OF HUNDREDS OF BOOKS that have helped to tell the story of cattle brands, none have dealt with the history and interpretation of Mexican designs. These strange devices, which Spaniards and Mexicans in the New World, and sometimes Anglo-Americans, placed upon their stock, were once common sights along the Rio Grande and on Texas coastal prairies. New Mexico, Arizona and California have their share of Mexican brands also, but these marks are almost a thing of the past. Their meaning, other than as marks of ownership, has been lost. They are the dead language of the Southwestern range.
Among students of western lore, the contention, almost to a man, is that there is neither meaning nor significance in the majority of Mexican brands. Exceptions go to prove the rule, they say. Like many other sayings, accepted on face value alone, this one also is fallacious. No custom as common as the making of these devices, reason argues, could have sprung up spontaneously over so wide an area without substantial foundation. There must have been motivating forces which guided the choice of these designs, aside from a desire for identification of stock.
There was no known method of reading Mexican brands even during the golden age of the Longhorn Empire. Hardy Anglo-Americans had neither time nor disposition to unravel significance which might lie hidden in graceful lines. The Latin-American was not interested either. Product of a once enslaved race, forced into unwelcome patterns of culture and religion, he forgot much of his rich history in a painful present.
It is useless today to ask the humble vaquero of the Texas brush country what these brands mean. Though he is descended from once proud Aztecs, Mayas, Ancient Mexicans and Spaniards, the meaning of these designs is a riddle to him also. He stares at the questioner in mild surprise. “Quién sabe?” he answers, and mentally adds, “Who cares?”
In attempting to discover what hidden currents flow beneath the surface of long accepted custom, many strange tributaries to the main stream have been explored. No claim is made that this study is definitive. Results are not conclusive, and not more than one phase of the subject can be discussed here. This is but a beginning at best, and only as such is it intended. Time and further research should fill in details now missing from the picture.
Months of search and questioning produced no clue to the mystery of the Mexican brands. However, when I was about to give up all as a bad job, a saying of Reverend W. D. Wear came to mind. Reverend Wear rode the Cumberland Presbyterian circuit during the seventies, and preached the sustaining Word to a hard-pressed people. He was a homespun philosopher as well. The soundness of his practical wisdom is as applicable today as it was in the era of the cattleman.
“If you lose a horse, tell everybody you know, and you'll find him,” his great-granddaughter, Edwin Duer Williams, quotes him upon occasion. Modern high pressure advertising uses this same method to drive home a point. It was effective in the seventies also, for the missing animal was usually found.
The metaphorical “horse” was located, at last, in J. Frank Dobie's possession. From the depths of his unplumbed lore, this authority on the longhorn produced the one significant bit of information from a hastily sketched figure of a brand that has led to a score of interesting discoveries and speculations. This was a design which had proved to be a basic one after several thousand had been examined. There is a peculiar grace about this design. It is all angles and pothooks, a queer little figure with limitless possibilities of variation and mutation. Yet, its meaning seemingly was obscured by passage of time. Mr. Dobie continued to study the figure. “I've seen many similar marks carved on trees and rocks in Mexico,” he said, at last. “Indians say that these are figures of men.” He then referred to a drawing in his Tongues of the Monte. The pictured figures were taken from carvings found on a huge yucca he had come across on the Mesa Ramadero between the Sierra Potoú and the town of Galeana, Nuevo León. The Mexican cattle brand bore unmistakeable resemblance to the carving upon the yucca, as later comparison substantiated. (Plate I, Figs. 1, 2, 3).
Other comparisons with man-signs the world over demonstrated that all bear startling relationship not only one to the other, but to this particular basic brand design. This is also the same little “stick-man” which today defaces margins of American schoolboys’ textbooks. The brand and the man-signs are clearly brothers. (Plates I, Figs. 2–16; Plate IV, Figs. 13–16).
Numerous examples of the man-signs, carved and painted, have been left on trees and in rock shelters by American native races. This argues that the design held an important position among these peoples. Just what meanings are to be attached to it now can hardly be more than a matter of conjecture.
It should cause no great surprise, after all, to find this same sign transferred to cattle brands used upon the longhorn. The mestizo of the Sixteenth Century was not far removed from the aborigine. He sprang suddenly from the tragedy of the New World, a turbulent mixture of two streams of inheritance. The line of confluence was still discernable in his personality.
The mestizo's Spanish parent endowed him liberally with superstitions imported from a Europe just emerging from the dark ages. On the other hand, his native parent was a believer in the efficacy of amulets, congenial spirits and a pantheon of gods and goddesses which make those of Greek and Roman pale to insignificance.
These gods had but recently walked the earth with their peoples in every act and hour of life. They were portrayed in human form, given human emotions and endowed with supreme authority over all.
The mestizo absorbed, like a sponge, this dual category of symbolism. The resultant confusion is clearly evident in cattle brands that have come down to us. (Plate I, Figs. 1, 2, 3). Even today, among simple rural folk, the old gods prevail in Mexico. There is but a thin frosting of Christianity to show what four hundred years of civilizing influence has done for the race.
