Rituals of the Open Range

THE CATTLE AND THE RANGE, there for the taking, invited Go-Getters to compete, but also brought them together. To make a living out of cattle you could not go it alone. We romanticize the “lone cowboy,” communing with his horse, with the landscape, and with himself. But it was no easier for the lone cowboy to prosper safely in the West than it was for a lone immigrant to cross the ocean, or for a westward-mover to cross the continent by himself. The very landscape somehow led men to rely on one another, and to invent new community rituals to sort out their property and hallow each man’s right to his own.

On the cattle trail, individual Americans who had recently faced each other on Eastern battlefields of the Civil War became reunited. “The Rebel,” wrote Andy Adams in his Log of a Cowboy, “was a good bunkie and a hail companion, this being his sixth trip over the trail.” It was a year before the two cowboys discovered they had been on opposite sides during the “late unpleasantness,” and by then “the Rebel” was an amiable nickname like any other. In little metropolises like Abilene, Northerners and Southerners found the mutual respect needed to make business prosper. In 1874, when back East the sectional passions of Reconstruction were still bitter, Joseph G. McCoy reported that transactions involving many thousands of dollars were made orally only, and complied with to the letter. “Indeed, if this were not so they would often experience great hardships in transacting their business as well as getting through the country with their stock…. the Western Cattle Trade has been no feeble means of bringing about an era of better feeling between Northern and Texas men by bringing them in contact with each other in commercial transactions. The feeling today existing in the breasts of all men from both sections are far different and better than they were six years ago.” Out West, beyond the force of settled laws, men were not bound by the political miseries of the more civilized East.

THE WEST WAS a good place for the refugee from older laws, but it offered no refuge from community. The cattleman’s drive north—from Texas to meet the railroad at Abilene or Dodge City—put cowboys under a near-military regime. A careless leader at the “point” or a sleeping sentry might mean disaster for the herd and death for the whole outfit. Men had to suppress their personal hatreds, confine their tempers, and submit to the strict law of the trail, otherwise they might find themselves abandoned or strung up or sent off alone hundreds of miles from nowhere.

The drives north were of course the longest and the most closely supervised of the cowboy’s organized efforts. But they were not the only ones. The rhythm of every year was fixed by another organized communal effort, a kind of cowboy rendezvous. The Western cattle business would not have been possible without widespread faith in its own signs and symbols, and a willingness to observe its rituals. These arose out of the peculiar conditions of the American West and out of this novel form of property: wild cattle caught to be fed on wild grass on a no man’s land.

Without benefit of law, ranchers had divided the range among themselves by a system that was informal, that had no standing in court, but was enforced by the cattlemen themselves. In the heyday of the cattleman—the two decades after the Civil War—each ran his stock on a portion of the range which he had taken for his own. Ideally one’s range would run from a stream bed up to the top of a ridge where another cattleman’s range began. The openness of the open range meant that no fence divided one man’s range from another’s, for in strict law it all belonged to everybody. These Great Plains “ranches” were measured not in acres but in square miles. Each rancher tried to keep his own stock inside his own pre-empted range by assigning a staff of cowboys to “ride the line” between his range and his neighbor’s. Stationed in twos in remote “line camps,” these line-riders patrolled the ranch borders, coaxing their owner’s cattle inward toward the center of his holding, while drifting the neighbor’s cattle in the other direction. But on the wide, unfenced range, the cattle did mix. There had to be a way of separating one man’s cattle from another’s, before they were driven to market.

Out of these needs of the open range, then, came the “roundup.” A time of separating one man’s property from another’s, it became the harvest festival, when each rancher discovered how much his herd had increased. The importance of these two functions—of separating and of harvesting—varied, of course, with time and place. In the early days of the dry Southwest when ranches were far apart, when ranchers commonly bounded the land they called their own by some stream bed, the roundup was mainly a time of harvest. And then the roundup was a relatively simple operation. A couple of neighboring ranchers would agree on a time and place when they drove all the surrounding cattle to a common meeting point. Such a roundup was strenuous and inevitably required miles of riding over rough terrain, but it did not require elaborate organization, since only a few owners were concerned.

