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EAR MARKS, during early days of branding in the Southwest, were not as common as they later came to be. At first, it was not hard to create distinguishing brands. Later, when every member of a prolific family owned a brand, considerable ingenuity had to be exercised to assure identification. It was then that ear marks came into their own.

Less dramatic than the iron, the nicks, slashes and slices which are cut in and from ears of stock, have assumed an undeserved minor position in literature of the plains. Yet, they are as important a part of brand registration as brand designs themselves. Cowmen recognized this and dignified each mark by picturesque and detailed terminology.

It was a bad day for the longhorn when this savage practice of marking became a law. Then, ears hung in tatters, gashed and slashed, even completely removed at times. This last method of marking was known as the “grub.” It was used only by persons of exceptionally callous nature. Few employed it, for it was a cruel mark.

Holes were frequently punched in ears. A “split” was a straight cut toward the center, horizontally from the tip. This mark was sometimes called a “slash” or “slit.”

A “crop” or “smooth crop” was a piece sliced off the tip of the ear. A “half crop,” either “under or over,” was made by splitting the ear from the tip about half way back toward the head, and cutting off either upper or under piece at right angles. If the upper quarter was removed, the mark was called an “over half crop;” if the lower quarter was cut out, it was then an “under half crop.”

“Under and over slopes” began about two thirds of the way back from the tip and pared a melon rind-like slice to the tip of the ear on either upper or under side. An “over-slope” was sometimes called an “ear bob.” It gave the ear a pointed look.

“Bits,” both “over and under,” were precisely what the word implies. Small pieces of flesh, perhaps an inch in length and a third of that in depth, were removed from edges of ears.

The “swallow fork” was an angular or forked piece taken from the tip of the ear. Thus an ear, after having been operated upon, had two points instead of a rounded tip.

A “steeple fork” was close kin to a “swallow fork.” It was sometimes called “staple fork.” Instead of the triangular cut of the “swallow fork,” the “steeple fork” used a square or slot-like cut. It was about an inch across.

“Under and over hacks” were simply cuts either up on the under side or down on the upper side of the ear. They were generally half an inch in depth. These and all other marks were used singly and in combination. At times, they produced a wierd effect upon the appearance of the animal.

Strangest ear mark of all was the famous “jingle bob” of John Simpson Chisum. It was made by a long upward slash slanting toward the head. This caused the lower part of the ear to dangle in fantastic fashion. His steers were a raffish looking lot, and appeared bedizened with pendant earrings. (Plate V, Figs. 115).

T. U. Taylor, in his Chisholm Trail and other Routes, states that the “jingle bob” mark “…consisted in cutting the skin of the dewlap so that a piece of hide several inches long would dangle.” This is far different from the commonly held conception of Chisum's ear mark. Authorities argue as to which is correct, the dewlap, or slit ear.

Such terms as “jingle bob,” “swallow fork,” “over half crop” and many others, are familiar parlance to any student of western lore. There is, however, an equally complete and picturesque terminology of such marks which the vaquero of the Texas coastal prairies employed. Few today remember this, and were it not for musty county records, an interesting page from the past would have been lost.

Nueces County Brand Records are representative of all others in Southwest Texas. They date among the earliest in this section. They are well preserved, and include many thousand brands and marks. They are a true cross section of brand and mark recording. Examples which follow have been taken from this source.

John A. F. Gravis was the second person in Nueces County to record his brand, and the first to record an ear mark. This was done July 14, 1847, in Book A. The mark is a crop and slit in each ear (Plate VI, Fig. 1).

N. Shields, Sr., who lived at the Trinidad in Nueces County, registered no brand at all for his grandchildren, but was content with ear marks alone. The registration is in Book B, under date of November 13, 1867. The record reads ambiguously and in part, “…being marks of a flock of sheep purchased from John E. Mitchell and wife of Galveston city for and on behalf of Emilly and Nelson T. Shields, Jr., (my grandchildren) for whom he is agent.” (Plate VI, Figs. 2, 3, 4).

From this point on, the brand records are sprinkled with a jargon of English and corrupt Spanish. There are also dashes of Indian, Aztec and Maya words thrown in to flavor the whole. Individualistic spelling of various county clerks results in surprising effects. So colloquial is the text that meanings are now lost, and can only be guessed from comparison of entries with drawings in the margin of the record. Even with this yardstick, error has crept in. Right ears are where left ears should be, and vice versa.

Much credit is due Rachel Bluntzer Hebert for assistance in translation. Daughter of pioneers, her early years were spent on one of Nueces County's famous old ranches, the Ave Maria Rancho. Here she heard daily just such Spanish as the records contain. Here, also, she acquired a knowledge of Mexican ranch customs that made interpretation of many obscure passages in the records possible.

Mrs. Hebert recalled that the vaquero elided and dropped syllables in his speech. He had a habit of confining verbs to one person and tense to serve his multiple needs. While generally he was an illiterate, he had both imagination and poetry in his soul. Where his Spanish proved inadequate to describe his marks, he achieved his end by a roundabout method of expression. Wording of some entries in the brand records is typical of him.

