Day Trips

Livestock brands tell many stories of an industry and of families in the language of the plains

Texas state brand
Texas state brand (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Livestock brands tell many stories of an industry and of families in the language of the plains. Behind the marks of ownership are centuries of history at least as old as the Egyptian pyramids.

Spanish brands brought to Texas through Mexico were large and fancy, often concocted from the owners' initials. All of the missions in Texas had a brand registered in Mexico City. Stephen F. Austin's Spanish-style brand is still used by descendants in Brazoria County.

According to a law enacted during the days of the Republic, Texans register their brands at the county clerk's office in the county where the cattle are located. The same brand can be, and is, used in different counties by different ranchers. Sometimes the same brand is used but in a different location on the animal to signify a different owner.

According to Paula Archa at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which serves as a statewide depository of livestock brands, in the first four years of this decade there have been more than 700,000 brands registered, and the number is continually growing.

It is illegal to have a branded animal without registering the mark, but you don't have to own a single cow to register a brand. Counties charge less than $20 to register a brand, which must be renewed at the beginning of every decade. Registering a brand makes a nice present; for instance, Gov. Rick Perry registered the Rocking W brand in McLennan County for President Bush while he was busy with nonranching affairs.

The ideal brand is one that can not easily be altered by rustlers and can be read from a distance. Over the years, American livestock marks have developed a language all their own. Generally, the brands are read from left to right, top to bottom, or outside to inside. A mark laying on its side is "lazy," one that is leaning is "tumbling," and one sitting on a quarter circle is "rocking." The King Ranch's famous W brand is "running" because it has short curves at the end.

Try your hand at "callin'" or reading cattle brands at the Branding Wall in Colorado City. The 500-foot-long wall has more than 230 cattle brands that were used in Mitchell County. Thousands of head of cattle left Gonzales for the northern markets during the era of cattle drives that ended in 1886. Residents have remembered the great ranchers with brands burned into a wooden monument on the Gonzales County courthouse lawn.

Not only does the TSCRA serve as a statewide registry of brands, but they have 28 field agents acting as special Texas Rangers investigating rustling. Over the years, the agents have collected hundreds of branding irons that are housed in the Cattle Raisers Museum at 1301 W. Seventh St. in Fort Worth. Included in the collection are John Wayne's Bar 26 brand, Nolan Ryan's RN brand, and a brand of the Golden Arches used on the King Ranch for cattle destined to become hamburgers. The Cattle Raisers Museum is open Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm. For more information call 817/332-8551 or visit

From branding irons to barbed wire, see how the West was tamed at the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, east of Amarillo. The collection of ranching tools and Route 66 memorabilia can be seen Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm at 100 Kingsley St. For information, call 806/799-2225 or visit

South of Amarillo, in the college town of Canyon, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum houses a large collection of artifacts from the ranching industry and some of the largest ranches the world has ever known, like the XIT and JA ranches. To see the exhibits, which include the Plains Indians, drop by the museum at 2503 Fourth Ave. For information, call 806/651-2244 or visit

In Lubbock, the National Ranching Heritage Center fills a 30-acre site on the Texas Tech campus. Besides preserving windmills and buildings, the museum has a large collection of brands and other ranching equipment. The site is open Monday through Saturday, 10am-5pm, and Sunday, 1-5pm. For information, call 806/742-0498 or visit

723rd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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livestock brands, Paula Archa, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Rocking W, Branding Wall, Cattle Raisers Museum, Devil's Rope Museum, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the National Ranching Heritage Center

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