The Great Roundup—a community ritual in the days of free grass on the Great Plains—was quite another matter. Dozens of cattlemen had allowed their stock to intermingle on the open range, and there had to be a sorting time. Under these circumstances the spring roundup required far-reaching organization. The state or territorial cattle association divided the range into districts, each to conduct its own roundup. The arduous work of the roundup was distributed among crews supplied by the cattlemen concerned, each outfit providing a number of cowboys proportionate to the size of its herd. These cowboys, once brought together, worked under a roundup captain or boss, commonly elected by the cowmen of the roundup district, which might be forty miles wide and a hundred miles long. Split up into bands which covered the countryside under the command of lieutenants, they drove to the rendezvous all the cattle they encountered, and the gathered cattle might number several thousand. In some little valley, then, the assembled cowboys would do their work, “cutting out” the cows and calves from the rest of the herd, and giving each calf the brand of the mother it followed. Cattle which carried the brand of a distant owner would be separated out so the cowboys could “throw them over”—set them drifting in the direction of the range of their owner.

Chasing the cows and calves up and down ravines and across country wore down the horses even before it wore out the men, and each cowboy would bring his own string of eight or ten horses. A cowboy on roundup, riding scores of miles, had to keep a steady seat on frisky horses alive with the smell of spring and alert to a wild landscape. He had to know how to manage cattle by the hundreds and by the individual. He had to sit a jumpy bronc while he wielded the rope to down a lively calf. Much as the skills of the joust became the sport of medieval knights, these skills of the roundup became the sport of the cattlemen.

The first name used for roundup was “rodeo.” It came from the Spanish rodear meaning “to surround,” the purpose of the cowboys being to surround and bring in all the cattle on the ranges. Only much later, after the open range had disappeared, did the skills of the roundup come to be practiced for their own sake, and “rodeo” came to mean an exhibition staged for the amusement of spectators. A rodeo then was nothing but a show-off roundup, demonstrating for dudes the strength and grace and skill which in the heyday of the open range had been witnessed only by the cowboys themselves.

While the spring roundup was a harvest ritual, it was also a ritual of ownership. And its climax was the branding—burning an owner’s mark into the hide of each recently-arrived calf. When the cattle had all been herded together, the mounted cowboy expertly “cut out” a cow and its calf, separating them from the herd. Then with his rope he downed the calf to drag it over to the branding men ready beside a fire. Glowing in the fire were a number of branding irons, each bearing the mark of one of the outfits in the roundup. The branding men glanced at the brand on the cow which the calf was following, then took the matching iron out of the fire. The smell and sizzle of the hide and the bawl of the calf announced that somebody’s herd had grown by one. A “tally man,” pencil in hand, recorded the numbers assigned by the roundup to each brand owner, and from this tally each rancher estimated his profits.

As spring brought the “calf roundup,” so the fall brought another, commonly called the “beef roundup.” Now the main purpose was to separate out the mature, fatted animals ready to be driven to the railhead to be turned into cash. In July or August, this would also be a cattleman’s harvest. But when men thought of the verve and excitement of the roundup they usually thought of spring in the air and the bawling, leaping dogeys all about.

Those who idealize the cowboy find in the roundup the supreme symbol of cowboy justice. A cattleman’s life was the years between his first and his last roundup. And the customs of the roundup showed a scrupulous concern to appropriate for each man his due. If the brands borne by a particular cow were too numerous or too confused to indicate one certain owner, its calf was not branded to any owner. Instead that calf was credited to the whole association, to help defray the common expenses. If one calf was mistakenly given the brand of the wrong owner, another calf was “traded back” in its stead, and given the omitted brand. If a cow was found with the brand of a remote rancher, it was “thrown over,” drifted toward his proper range. The whole ritual was designed to make public, formal, and regular each man’s appropriation of his own increase, clearly separating it from the intermixed herds which fed on the open range.

TROUBLED BY how to establish property in cattle if the land on which they roamed belonged to nobody in particular, cattlemen had fixed a new set of symbols, burned into the hide of each animal. They found a secure sense of property in these improvised documents of title. Where people and their cattle were on the move, far from courts and lawyers, paper documents were of little use. Who wanted to carry them? Where could they be safely stored?

Better make the cattle into their own documents of title. Then wherever a man took his cattle he could prove his ownership.

The technical literalism of a London chancery lawyer did not exceed that of a skilled cattleman interpreting the marks on a cow that bore many brands. The lore of cattle brands showed the technicality and subtlety that every society gives to its most sacred symbols. It was the cowboy’s iconography. While of course each man recognized his own brands and marks, it took knowledge, experience, and skill to assign the ownership of a much-branded animal.