Indian peasants, visiting the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, still climb the sacred hill of Tepeyac just behind. They search for the ancient Tonantzin, goddess of fecundity.
One phase of investigation is based on such line of thought. A child of mixed blood would still have had respect for the power of Tonantzin over the increase of his herds. Why should not the man-sign once have represented this goddess, or various other godlings of household and field? It is not unreasonable to suppose such was the case.
Again, since the mestizo was not able to go every step of the way with his ganado mayor as they crashed through the brush, it was very necessary to assure the safety of his precious cattle. To accomplish this, he might place certain signs upon their ribs and hips. These possibly might be those which he knew of old were images of protecting gods.
The mestizo may even have regarded the man-sign as an extension of his own personality. By homeopathic magic, this image could ward off danger from his herds. It is not hard to hear him say, as he traced the design that projected his ego at the end of his caustic pencil, “This is my cowbrute. Thus shall it be known and protected by my likeness.”
Still another line of influence may possibly have entered into choice of the man-sign. It was necessary for the conquering Spaniard to select a brand by which the untutored and enslaved race could recognize their masters’ stock. Cortez's men had good example set them in such matters by the missionary fathers. These last made frequent use of similarities between their own and indigenous religions to further teachings of the Church. There can scarcely be any doubt that secular parallels were discovered, seized upon and employed to further personal interests as well.
This man-sign is a simple one. The Spaniard had seen it long ago in his homeland, where waves of ancient civilizations had left it, a tidal mark, upon rocks of the Iberian Peninsula. It is easily made with a running iron. It is adaptable to the taste of the individual who runs it. The device was understood by both conqueror and conquered. In short, the design had everything to recommend it to the Spaniard. For all his glamour and romance, the Conquistador was an intensely practical person. It would have been in keeping with his character for him to have made such a choice deliberately.
Brands in the man-sign were widely known throughout the Southwest at one time. F. Beldin and H. A. Gilpin, a partnership of pioneer Corpus Christi cattlemen, used such a brand for marking their stock. This brand was registered in 1848, Book A, Nueces County Brand Records. The ear marks are swallowfork in each ear and under bit in the right. (Plate 2, Fig. 1).
Among vaqueros of the King Ranch, this brand is still known as “La Muñeca,” “the Doll,” according to Mr. Dobie. It is a cross surmounting the peak of an equilateral triangle. Its resemblance to a crude doll, such as a Mexican child of the jacals might create from two crossed sticks and a piece of hide, is striking.
Mr. Dobie also drew a facsimile of a brand belonging to the storied Don Luis Terrazas. This is the same don of whom he writes vividly in Tongues of the Monte. The vastness of the don's empire is well illustrated by Mr. Dobie's remark that “Chihuahua was in his pasture.”
“La Primavera,” “Spring,” is the name Mr. Dobie gave this last mark he drew. It is supposed to represent a man arising from a slough between two hills (Plate II, Fig. 2). The fundamental idea, as well as the design itself, which is contained in these brands, is the generic one of Man. By comparison, they are unquestionably related to Indian mansigns in West Texas and Arizona.
Terrazas, J. Marvin Hunter speculates, may have chosen his “La Primavera” brand from Indian picture writings. His Del Carmen rancho was just across the Rio Grande opposite the Chisos Mountains in which these picture writings abound. Without doubt, the don was familiar with them.
Savage imagination was versatile. “Stick-men” are portrayed with complete anatomy down to fingers and even feathers in the hair. At other times, arms, legs, heads are missing. Only stark and highly conventionalized torsos are left to convey the idea of human beings. Sometimes, too, a figure inexplicably sprouts extra pairs of arms or legs.
By their attitudes, figures of the brand designs run the emotional scale from comedy to tragedy. Ridiculous little potbellied figures appear in attitudes reminiscent of a comicstrip character appropriately named “Gordo.” Others appear with arms upraised in supplication, or perhaps a graceful gesture of the dance (Plate III, Figs. 12–14).
In certain restricted areas, Indians drew the man-sign with arms akimbo, or doubled back below the shoulder. Sometimes it is shown with arms across the body or loosing an arrow from a bow. These attitudes are unmistakeable in brand designs. Examples of either could easily stand as representative of the other. (Plate III, Figs. 15–16).
A. T. Jackson, in his “Picture Writing of the Texas Indians,” quotes an interesting passage from Pierre Charlevoix's Travels Through Canada and Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico, London, 1763: “…when there are any French…they [the Indians] set their arms akimbo, or their hands upon their hips to distinguish them from the savages whom they represent with their arms hanging down. This distinction is not purely arbitrary. It proceeds from this posture, which is not used among them.” Such pictures as these have been found in Presidio County. A Cameron County brand graphically illustrates Charlevoix's statement. (Plate IV, Fig. 1).
Among Nueces County brands, the conventionalized mansign is often represented with rounded protuberances. These are strongly suggestive of this arms-akimbo posture, and may be a variation of the theme. It might have been intended to show that the cattle belonged to the powerful Spaniard and not to the poor Indian whose arms hung helpless at his side. Portraits by Velásquez depict the haughty Grande posed with hand on sword hilt. They prove such posture was the Spaniard's as well.
