When thinking of the American West the image of a laconic individual with the requisite boots, chaps, and hat comes to mind. We envision him on long cattle drives, riding along miles and miles of fences or on a great roundup. In our minds we can see the cowboy chasing down a hapless calf, roping and wrestling it to the ground by a campfire with branding irons in the flames. Another cowboy grabs it and burns the owners mark on its hip. It’s all part of the mystique of the cowboy, some of it romanticized in art and the movies; all of it based on reality and much of it still a part of a cowboy’s life.
There is evidence through prehistoric hieroglyphics that the branding of livestock occurred as early as ancient Egyptian times. Livestock branding came to the Americas in 1520 with the arrival of the Spanish explorers. The practice spread to Texas and then The Great Plains in the 1800’s. Today the practice of branding continues to be important in the ranching industry even with ear and electronic ID tags – it is a permanent identifier.
In the days of the open range, brands were seared into the hide of the calves during spring roundup. A few always got away and so in the early fall there would be another smaller roundup when those mavericks would get their brand. Each brand was unique; everyone now knew who that animal belonged to. During the rest of the year the cattle roamed freely with other herds and when it came time to get them to market, they had to be sorted. One got paid for the cattle that came into the stockyards with your brand. The practice of branding also protected against rustlers, although there were always those who found ways to claim property that wasn’t theirs.
In the late 1800’s the spring roundup in the badlands was quite the production. Teddy Roosevelt had two ranches during his time in western North Dakota and wrote extensively about the experience in his book, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail:
On cow ranches, or wherever there is breeding stock, the spring round-up is the great event of the season, as it is then that the bulk of the calves are branded….As soon as all the brands of cattle have been worked, and the animals that are to be driven along have been put in the day herd, attention is turned to the cows and calves, which are already gathered in different bands, consisting each of all the cows of a certain brand and all the calves that are following them. …. A fire is built, the irons heated, and a dozen men dismount to, as it is called, “wrestle” the calves. The best two ropers go in on their horses to catch the latter; one man keeps tally, a couple put on the brands, and the others seize, throw, and hold the little unfortunates.
The number of possible brands is almost infinite with all the combinations of letters and symbols available. Flourishes such as “wings” and “feet” are added, a myriad of symbols such as a bar and arrow can be included. The orientation can be changed; rotate a letter or symbol and its lazy, turn it upside down and its crazy, a letter can be “hanging”. The position on the animal is also a part of its distinctiveness. A brand is in fact an artform with great meaning and a language of sorts has developed over time. When reading a brand there is a “brandabetical” order; you read it left to right, top to bottom or outside in, depending on how the letters and symbols are linked. The stamp iron is forged to make this unique mark. Another kind of iron, the running iron “draws” the brand. This was a favorite of the rustler because it could be used to alter the mark and effectively change ownership of the animal.
Rustling has always been a problem and the birth of the North Dakota Stockman’s Association (NDSA) was a direct result of two NDCHF inductee’s effort in that ongoing battle. In June of 1929 a meeting of cattlemen in the Fort Berthold and surrounding area was put together by Andrew Johnston. The cattlemen had grown weary of the chronic rustling that was dogging their herds. John Leakey was elected president of the new organization. Each cattleman put in $5.00 to create a reward fund for those who provided information leading to the arrest and conviction of an individual for livestock theft. In the 1930’s brand inspection became part of its mission and in 1993 the state gave complete charge of brand recording to the NDSA. There is a certain romanticism of the iron heating over the open fire, but now days many ranchers use an electric iron, and as of August 1, 2019, freeze brands are also considered legal proof or ownership on cattle; prior to this date only hot iron brands were recognized in North Dakota.
Brands are often symbolic of a family’s heritage and passed from generation to generation they become a source of pride. Members of the NDCHF will have the opportunity to show off their brand on the wall of the Alvin Nelson Memorial Arena with the Brand and Burn fundraiser. Those who participate will help pay off the hall’s mortgage while showcasing their link to another iconic part of our great western heritage.