The practice of branding cattle is ancient. It is, in fact, older that Jesus Christ himself. What we know of the earliest livestock brands comes from paintings in Egyptian tombs, which depict a cattle roundup and branding from as early as 2700 BC. There are also references to the practice of branding cattle in Roman literature and in the Bible, namely with Jacob the herdsman.
Fast forward to the early 16th century as cattle are introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers, and the tradition of cattle branding came with them. The first recorded cattle brand is of three Latin crosses, which represented the brand of Hernán Cortés, one of the greatest of the conquistador in southern Mexico in the 1500s. As cattle raising grew, the crown ordered the establishment of a stockmen’s organization called Mesta throughout what was then referred to as New Spain in modern-day Mexico, and included several U.S. states, notably California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado and Oklahoma.
The practice of branding spreads like a pasture fire
While the practice of branding free-roaming livestock was soon taken up by cattle owners throughout the Americas, branding was made iconic by the Mexican vaqueros and Anglo cowboys of the American West. Early Anglo-American ranchers in Texas utilized the alphabet for their brands, as they were unable to interpret the brands used by Spanish and Mexican rancheros. The Texians often referred to these traditional brands as “dog irons” or “quién sabes” (Spanish for “who knows?”) since they could not be easily read. Most of the early brands of Texas, by contrast, were made of symbols and initials and could be read with greater ease.
The earliest Anglo cattle brand recorded in Texas is believed to be that of Richard H. Chisholm, and registered in Gonzales County in 1832, as the “H C Bar” brand. Still other early mission brands relied more on traditional pictograms, including those of Fernando de Leon in 1838, Simon Gonzales in 1839, Cesario Garza in 1850, and Placido Benavides in 1852. Following independence from Mexico, the Republic of Texas encouraged ranchers to register their cattle brands but did not require it until after Texas joined the United States in 1845. In 1848, the new State of Texas passed a law that cattle theft could only be prosecuted if stolen cattle bore a registered brand.
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