Search This Blog

Monday, October 26, 2020

Rebranding Cattle Rustler Style

 by Patti Sherry-Crews

Running Iron
This metal object might look as innocent as a candy cane, but getting caught on the range with this sticking out of your bedroll might put you on the receiving end of some frontier justice, strung up from the nearest tree. No judge, jury, or trial necessary. For there is only one thing this curved rod is used for and that's altering a brand on stolen cattle. It's called a running iron. (the one pictured above pulls apart into two pieces for easier concealment)

But before we get into why the running iron became the cattle rustler's favorite tool, let's put it in the context of cattle ranching practices in the old west.

Back in the day of the open range, cattle would roam freely, often mixing with herds belonging to other ranchers. When it was time for a cattle drive, the cowboys would "cut" the cows belonging to them from the rest of herd. But how did they know which animals belonged to them? Like it or not, that's where a red hot branding iron came in handy.

Branding Iron

The branding iron, opposed to the running iron, was made to stamp a ranch's unique brand into the hide. The symbols used have a language of their own. Variations to any one symbol could generate almost limitless names.  For instance an upside down letter was "crazy." A letter on it's side was "lazy". A half circle under a symbol made it "rocking". And then you had your bars, stars, numbers, and wings. I'm guessing the brand pictured above is a "flying W" given the wings.

In the early days cattle rustling wasn't quite as serious a crime as it was to become. In fact, that's how many ranchers started or increased their herds.

But then came the harsh winters of 1886-7. Ranchers caught unprepared for the deep snows that buried the cattle's food source, grass, for months had their herds almost wiped out due to starvation. After that, the disadvantage of open range ranching became painfully obvious. Instead cows were kept in fields behind barbed wire fencing, and hay was grown and stored for feed.

The emergence of the cattle barons in the late 19th century changed the landscape yet again. These large operations had no patience with the smaller ranch holders and their cattle rustling ways. They hired "regulators" to impose order. These regulators also known as "Stock Marshals" or "Stock Detectives" were man like hired gun, Tom Horn (later himself hung for murdering a defenseless boy in cold blood). These regulators used violence and intimidation to rid the land of small ranchers--cattle rustlers or not.

Now that we see why you didn't want to get caught with a running iron, you may be wondering how it worked. As "running" implies the hot iron was used to write on rather than stamp the hide. With a running iron an "F" could easily be turned into an "E" by the addition of a bar, for instance. Sometimes a wet blanket placed over the brand aided in blending the old with the alterations.  In a pinch a running iron could be improvised using any metal handy: wire, horseshoe, saddle cinches, or railroad ties. But these crude attempts were less likely to fool the stock detectives who kept a book of registered brands on them for reference.

The ingenuity of the rustler to alter brands is illustrated in the theft of cattle from the XIT ranch in Texas. The XIT operation was run by a British syndicate owned by Charles B. and John V. Farwell. One would think the XIT brand would a hard brand to disguise. Think again.

Incorporating a star and a bar cleverly hid the cattle barons brand, reminding us that whether it's the old west or modern day, there's always going to be somebody who finds a way around rules and regulations. Folks are clever that way.

Excerpt from His Unexpected Companion by Patti Sherry-Crews:

She stilled suddenly and swore under her breath, her

sights focused on something in the distance. Smoke curled

up in the air from an area a fire had no place being. She

strode over to Aces who was drinking from the trough where

she’d tied him and patted her shotgun shoved behind the saddle.

“Sorry about this. I know we just got back, but there’s

something I have to tend to.” She untied the horse, stepped

into the stirrup, and swung into the saddle.

She rode hard, closing the gap, all her senses on alert. But

as she got nearer and saw who was poking at the fire, she

saw this wasn’t a situation calling for a shotgun—just a


“What do you think you’re doing?” she shouted.

Mack and another ranch hand, Zeke, had already stilled

when they heard the horse approach. They stood there now

like two errant schoolboys caught out. Zeke shoved his

hands in his pants pockets and lowered his head, a plug of

tobacco bulging in one cheek.

Mack waved around at the head of cattle corralled into a

box canyon behind him. “We’re fixing to burn brands into

these cows. What does it look like?”

Olivia looked at the implements used to change the

brands on cattle: the wet blanket, the lariat coiled on the

ground, and the running iron heating in the fire. “I’m sorry.

I asked the wrong question. The question I meant to ask is,

have you lost the sense that God gave you?” She pointed at

the running iron, a long rod with a curled end used for alter-

ing brands. “If you even get caught with that it’s hanging


“No, look, Vee, this is real clever.” Wearing heavy raw-

hide gloves, Mack pulled the rod out of the fire. “You see

how it comes apart into two pieces so you can hide it easily.”

“You spent money on that? I always use a piece of bent

wire. That way, nobody can catch you out with something

made to alter a brand.”

“Yeah, but the results look crude, in my opinion. When I

use the running iron, you’d be hard pressed to tell it wasn’t

the original brand.”

“You should see what Mack does. It’s real artwork the

way he can turn any brand into your rocking star so nobody

can see it used to be something else,” said Zeke.

“I’m aware of Mack’s talent. That’s not my point.”

Mack frowned, disappointed to not be able to show off

his new tool. “What is your point?”

“The point is, Mack, that this is the kind of thing that got

my father killed. Those cows have a brand from the Lazy R

ranch. These fellas aren’t playing around. And you, with a

baby on the way. Who’d you steal the cattle from?”

Available at Amazon


  1. Fascinating level of detail here. Loved the examples of fake brands and picture of the instruments used. This was right up my street. Thank you.

    1. Thanks C.A. I can't imagine such an undertaking as stealing cattle!

  2. Great post and loved the excerpt. Doris

  3. Cattle rustlers were certainly creative in the ways they changed the brands on their stolen cattle.
    I learned quite a lot from your post, Patti.

    1. That what I thought too, Sarah! Some of those rustlers were talented and creative! You'd have to have a steady hand. Thanks for stopping by!