Out here in the West, roaming cattle, sheep, goats, wild horses and other livestock are a not so uncommon sight. Have you explored the possibility that these animals may carry a sign of your family history? If your genealogy brings you to cowboy country, then mosey on through the world of Livestock Branding with me.
The history of livestock branding goes back as far as 2700 B.C. in Egypt. The ancient Greek and Roman societies all branded their animals, also. The purpose of course is to identify who the animal belongs to, and hopefully, deters theft. Brands, a unique design registered to individuals or businesses, are stamped onto the animal, and are a permanent mark of ownership.
Brands were brought to North America primarily through Spanish and Mexican influence, and the traditional brand was complicated and intricate in design. Often, a family crest was used. Seeking a simpler pattern and easier process, ranchers across the United States and Canada sought patterns that were composed of capital letters, numbers, and easy to read characters. Slashes ( / ), a cross ( + ), bar ( _ ), or a half or full circle are commonly used. The possibilities are truly endless, as these elements can be designed in any combination, shape, orientation, etc. Brands are read from left to right, top down or from outside inside. Additionally, if a letter or symbol is backwards, it is read as “reverse”. There are also tumbling, lazy, running, flying, walking, rocking and connected symbols. Truly, branding is its own language.
Before registration systems were in place, cowboys carried “brand books”, which contained hand drawn copies from local herds, notes of stolen or missing cattle, and sketches of trail and drive information. Anything he might need while herding through the area’s terrain.
How does all of this help you in your genealogy research? In order for a brand to work – meaning, in order for the animal to be identified by the brand and returned to the owner – the brand must be registered with the state that the rancher resides in. Wyoming, as an example, began recording brands in 1909 within a state office, and prior to that, they were registered at the county level. The current requirements for registration at minimum include name(s), address, phone number, and what type of business you own.
Few states have their records online, though Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Oregon are a few that have digitized information or indexes. The majority of state offices publish a Brand Book, but these are current indexes of brands and their registers, and are typically provided for a fee. If your family ranched for several generations, its possible that the brand is still registered with the state, and that the same symbol was used for the duration. However, if that is the case, you probably already know about it. Most states have a renewal policy within five years.
Finding the historical records requires a bit more digging, and typically means a site visit to an archives or records center. The information available in this source varies by state, but if you know the name of the rancher, you can usually find the associated registered brand.
Australia, New Zealand and Canada all have similar resources available within their regional government agencies.
Another option for searching brands is the local newspaper. It was very common for ranchers to publish their symbols in the newspaper, as if running an advertisement, to notify their neighbors. These were often listed as a “Brand Directory”, and identified the owner, their location, the name of the ranch affiliated, and a description with image of the brand itself, noting placement on the animal as well.
Take advantage of your ranching past. Find out how the livestock grazing around your family tree can help you, by researching one of the most iconic symbols of the cowboy culture.
Photo Credit: Janne Karin Brodin / Stock.Xchng