A calf, at its first roundup, was branded by a red-hot iron carrying a pattern and pressed against its hide. But there were other ways and times of branding. The “running iron,” for example, was simply a straight poker, used like a pencil to draw any desired brand, which then was called a “running brand.” The “stamp iron,” shaped like a block of type, bore one particular “set brand” which was affixed with a single motion. Brands were of different sizes, but usually were not less than two inches high and four inches long, and not more than seven inches in either direction. Of course the brand grew with the animal, so that a brand which was only three inches high on a calf might measure twelve inches a few years later. Cattlemen, learning that too-large brands on the wrong part of the animal would reduce the value of the hides, burned their signs only on the hip, shoulder, or neck.

The particular design which a man chose for his brand was shaped by his own imagination and ingenuity, limited by choices already registered by others. At first there was only informal agreement on the assignment of brands, but by the 1880’s, territories and states issued official brand books. These books illustrated the brands and the part of the animal on which they were to be affixed, and indicated the other accompanying marks (such as an “earmark,” cutting off the left or the right ear, or both ears; or notching the dewlap). An owner might devise any combination of letters, figures, or doodles that struck his fancy, but since the brand was the hallmark of his ranch, he would have to live with it for years. At first the rancher might simply use his own initials, those of his wife or child, or of the name of his ranch, but after brands were registered by the hundreds, there were many interesting, whimsical, and cryptic combinations. One rancher, for example, adopted the brand “T M,” which, he explained, meant that his ranch was “Twenty Miles” from a saloon.

But whimsy could not freely rule, for it was important to have a brand that a thief could not easily alter. For example, the letter “C” could easily be changed into the letter “O” or into a zero; the letter “I” could be made into any one of a dozen other letters, or seem to become the number “1” when a numeral was placed after it. Various devices in the design such as crowding letters together, framing them in lines, or inserting a short horizontal mark in the open end, would make alterations difficult.

Cattle rustlers elaborated techniques for modifying brands. If a rustler actually managed to get employed as a branding man at a roundup, he might imprint a “slow brand” on some of the calves, without others knowing what he was doing. A “slow brand” was a brand that was not registered, and which the rustler had invented because it belonged to nobody. Handling the branding iron himself, he would burn it into the hide so lightly that it would soon disappear; then at his later convenience he would claim the calf by burning on his own registered brand. A simpler device was the “hair brand”—any brand so lightly applied that over it the rustler could later apply his own brand.

Brands were described in an esoteric lingo, and reading the brands aloud became a highly skilled exercise. Just as any rancher could decide how his own name should be pronounced, so he could also decide the order in which the elements of his brand were to be described. But there were some well-recognized conventions. Thus “A2” was called the “Big A Two.” “Lazy” was the word for an upended letter or one lying on its side; which made an “M” written vertically with a line underneath the “Lazy M Bar.” A piece of a curve enclosing a letter was called a “quarter circle.” A ring bisected by a vertical line was called a “buckle.” A letter like a “W” when drawn in curves was called a “Running W.” Two outward-curving lines on either side of a letter or numeral (say a 7) made it a “Flying 7.” There was a copious lexicon of terms—“wallop,” “whang-doodle,” “hogpen,” and others—which to the tenderfoot sounded like slang, but to the initiated cattleman had a precise technical meaning. “Ranch lingo is perfectly easy to understand,” a cowboy once remarked. “All you’ve got to do is know in advance what the other fellow means, and then pay no attention to what he says.”

The mystique of coats of arms was attached to the brands, which became subjects of an elaborate folklore. Take, for example, the principal brand of the great King Ranch—the Running W. No one knows precisely when Captain Richard King first put this brand on his stock, but he probably began using it in 1867, and it was officially registered in Nueces County, Texas, in 1869. While its technical name in the jargon of brands was the Running W, some preferred the more poetic Spanish name used by the local Mexicans—Viborita, or “Little Snake.” This figure of a wriggly reptile (which implied ¡Cuidado!—“Don’t Tread on Me!”) somehow kept away thieves and trespassers. A more prosaic explanation goes back to Captain King’s purchase of the stock of a certain William Mann in 1862, when he acquired three of Mann’s brands, one of them being the Running M. Trying to make the Running M distinctively his own, King simply inverted it into a running W. And this particular brand had a number of advantages: it was open-spaced, without any crossing of lines (where a deep spot in the brand burn attracted screwworms and might heal into a wide blur); it was especially easy to draw with a running iron (if a stamp iron was not at hand), and yet its wriggly shape made it hard to alter. At the same time it was appealingly simple and attractive.

