Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Running Iron

Cattle rustling was a pervasive crime in the early west, particularly when cattle were allowed to wander on huge unfenced leases, and frequently the first person to brand a new calf claimed it as his own - whether or not that was actually the case.  "The chief way of stealing calves was to pick them up one at a time and subject them to the so-called "running" or "round" iron.  A rustler would travel the range with a branding iron short enough that he could slip it into his bootleg when he needed to conceal it.  The iron had a round edge on one end that the rustler could use to fashion any brand he desired.  In 1906 the NWMP officer in charge at Lethbridge told his superiors that he was not sure whether rustling had increased in the past year but that he was 'inclined to think it has, judging by the rapid increase of some of the herds in this district ... The cattle rustler rides the ranges with a running iron strapped to his saddle generally in stormy weather and picks up calves which have arrived at the age to be easily weaned from their mothers.  It is only a work of a few minutes for these experts to rope a calf and drive it to some place where it is held till it would not be claimed by the mother, or recognized by the owner.'  As time went on, virtually any unmarked cattle - not just those from the great herds but from all the ranches, large and small - became fair game.  The Mountie quoted above added that "fortunately" for the running iron rustlers, 'a number [of ranchers] have settled in the district with small bunches of unbranded cattle.'  These cattle, he was insinuating, were being pilfered.  This measure was not just used on mavericks.  Even the rancher who had previously branded his cattle was not safe from the running iron as it was useful for changing brands.  Sometimes the rustler would simply obliterate the original mark on an animal by burning over it and then would replace it with his own brand.  Or he might alter or "vent" the existing mark.  The letter E could, for instance, be turned into a B by closing up the open side; or a D could be made into a B by adding a dividing line in the middle; Vs became Ws, Cs became Es, Ps became Bs, and so on.  In the 1870s and '80s the NWMP acted as recorders and distributors of brands, but many were not recorded.  Therefore, one caught in possession of cattle with a particular brand could claim that he had used it strictly for the purpose of telling his own animals from neighbouring herds." - from Cowboys, Gentlemen & Cattle Thieves by Warren M. Elofson.