CATTLE RUSTLERS, or cattle thieves, have been a problem wherever cattle are run on the range. Nineteenth-century rustlers drove off cattle in herds; present-day rustlers carry them off in trucks.
Rustlers' methods have varied from the rare forceful seizure of cattle in pitched battles, to the far more common
practice of sneaking away with motherless calves. While the former practice passed with the open range, the latter prevails in areas with widespread cattle ranching. Cattle are branded to distinguish ownership, but rustlers sometimes changed the old brand by tracing over it with a hot iron to alter the design into their own brand—a practice known as "burning brands." Rustlers also commonly took large and unbranded calves from cows and then placed them with their own brand.
The greatest deterrent to cattle rustling in the 1880s was the barbed wire fence, which limited the rustlers' mobility. In the late twentieth century this deterrent became irrelevant as rustlers most commonly used automobiles and trucks. They killed cattle on the range and hauled away the beef, and they loaded calves into their trucks at night and drove hundreds of miles from the scene by morning.
Laws for recording brands to protect livestock owners have long been rigid. When the laws proved insufficient, however, cattle ranchers came together in posses, in vigilance committees, and finally in local and state associations to protect their herds.
Evans, Simon M., Sarah Carter, and Bill Yeo, eds. Cowboys, Ranchers, and the Cattle Business: Cross-Border Perspectives on Ranching History. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2000.
Jordan, Terry G. North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.
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