The brand of Santos Moreno is a case in point (Plate IV, Fig. 2). The arm of the little figure is securely braced upon its hip. Registration is in corrupt Spanish, and reads, “Mocha y mosca por delante del lado de subir y en la otra mosca por de tras.” Translated, it gives the ear mark as, “Crop and over bit on the left and an under bit on the right.” The date is April 2, 1853, Book A, Nueces County Brand Records.
Arms and legs of figures in the Azuza cañon in California seem to indicate the direction of a trail, according to Garrick Mallery in his Pictographs of the North American Indian. They point left, right, north, south. Ojibwas had a similar custom. They often cut directional characters in the bark of large pine trees and numbers of these are to be seen near Red Lake, Minnesota. Whenever a change in the direction of the trails was to be noted, a human figure, cut with arm elevated and pointing in the general direction to be taken, appeared. Hidalgo County brands from the personal brand record of E. M. DuBose, former U. S. Mounted Customs Inspector, make interesting comparison. (Plate IV, Figs. 7–12).
Fig. 1Carvings on yucca on Mesa Ramadero. J. Frank Dobie, Tongues of the Monte, New York, 1935.
Fig. 2Cameron County brand. E. M. DuBose, Personal Brand Record.
Fig. 3Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 4Figure of a child, hieratic Egyptian. Pictographs of the North American Indian, Garrick Mallery, Fourth Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, 1886.
Fig. 5Cameron County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 6Modern “stick-man.”
Fig. 7Hidalgo County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 8Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 9Petroglyph in the Kei Islands. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 10Brand of John Jackson for horse and stock. Registered June 23, 1866, Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.
Fig. 11Rock carving in Guiana, Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 12Brand of Juan Benavides. Registered May 11, 1867. Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.
Fig. 13Hidalgo County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 14Shoshonian Petroglyph, Oneida, Ohio. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 15“Forked Lightning” brand of Murchison and Brother. Registered 1886, Menard County. Brand still used by A. H. Murchison, Menard, Texas. Texas Cattle Brands, Gus L. Ford, Editor, Dallas, 1936.
Fig. 16Cameron County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
The ayuntamiento of Nava wrote the ayuntamiento of Nacogdoches with florid greeting, asking that the mule be advertised. Whether or not it was ever found by its owner the record fails to reveal. The central figure of this design is to be noted for its similarity to the trail markers of the Ojibwas. (Plate IV, Fig. 12).
Circumstantial evidence piles ever higher and higher. It seems not to matter that documentary proof is lacking. Further comparison only strengthens the case. The picture writings prove that when the mestizo drew this basic design, his intent was to portray either man or god. In the end, he took subtle revenge of his Spanish parent, for he placed an Indian sign on the Conqueror's herds.
Bexar and Nacogdoches Archives, translated by J. Villasana Haggard, University of Texas Archives.
Tongues of the Monte, J. Frank Dobie, Doubleday Doran & Company, Garden City, N. Y., 1935.
Personal Brand Record (unpublished), E. M. DuBose.
Picture Writing of the Texas Indians, Anthropological Papers, A. T. Jackson, edited by J. E. Pearce, The University of Texas Press, Austin, 1938.
Pictographs of the North American Indian, Garrick Mallery, Fourth Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1886.
Fig. 1“La Muñeca,” “The Doll” brand of Beldin and Gilpin. Registered in 1848. Nueces County Brand Records, Book A.
Fig. 2“La Primavera,” “Spring” brand of Don Luis Terrazas.
Fig. 3“Woman” brand of T. B. Adams of San Angelo, Texas. Registered in 1891, in Sutton County. Texas Cattle Brands, op. cit.
Fig. 1Ojibwa man. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 2Cameron County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 3Ojibwa headless body. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 4Hidalgo County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 5Ojibwa headless body. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 6Cameron County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 7Ojibwa man. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 8Woman from the Mide Records. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 9Mide Shaman from the Mide Records. Ibid.
Fig. 10Hidalgo County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 11Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 12Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 13Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 14Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 15Shoshonian Petroglyph, Oneida, Ohio. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 16Cameron County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 1Cameron County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 2Stock brand of Santos Moreno.
Fig. 3Hidalgo County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 4Hidalgo County Brand. Ibid.
Fig. 5Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 6Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 7Rock painting in Azuza Cañon, California, Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 8Rock painting in Azuza Cañon, California. Ibid.
Fig. 9Hidalgo County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 10Hidalgo County brand. Ibid.
Fig. 11Ojibwa directional characters, Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 12Brand from the Nacogdoches Archives.
Fig. 13Man by the Moki in Arizona. Mallery, op. cit.
Fig. 14Hidalgo County brand. DuBose, op. cit.
Fig. 15Brand from the Nacogdoches Archives.
Fig. 16Brand of Don Juan Joseph Flores, Bexar Archives. Registered at San Fernando de Béxar, July 1, 1762.