brand was usually a “necktie party” held beneath the nearest tree.


Most cattle brands in the United States are composed of capital letters of the alphabet, numerals, pictures, and characters such as slash /, circle O, half-circle , cross +, _bar, etc., with many combinations and adaptations. Letters can be used singly, joined, or in combination’s. They can be upright, lying down or “lazy”; connected or combined; reversed; or hanging. Figures or numbers are used in the same way as the letters. Reading a brand aloud is referred to as “calling the brand.”

There are three accepted rules for reading brands.

  1. Read from the left to the right as ML.
  2. Read from the top to the bottom as bar M.
  3. When the brand is enclosed, it is read from the outside to the inside as circle S.

The reading of a brand, especially the more complicated ones, in one locality or state may not correspond to the way it is read elsewhere.

- From “The History of Cattle Brands and How to Read Them”, 1957 brochure of the Carter Oil Company.

In addition to the early use of personal brand books, another method of making ranchers aware of the owners of brands was to publish them in the newspaper. In an article in the Owyhee Avalanche in 2003, they shared excerpts from a newspaper article published in the Idaho Daily Avalanche on May 8, 1876. This was shortly before the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association was formed in 1878.

Some brand owners were names familiar in the early history of Owyhee County. The MJ brand of Matt Joyce; Enos and Dorsey triangle brand on the left hip of cattle owned by Dorsey and right hip of those owned by Enos; Cornelius Shea S brand on left hip; and Silas Skinner SS brand on left hip. All stock growers were urged to send in their brands to be published.

In 1968, the Owyhee Brand Book was compiled by the Owyhee Cowbelles. In the days where there were distinct lines between organizations for men and those for women, the Cowbelles worked on a multitude of service projects benefiting communities throughout Owyhee County and the state. The preparation of this brand book was one of their service projects.


OCA Brand for ChecksIn the early 1950’s, County Extension Agent Ralph Samson mentioned to Mrs. Rodney Hawes of Marsing that it would be nice for the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association to have a symbol for their organization in the form of a brand. Mrs. Hawes designed the Owyhee or “OYE” brand and it was officially adopted shortly thereafter.

Sometime prior to 1968, members of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association began making a brand block of the brand of members and displaying them at the schoolhouse in Silver City, the location of their annual summer meeting. About 2003, the brand blocks were removed during the renovation of the schoolhouse. At that time, the OCA Board of Directors decided to hang the brand blocks in the Community Hall in Oreana, where their winter meeting is held each year in February. Rather than remove and again relocate the brand blocks once the restoration of the schoolhouse was complete in 2006, a duplicate set of the brand blocks was made and there is now a complete set in each location.

The first brand block is, fittingly, the OYE brand of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association. The second block is the AL bar brand of Walter Morgan, OCA President in 1964, and OCA life member in 1994. Walt was born and raised near South Mountain. His father died when he was 11 and Walt later purchased the family ranch. He was instrumental in organizing the Jordan Valley Big Loop Rodeo, serving as president for 10 years, and was active in that organization for many years. Walt raised cattle and horses on the ranch until he passed away in 2001.

We are trying to compile as much information as we can find regarding the brands, ranches, and people who owned them. If you could provide us with any information, we would greatly appreciate it. The brands are listed both in numerical and in alphabetical order by name of owner. Thank you for your help in completing this historical project.

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