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"Burn ‘Em and Boot ‘Em"

Branding and Branding Irons


Kelley Pounds

When dreams of gold didn’t materialize, Hernando CortÚs chose the lush valley of Mexicalzimgo and turned to stock raising. His brand, three Latin crosses, was probably the first used in New Spain.

Soon other Spaniards began to raise cattle, and within a few years the animals grew so plentiful and were allowed to roam so freely that they destroyed crops and trampled fields, in turn driving native farmers from their land. As a result, the Spaniards fought over land rights and disputed ownership of cattle. It became common for a Spaniard to claim unbranded strays and brand them as his own, a practice known centuries later as "mavericking," and even later as "rustling."

In an effort to resolve these problems and keep peace, the town council of Mexico City established an organization known as the Mesta on June 16, 1529. The Mesta, patterned after a similar institution in Old Spain, is the ancestor of today’s organized stockmen’s associations and livestock boards. Many current laws regarding the marking of cattle for the purpose of showing ownership are variations and adaptations of regulations first established in New Spain over four hundred years ago.

Before barbed wire separated one ranch from the next, cattle mingled without a care as to what brand they wore. Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, roundups were held to gather and sort the scattered animals. Calves were branded in the spring, just as they are today on most ranches.

With the goal of catching a calf to brand, a cowboy would ride into the rounded-up herd, single out a cow accompanied by her unbranded calf, and nudge her away from the group. Once he had separated, or "cut," the cow and her calf from the herd, the cowboy would rope the calf and drag it either by the neck or the hind legs to the branding fire, where "flankers" and hot irons awaited.

If the calf reached the branding fire with the rope around its neck, a flanker would reach across the calf’s back, grab it by the flanks, lift up its body with his knee to knock its legs out from under it, then drop the calf to the ground. While the flanker holds the calf down, sometimes with the help of another hand, another cowboy burns in the brand.

Depending on the complexity of the brand and the ranch owner’s preference, the cowhand might use either a dotting iron or a stamp iron. A dotting iron is used to put the brand on one part at a time—one iron for the semi-circle, another iron for the Lazy T, and so on. A stamp iron is just what its name implies—a long-handled tool with the entire brand design like a stamp on the end that can be burned into the hide in one application.

Drawing or stamping a brand well requires practice, especially if the heat source isn’t constant. Brand too light and quick and you might have a hair brand—a brand that either just singes off the hair (often a rustler’s technique), or doesn’t go deeply enough into the hide to be read once the surface wound peels and heals. Brand too deeply and the hide scars so badly that the surrounding hair won’t grow back in well enough to cover the scar and create that impression that the hair itself has created the brand’s design.

Stamp irons are the most frequently used irons, but they still have their drawbacks. If a design has tight corners, the heat will often concentrate in those corners and blotch the brand, making it harder to read. It is for this reason that many ranchers use a running iron, despite the running iron’s early reputation as a rustler’s tool.

A running iron has no stamp on the end. Instead, it is either a plain rod or a tool ending with a hook or curve, suitable for drawing on a brand. Running irons were outlawed in Texas in the 1870s. Even so, there were those who carried running irons in their boot, or "rode with an extra cinch ring." A cinch ring, being curved, provided an excellent makeshift tool for drawing on whatever "slow brand" came to a rustler’s mind.

Today, with pastures separated by fences, branding practices vary widely. While some ranchers catch cattle in the corrals as they come up to water, others still have large roundups and take advantage of the help offered by hands from neighboring spreads. Some——like my husband and his father and brothers——prefer to work the cattle with no outside help. On many ranches the branding fire has been replaced by a propane heater or an electric generator hauled from one pasture to the next in the back of the feed truck.

Many ranchers may have traded their horses for pickup trucks and their flankers for a cage-like tilting branding table, but some things about working cattle and branding have not yet changed. The smell of singed hair. The pain of a rope burn through your gloves. The relief of a worried mama as she sniffs and licks her newly branded calf, whose frightened bawls have suddenly quieted into an immediate tail-wagging need for milk.



Dictionary of the American West, by Winfred Blevins

Cowboys of the Wild West, by Russell Freedman

Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries, by David Dary

The Cowboy: an Unconventional History of Civilization on the Old-Time Cattle Range, by Philip Ashton Rollins

This article first appeared in the LERA Lyrics.  It later appeared in the the Read the West E-Zine at




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terms used to locate this page:  cattle brands, branding, cattle branding, mesta, mavericking, rustling, rustlers, barbed wire, roundups, roundup, Hernando Cortes, New Spain, dotting iron, stamp iron, hair brand, running iron