Interpreting the hide of a much-branded cow, then, called for as much familiarity with jargon as the interpretation of an abstract of land title. A brand might indicate not only a particular owner, but a particular kind of transaction, and from all the signs together a knowledgeable cowboy could read the animal’s whole life history. Of course the first brand put on a cow, that of its first owner, had been burned on the calf at its first roundup. But often it was not easy to tell which was the first brand. The cow might also bear a “vent brand” or “counter brand,” a different version of the original owner’s brand, intended to be the first owner’s admission of the sale. Then, of course, came the brand of the new owner. Animals which had been in a drive were likely to carry a “road brand,” burned on at the beginning of the trip to help distinguish the herd from other animals encountered on the way. In Texas there were also special “county brands” (a different one for each Texas county) on the animal’s neck, prescribed by law to make a thief’s task more difficult. For then, unless the thief managed to alter the brand to another in the same county where the first brand was registered, he would have to change at least two brands on each stolen animal.

A skilled cowboy with the aid of brand books could know a lot about a cow without having to ask anybody any questions. He could tell in what Texas county the animal began its life, he could know how many different owners there had been, who they were and where they were located, he could see whether the animal had been driven north or had come by rail. It became a favorite Western witticism that “The critter didn’t amount to much, but sure carried a lot of reading matter.”

Many of the special problems of the West arose from those critters that bore no reading matter at all. These were commonly called “mavericks.” They took their name from Samuel A. Maverick (1803–1870), a Texas rancher who, for uncertain reasons, would not brand his calves. Some say he was simply negligent or indolent, others that he aimed to create the presumption that all unbranded animals were his. Whatever the reason, the word “maverick” came to signify any unbranded calf found without an accompanying mother. In the beginning of the cattle trade in Texas these belonged, of course, to whoever found them and first affixed his brand. But later custom allowed a cattleman to brand a maverick only if found on his own range. The temptation to create mavericks was hard to resist, and nobody knows how many orphans were created in the “maverick factories.” On the remote range any cowboy with an easy conscience and a six-shooter could quickly transform somebody else’s property into his own maverick by the simple process of shooting the calf’s mother.

The roundup, a public ritual, was designed to help cowboys resist these temptations. Branding was usually done in the presence of men from several ranches. Probably less theft was accomplished by misbranding mavericks than by altering the brands on mature animals. Among the new skills of the American West, few were more highly developed than those of the “brand artists” (also called “brand blotters” or “brand blotchers”). Unlike the indoor forger of paintings or antiques, the brand artist was in a wholesale business. While the penalty for a single detection was death and the profit from each individual forgery was small, a fast and skillful brand artist could build a herd in short order, and his forgeries were soon consumed or dispersed.

The incriminating instrument, the cattledom equivalent of a crowbar and burglar’s tools, was the “running iron,” the simple straight poker that could be used to make any desired design. The suspicions it raised were so general that Texas and some other states in the 1870’s actually prohibited its use. Anyway, the running iron was heavy and awkward to carry on the saddle, and prudent rustlers had other tools. Almost any piece of metal when heated, even a piece of a broken horseshoe, might serve to blot a brand and make it into another. A favorite forging tool, light and easy to conceal, was a length of baling wire or telegraph wire. When folded, it could be tucked into a pocket, yet could be twisted into many different brands, and the wire was thin enough to fit neatly into the healed scars of the brand to be altered.

The skillful brand forger knew not only his brands, but when and how to “work them over.” His addition of a line or two was least likely to be detected in the days after the roundup when many animals bore fresh scars. By putting a wet blanket or buckskin over the animal’s hide and burning his brand through it, he could make his marks match those legal brands that had been made in earlier seasons. Brand artists became so highly skilled that their misdeeds could not be casually detected from the outside of the living animal. Some states actually required butchers, on demand, to display the hides of the animals butchered. A butcher might be in trouble if the hide did not show, properly imprinted, the legal brand of a lawful seller.

Cattlemen and cowboys generally gave to the brand the combined respect owed to a totem, a hallmark, and a family crest. Ranches took their names from the brands their cattle bore, and cowboys identified themselves by the brand of their outfit. “I’m with the Circle Bar G.”

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