In the not too distant past when a person was asked, “what is your brand?” the question was usually referring to a choice of cigarettes. However, the word “brand” had a different meaning to early settlers in the Dewitt Colony.
Among the first families to begin cattle ranching along the Guadalupe were the Sowell and Ezekiel Smith families. Brands came into use in the early 1830s when the first settlers began arriving and building their homes in the Guadalupe River Valley.
The branding of livestock didn’t begin in our valley. This practice dates to the Egyptians around 2700 BC along the Nile. That practice spread to Europe during the middle ages, was used in England in the eighth century and later brought to today’s southwestern states by the Spanish in the 1500s.
The burning of a brand on livestock at that time was the only method of identifying ownership. The brand of Hernan Cortes may have been the first used in the western hemisphere when he brought his first cattle from the Caribbean Islands in 1520 with his brand of three Latin crosses. By 1529 the growing number of livestock in the new country made it necessary to organize the first ranching organization.
Spain ordered the establishment of a stockman’s organization called “Mesta” throughout Mexico. Each cattle owner had to have a different brand, and each brand had to be registered in what was probably the first brand book in North America which was kept in Mexico City. Most Spanish brands were simple, and as each son was born, a curlicue would be added to the original, and this would become the family brand.
The Spanish method of cattle ranching in Texas began when Don Juan Onate’s men herded more than 1,000 head of cattle across to El Paso in April 1598. Later Spanish missions assembled large herds of cattle into Texas, and by the end of the eighteenth century, more than a million head of cattle grazed north of the Rio Grande. By 1770, approximately 40,000 cattle grazed between the Guadalupe River and the San Antonio Rivers.
Richard Chisholm may have owned the first recorded brand among the early settlers which was registered in Gonzales in 1832. The state of Texas began requiring ranchers to register their brands in 1848 to reduce rustling. Gail Borden (Borden Dairies) registered his brand in 1839, in the Galveston County brand book. During the first few years of brand registration in the Guadalupe River valley, the brands were kept in the same book as the marriage license, declaration of citizenship, oaths of office, wills and building permits by the county clerk.
Cattleman C.C. Slaughter was instrumental in organizing the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Ranchers Association during the 1850s. One of the largest brands was the famous XIT brand which once covered ten counties.
In the Guadalupe Valley, there were two different types of brands; letter brands and device brands. The first group of brands was simply the owner’s initials, and the left hip became the customary spot for the brand. In addition to the brands, some ranchers marked their cattle with earmarks, which were used by most cattlemen during the open-range days. The earmark was a design cut into one or both ears.
The old song Ghost Riders in the Sky had the words, “their brands were still on fire, and their hooves were made of steel” described the old-time balladeer’s lives on the range.
As the size of herds grew, the brand became more important when there was a danger of intermingling between differently owned herds on the open range. In 1879 the state legislature passed a law whereby brands could not be duplicated within the state.
Samuel Maverick had problems with his widespread holdings, and many cattle were not branded. Neighbors began referring to any unbranded cattle as “one of Maverick’s.”
Among the longest continuously used brands in Texas is the Running W of the King Ranch, which was originated by Richard King in 1869. Paris Smith in Seguin used his initials with a distinct “S” with the top of the “P” in the bottom curve of the “S” and registered it with the Guadalupe County Clerk in 1854. The first brand in Guadalupe County was registered by William Gay in 1846, shortly after the county organized.
Mrs. Susan Smith was the first woman to raise cattle in Guadalupe County and had a brand with two hearts that touched which she registered in 1853. In 1866, Texan George Washington registered his brand, which had three circles, one following the other in a line.
James Caldwell recorded the diamond with a circle inside in 1857. Claiborne West, one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, recorded his “HS” brand with the county clerk in 1855.
John Ireland, later governor of Texas, registered his brand “D,” in Guadalupe County in 1851. His famous Rocking Chair brand was recorded in 1873, and a bar was added later under the chair.
In 1881, George Loving published “The Stock Manual” in Fort Worth, Texas. It contained the name, post office address, ranch location, marks and brands of all major stockmen of western and northwestern Texas.
Today the county clerk in each of the state’s 254 counties maintains the cattle brand registries. It costs $5 to register a brand for 10 years, and once expired, the brand must be renewed for the same fee.
So how did anyone describe a brand? Sometimes they were letters, numbers, symbols, lines, or initials of the owner. Signs on entrance gates or sometimes over the door of a barn would be the brand burned into the wood to show everyone their pride of ownership. Today ear tags, implanted chips, brands and ear cuts mark ownership of farm animals.