For instance, if the vaquero should be asked how much farther down the road the rancho is, he would scorn to name distance in prosaic miles. Instead, he might say, “O, tres cigarros, señor,” for he has frequently consumed three cigarettes in covering the distance. This answer may be varied by the substitution of “five Hail Marys” or “credos.”

Juan García employed such method in registering his brand and mark. This entry is typical of many others: “Orqueta y mosca par arriba del lado de subir, Orqueta y mosca por de bajo de lado de lansa,” reads the registration of Juan García's mark (Plate VI, Fig. 6). Literal translation was puzzling. It is, “Swallow fork and bit on the side you get up on [the left]. Swallow fork and bit on the side you carry the lansa [the right].” Any one familiar with plainsmen knows that their weapons are guns, with sometimes a hunting knife, but never a sword. J. Frank Dobie made illuminating comment on this particular terminology. He said, “In old days, caballeros carried a lance on the right side of the saddle. That is the reason they mounted from the left side, and not from the more natural side, the right, as all Plains Indians mounted from.” So while Juan García wore no sword at his right side, perhaps he perpetuated in words the tradition of another day when man's best friend was not his gun, but a good steel blade.

In the Nueces County Records, a “hole” becomes un avujero [agujero]; the “split” is una rahada [rajada], rajadita [little split], or rajar, the verb form. A “crop” is commonly una mocha, but is sometimes written despuntada. Both words are exact terminology, the first coming from the verb, mochar, to cut, or lop, while the second means “blunting.”

The “half crop” is called media lansa, while “over half crop” is paleta por delante. An under half crop is paleta por de baja (bajar). An “over crop” is lansa de subir, but the equivalent for “under crop” seems to be missing from the brand record. Media lansa arriba, or por delante, is an “over slope,” while its opposite, the “under slope,” is missing from the record. A “bit” is una mosca, and is either de subir or por detras, according to whether or not it is “over” or “under.” A “swallow fork” appears wrongly as orquita as often as it is written correctly orqueta. The “hack” is una cortada, which seems to stand also for “over” and “under hack.” A “point” is un chuso.

The meaning of this last term was puzzling, for there are good Spanish words in common usage that mean “point.” Yet there was no mistaking the mark of Juan Leal for anything else. The registration reads “Paleta y mosca y la lado de subir. Chuso en la lado de la lanza.” (Plate VI, Fig. 8). A free translation reads uninterestingly as, “Upper half crop and under bit in the left and point in the right.”

It is in literal translation that delightful metaphor is often found. “Chuso,” surprisingly enough, is a contraction of la lechuza. It is the familiar term by which the vaquero addresses his compadre, the common screech owl, of the chaparral. It speaks well for Juan Leal's close observance and facile imagination that he noted the pointed ear tufts of the bird were exact duplicates of his own ear mark.

Santiago Stringfellow registered another puzzling term. The entry appears as follows: “Mosca y sarcio el lado de subir mocha en el otro.” This is an instance that taxed the translator's ability. Facsimile of Santiago's mark is poorly drawn. It might be that a “slash” or “hack” was intended, yet there seemed to be some slight difference in the drawing. Previously examined entries showed that the “hack” was commonly known as una cortada. (Plate VI, Fig. 5). It was necessary to clear the mind of all conception of form and spelling. By listening only to the sounds of spoken syllables, the word zarcillo suggested itself. It was even more puzzling to guess what an earring might have to do with an ear mark. Suddenly the memory of John Simpson Chisum's ear mark came to mind. Chisum's ear mark was reminiscent of dangling earrings. If Santiago Stringfellow saw any of Chisum's cattle, this idea might have presented itself to him. It is entirely within the bounds of possibility that such could have been the case, for the famous old cattleman was running steers along the Concho at this date. His ear mark was, no doubt, a familiar sight to this Nueces County ranchero.

Una mosca, though entirely clear in intent, was another term in which considerable ingenuity had to be used to trace its possible origin. What connection a common housefly could have with the “bit” mark, seemed far fetched. Yet the drawings showed that this was the registrants’ intent. In the end, it was casual conversations pieced together that resulted in something like an answer.

J. Marvin Hunter, in discussing Mexican styles of riding, asks, “Have you ever noticed how a Mexican rides? He keeps his right hand with the whip in it going all the time.” Mr. Hunter, to his sorrow, learned this when he once bought a horse of a Mexican. The animal refused to move out of a snail-like walk unless the whip was constantly swung against its hip. Then, it would break into a long, swinging lope. This was held as long as the rider continued to swing an arm in unison with the stride of his steed. It was not necessary to strike the horse with force, Mr. Hunter explained. Only a slight touch on the hip was sufficient to move the beast to animation.

Señora Jovita Gonzales Mireles added to this information. On the ranchos, she said, this way of riding is called mosquear. This means that the horse is flicked with the whip as gently as a fly alighting upon the animal. The term stems from the word mosca (housefly). The “mosca” of the vaquero's colloquial Spanish could easily take its meaning from the flicking cut that removed the “bit” from the edge of an ear. Besides, the “bit” is not much larger than a fly itself. Comparative sizes could easily account for the application of this term.

