Though I was born in Georgia and raised throughout the southeast United States, I’ve lived in New York City since 1989. So I think I qualify as a bona fide city dweller at this point, thoroughly urban if only marginally urbane. My ancestors, on the other hand, are a different matter. With rare exceptions, they were rural farmers from the colonial period to the early twentieth century. So when I switch from urban-based client work to rural-based personal research, I really have to shift gears.
I suppose that preface is an indirect way of clearing my throat before giving voice to a confession I’d rather not have to make. But it’s the truth, so here goes: Forgive me, NGS Monthly readers, for I have sinned. I have never attempted to use marks or brands in researching my rural farming ancestors. I know, I know. What on earth is wrong with me?
If confessing a genealogical sin is the first step toward genealogical redemption, the second step is to come up with a plan to educate myself so I can rectify that sin. I’ll keep an eye out for upcoming conferences, where lectures about the topic are presented from time to time. But I don’t have to wait for such a lecture to be scheduled and presented. I can start learning at home on my own schedule with a simple search of the NGSQ Archives. It takes no time at all to find an excellent primer: Kathleen W. Hinckley’s 1991 “Pilgrims, Farmers, and Ranchers: Marks and Brands as a Genealogical Source.”
What are marks and brands? Hinckley’s section on terminology gives the definition of several terms, two of which are the following:
EARMARKS, which are made by cutting slits, grooves, notches, and holes into the ears of animals. According to the manner in which the marks are made, they are called right or left underslopes, overslopes, swallow forks, overbits, underbits, double-bits, crops, over-and-under half-crops, and grubs.
CATTLE BRANDS, which are made by searing some spot on an animal’s hide with the emblazoned tip of a heated iron. Popular designs have centered upon numbers, letters, symbols, slashes, dots, circles, part-circles, diamonds, boxes, and triangles. They are referred to as leaning, lazy, walking, crazy, broken, flying, reversed, hanging, or connected—according to the character of the design. When a combination of elements is used, they are read from left to right, from top to bottom, or from outside to inside.
These are not the only kinds of brands and marks your ancestors may have used, but they give you an idea of the types you may encounter in your research. As for the genealogical value of these practices and their attendant records, Hinckley’s introduction zeroes in:
- they can identify individuals;
- they can imply or explicitly state relationships;
- they can track migrations;
- then can locate land with detailed descriptions;
- and they can document the presence of those who did not own land or who were only temporarily resident.
The author continues with a brief history of brands and marks in America, noting that they were used not just out West, but in every colony and state over the centuries. Legislation regarding the practice varied from colony to colony, state to state, the earliest dating from 1644/5 for the colony of Connecticut. Town or county clerks were usually responsible for record-keeping, but some statewide registrations were established as early as 1885 (Colorado) and as late as 1939 (Kansas). Effective research in brands and marks, unsurprisingly, demands familiarity with the laws for the area you’re researching.
Records related to brands and marks are also discussed, specifically estray registrations, personal brand books, and cattlemen’s association records. Especially useful is Hinckley’s section on transliterating certain brands, revealing otherwise hidden surnames, place names, fraternal organizations, personal initials, merging estates, and cadency marks. What are cadency marks, you may ask? Borrowed from heraldic terminology, cadency marks in branding are those “variations on a theme” that illustrate one’s relationship to the owner of the original brand. Tracing those variations can illuminate significant portions of an extended family.
Three case studies are also briefly presented, illustrating how to use these records to uncover indirect evidence of death or migration, for example, amongst the frequent direct evidence of specific relationships. The final section, Locating the Records, guides readers through the process of finding original records, published resources, published brand books, and biographical aids.
In closing her article, Hinckley effectively encapsulates how significant these brands and marks were to our ancestors and how broadly they were used:
A cattle or crop brand was a form of family crest, not just burned into the hides of animals and bundles of tobacco but also engraved on the table silver, monogrammed on the family linens, painted on the barn or bunkhouse, tooled onto the leather of a belt or saddle horn, stamped on homemade butter, and forked into pies. The attending customs, legislation, and enforcement of these brands and marks in America have produced a variety of records to reward the diligent researcher who cherishes this aspect of family history and recognizes its potential for resolving genealogical problems.
If you too have committed the sin of never using brands and marks in researching your rural ancestors, you now know how to repent. Read Hinckley, go forth, and sin no more.
Kathleen W. Hinckley, “Pilgrims, Farmers, and Ranchers: Marks and Brands as a Genealogical Source,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (December 1991): 253–266; PDF, NGSQ Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives : 22 August 2018).
Kathleen W. Hinckley, “Pilgrims, Farmers, and Ranchers: Marks and Brands as a Genealogical Source,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (December 1991): 255; PDF, NGSQ Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives : 22 August 2018).
Kathleen W. Hinckley, “Pilgrims, Farmers, and Ranchers: Marks and Brands as a Genealogical Source,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (December 1991): 256; PDF, NGSQ Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives : 22 August 2018).
Kathleen W. Hinckley, “Pilgrims, Farmers, and Ranchers: Marks and Brands as a Genealogical Source,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (December 1991): 265; PDF, NGSQ Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives : 22 August 2018).