In the Old West, rustling was a tempting and lucrative crime that crossed ethnic, social, and national borders. In the early days of the unsettled West, stampeding cattle away from their range was the most popular way to purloin stock. However, as the West became more populated, stampeding became risky business; there simply wasn’t enough open space to hide in. Thieves developed a more sophisticated way of stealing cattle by altering existing brands. A rustler would settle down on a range with a small herd and lawfully registered brand that could easily be converted to that of a neighboring ranch. He then caught the calves and yearlings of his neighbor and branded or rebranded them as his own.
Earmarks foiled many cattle thieves because it was difficult to convincingly alter both a brand and an earmark. To hide a telling earmark, rustlers would simply cut off the ear. The practice became common enough that a law was passed that prohibited removing more than one-half of one ear of a calf.
The running iron—a straight rod with a curve at the heated end—was the tool cattle rustlers used to forge brands. Being caught with a running iron was bad news, so some rustlers heated heavy wire or cinch rings for their forgeries instead.
Using a hot iron wasn’t the only method of reworking a brand. Some operators used acid or hair picking (where hair was removed by knife or pliers) to counterfeit a brand.
It was much easier on the rustler to steal unbranded calves than rework the brand of a stamped yearling. Stealing weaned-but-unbranded calves was ideal. The rustler simply had cut the pasture fence, drive the calves to his spread, and brand the calves as his own. Stealing calves that hadn’t been weaned was trickier, as Longhorn cows and calves had a strong drive to remain together. Such reunions had to be prevented, lest a ranch owner find a calf with the wrong brand suckling from his cow. Rustlers invented a variety of unsavory means—generally by injury to the calf—to keep calves from returning to their mothers.
Although the famed XIT brand of Texas was created precisely because it was difficult to alter, inventive rustlers found a way. One of the most famous cases of hide forgery was the working of the XIT into the Star-Cross brand. Records also show the XIT was transformed into the Boxed XITF, the 80 barred out, and the 4 Box P.