Brand and mark registrations of other Nueces County rancheros are illustrative of a catalogue of terms used by the vaquero. (Plate VI, Fig. 9; Plate VII, Figs. 112).

The vaquero has left a rich heritage, but like so much else in a prodigal country, it has been carelessly squandered and lost. The present is poorer by a thousandfold because of our thoughtless extravagance. Like the passenger pigeon, this lore is in danger of extinction.



Fig.   1Split; una rajada.

Fig.   2Crop; una mocha, despuntada.

Fig.   3Over half crop; paleta por delante.

Fig.   4Under half crop; paleta por de baja (bajar).

Fig.   5Over slope; media lansa arriba, o por delante.

Fig.   6Under slope….

Fig.   7Over bit; una mosca de subir.

Fig.   8Under bit; una mosca por detras.

Fig.   9Swallow fork; una orqueta.

Fig. 10Steeple fork….

Fig. 11Over hack; una cortada.

Fig. 12Under hack; una cortada.

Fig. 13Jingle bob; un sarcio (zarcillo).

Fig. 14Hole; un agujero.

Fig. 15Point; un chuso (la lechuza).



Fig. 1Brand and mark of John A. F. Gravis, registered July 14, 1847, Nueces County Brand Records, Book A.

Figs. 2, 3, 4Ear marks of grandchildren of N. Shields, Sr., registered November 13, 1867, Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig. 5Brands and mark of Santiago Stringfellow, registered May 10, 1867, Nueces County Brand Records, Book B. Plain “S” was used as a sheep brand and placed on the right jaw.

Fig. 6Brand and mark of Juan Garcia, registered October 18, 1867, Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig. 7Brand and mark of Francisco G. Flores, registered October 18, 1867: “del lado del subir despuntada del lado de lansa orqueta y cortada de baja” (crop on the side you get up on [left] on the lance side [right] swallow fork and under hack), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig. 8Brand and mark of Juan Leal, registered October 26, 1867, Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig. 9Brand and mark of Guadalario Garcia, registered January 18, 1869: “Paleta por delante de lado de subir y paleto por detras de lado de lanza” (Over half crop on the side you get up on [left] and under half crop on the side of the sword [right]), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.



Fig.   1Brand and ear mark of Santos Moreno, registered April 2, 1853: “Mocha y mosca por delante del lade de subir y en la otra mosca por de tras” (Crop and over bit on the left and an under bit on the right), Nueces County Brand Records, Book A.

Fig.   2Brand and mark of Don Paulo Peres, registered June 26, 1858: “Señal: del subir media lanza por otras, y mosca por delante y a la lanza oreja sana” (Sign: on the left a half crop, for the other [mark on this ear] a bit on the upper side, and to the right ear no mark), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig.   3Brand and mark of Emilio Berrero, registered May 10, 1867: “Delantado de lado de subir, media lanza an otro” (An over bit in the left and a half crop off the right). Obvious error in registration of the mark. Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig.   4Brand and mark of Tomas Abela, registered May 10, 1867: “Orquita y cortada in lado de subir” (Swallow fork and under slash in the side you get up on [left]), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig.   5Brand and mark of Cecilio Belario, registered May 10, 1867: “Media lansa y mosca y Rahada y mosca.” (Half crop and bit, and slash and bit), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig.   6Brand and mark of Alejandro Gonzalez, registered May 28, 1867; “Dos moscas y paleta” (Two over bits and a crop [under half crop]), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.


Fig.   7Brand and mark of Miguel Ramirez, registered October 19, 1867: “Orqueta y mosca en la lado de subir, media lansa y avujero en otro” (Swallow fork and over bit on the side you get up on [left], and half crop and hole in the other), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig.   8Brand and mark of Margarita Villareal, registered November 15, 1867: “Media Lanza por el lado de la lanza y mocha y rajada del subir” (Half crop on the side of the lance [right] and crop and split on the getting up [side, the left]). Obvious error in entering the record, since the marks are reversed according to the drawing. Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig.   9otra” (Crop [or blunted] and bit [over bit] on the side you get up on, and two slits in the other), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig. 10Brand and mark of Paula Rodriguez, registered March 30, 1869: “Media lanza arriba y mosca por de bajo en lado de subir y mocha en la esquierda” (Upper half crop and under bit in the left and crop and under bit in the left). An error in registration gives the mark for two left ears. Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig. 11Brand and mark of Estevan Hernandez, registered June 8, 1869: “Chuso y rajada en lado de subir des sarcillos y cortada en otra” (Point and swallow fork and hack on the side you get up on [the left] and two earrings and a hack in the other). The drawing leaves one in doubt as to whether the “jingle bob” mark was intended, or merely two hacks on the under side of the right ear. Chuso is here used for the Spanish equivalent of “swallow fork” instead of a point as is the case in other registrations. Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

Fig. 12Brand and mark of Refugio Villareal, registered June 8, 1869: “Paleto por debajo y mosca en lado de subir, chuso en otra” (Under half crop and bit on the side you get up on [left] and point in the other), Nueces County Brand Records, Book B.

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