When animals wandered around town or were freely grazing in vast lands of the West, marks and brands helped to prove who the animals belonged to. Have you ever seen a branding iron or a picture of one? Branding a farm animal with a hot branding iron is a way to distinguish the animals of one farm or ranch from that of another. Marks, usually on ears as a tattoo or a clipped portion, are another way.
Marks and brands are found all the way back to ancient times and exist all around the world. In the U.S., laws and customs vary as to when the practice began in an area but it continues to today, usually under the auspices of the state agricultural department. Though we are talking about animals today, logging companies also marked the cut logs to differentiate theirs from other companies.
Useful for Genealogists
Genealogists can search for older brand and mark registrations that detail an ancestorâ€™s specific mark or brand. Some of the designs found in older town and county record books are quite intricate; perhaps a family member or the clerk had a creative and artistic side.
Registers of marks and brands were kept by county and town clerks and once the states became involved, the recorded information or a copy was usually turned over to the states. Often a fee was incurred for the registration, but if your ancestor did not have had the funds, he may not have registered.
Not all of the records have survived, but fortunately a significant number have. The entries typically include the ownerâ€™s name, place of residence, an illustration of the brand or mark, where it appears on the animals, and the registration date. A drawing of an animal with the exact mark or brand location may be included; the older drawings are quite interesting, sometimes comical.
Modern brands may be in state government books that are shared with county officials in order to keep track of brands in use in each county and for tracking livestock ownership. Online application forms include diagrams of various animals so that the registrant can show exactly where the mark is placed.
Genealogists seek the older recordings. A mark or brand from 1842 may no longer be needed for county reference and itâ€™s possible the books were destroyed. A county courthouse may have the older books that survive but more likely they have been transferred to a state or county historical society or archive.
Where Else to Search
A check of the Family History Library CatalogÂ shows that the FHL has a number of mark and brand registers on microfilm that were filmed at historical societies, county courthouses, and state archives. The FHL also has some books with lists of marks and brands as abstracted by genealogists. These and other publications can be found in many library collections. A surprising number are online.
The town of Sandgate, Vermont, recorded brands such as these and excerpts are online:
“May 28 AD 1789 — Hemon Squires Eare mark is two halfpenny the under sid of the Right Eare and one halfpenny the under sid of the Left.
May 7 AD 1793 — Noah Woodard Eare mark is a half crop the under sid of the Left Eare and two halfpenny the uper sid of the Right Ere.”
The Genealogical Records Committee publications of the Daughters of the American RevolutionÂ include some abstracts of marks and brands lists. These GRC Reports are found at the DAR library in Washington, D.C., at the FHL, and other libraries.
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The recordings of marks and brands are one more way to place an ancestor in specific place at a given time. The illustrations make a nice addition to the stories of our families.
To Learn More
- Bradley County, Arkansas Marks and Brands, 1861-1927
- Illinois Department of Agriculture
Online form for Registering Livestock Brands
- Library of Congress, Branding Livestock
Good background information on branding, how it was done and when.
- Tennessee Brand Laws Handbook of Texas Online
- Texas State Historical Association
- Utah History and Research Center
For more on the topic, complete with source citations, see:
- â€œPilgrims, Farmers, and Ranchers: Marks and Brands as a Genealogical Sourceâ€ by Kathleen Hinckley, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, December 1991
The “Have You Checked for These Records?” series is designed to acquaint readers with records often overlooked in the research process. For those who missed earlier installments, here are links to them:3
About the Author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, of St. Paul, Minnesota, is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer who is frequently on-the-road. She coordinates the intermediate course, American Records and Research, at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She writes for several periodicals including Ancestry Magazine. Comments will reach her at PSWResearch@comcast.net but she regrets that she is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of requests. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings. Your name will not be used, but your place of residence might be listed (e.g., Casa Grande, AZ).
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Upcoming Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG
- 31 March 2007, Sacramento, California
Root Cellar-Sacramento Genealogical Society
Annual Spring Seminar
- 13-14 April 2007, Columbus, Ohio
Ohio Genealogical Society 2007 Conference
- 21 April 2007, Moline, Illinois
33rd Annual Quad Cities Genealogical Conference
- 5 May 2007, Austin, Texas
Austin Genealogical Society Seminar