Stock Rustling in the American Wild West

In 1883 Captain William French left his native Ireland to try his hand at cattle ranching in New Mexico. He soon discovered ranching is as hard and challenging as the land itself. One harsh winter, like the one in 1886-7, could devastate your herd; coyotes and other natural predators were an ever-present threat; but arguably the rancher’s greatest perennial challenge was stock theft.

Stealing someone else’s stock, or rustling, is as old as the pyramids of Egypt. Ever since farmers worked the rich lands of the Nile Delta in 2700 B.C, there have been those keen to start their own herd without actually paying for it. Somehow rustlers have always had the edge over ranchers. As Captain French discovered, they used tricks to outwit the rancher that were ingeniously simple – tricks that have never been written down, but which have instead been passed down through the generations by word of mouth.

“Sleepering” is a good example. In order to succeed, a rustler had to think like the average cowboy when checking for unbranded stock. He knew that the first place anyone would look were the ears. A marked ear indicated the animal had been branded. The key to a rustler’s plan was to identify the unmarked or ‘slick-eared’ calf that hadn’t yet been weaned, and mark its ears to match the mother’s. Approximate location duly noted, he would leave the calf where he’d found it.

Herds were large, often numbering thousands. The rustlers knew this and relied on cowhands doing a casual check, just noting the earmark, and moving on to the next animal. The trick was to return when the calf reached weaning size and before the annual round-up conducted by every ranch. The rustler would separate the young animal from its mother and drive it away to his own corral where he would brand it with his own stamp before releasing it well away from the legitimate owner’s territory. The original earmark could now either be altered to suit or ignored because the brand overrode it.

The calf paid its own price. In order to overcome the strong bond it had with its mother, ruthless tactics were employed to incapacitate it and stop it returning to her. Cutting the muscles supporting the animal’s eyelids, thus ensuring temporary blindness, was one unsavoury practice; another was to apply a hot iron between the animal’s toes.

The end of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Homesteading Act of 1862 saw a huge movement of new settlers moving west. For the cattle rustler the opportunities were greater but so were the risks; the space in which to hide their ill-gotten gains steadily shrank. The ranchers, aware that the rustlers always seemed to be one step ahead, began striking back. In Wyoming the Maverick Act conferred immediate ownership of unbranded cattle on the cattlemen’s association and cooperative round-ups started. The cattle rustler was forced to act smarter. He adopted a cloak of legitimacy, buying stock of his own and lawfully registering his own brand – sometimes more than one brand. He targeted those neighbours with a brand that could easily be altered to match his own.

Forced to target branded stock, his methods became more brutal. When the calf’s earmark couldn’t easily be tampered with such as to match the one being used alongside the altered brand, one solution was to cut off the animal’s ear down to the base. The law belatedly responded with an act prohibiting removal of more than half an ear, and restricted mutilation to just one ear per animal. Then when the existing law enforcement proved to be ineffective, the ranchers resorted to hiring quasi-legal vigilante groups who enforced swift and brutal justice with bullet and rope.

The Johnson County War of 1892, which heralded the end of open, unfettered grazing, and the introduction of barbed-wire fencing, brought large-scale rustling to an end. However thieves continued to use their ingenuity to outwit the rancher. The cattle men responded, but their methods became subtler. Cooperating with each other, they kept an eye on known or suspected rustlers; calf ‘plants’ with special colouring or marks were left as bait where the rustler could not fail to see them. Ranchers started to use ‘character’ brands which were deliberately made easy to copy and which thus enabled them to trap the unwitting rustler.

Stringent laws and modern-day technology have not put an end to the phenomenon of rustling. Surprisingly, micro-chipping isn’t as effective as branding for large herds and no full-proof method of indicating ownership has yet been discovered.

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