Western Life

Cattle Rustling

The term cattle rustling is derived from the cowboy culture of the Old West, and is used in America in regards to the raiding of ranches. Rustlers were very rarely arrested but it was still considered a serious offence, and vigilantes took matters into their own hands normally lynching the accused. The introduction of fenced grazing, to replace the open range, resulted in a decrease in the amount of cattle rustling but ranchers still suffered great loss.

The ranches in the western country were large, and long periods of time would pass before owners even realized that their cattle was missing. Whenever an incident was reported it would normally be done after too much time had gone by for the thieves to be tracked. This contributed to the lack of legal convictions. The majority of the rustlers were rogue cowboys with the knowledge of both the trails and handling the livestock. They were also skilled in the area of rebranding the cattle, which played a major role in their ability to sell the animals. After a while ranchers stopped hiring cowboys with their own stock, to avoid any problems that might arise from roamers being accused of cattle rustling.

Ranchers would brand their cattle, using a hot stamp iron on their hindquarters, to showcase ownership. Brands had to be registered, and the officials would only do this after somebody proved that they owned several beasts. Rustlers found ways of changing these brands using a running iron, which was a straight rod with a curve at the heated end. Catching up on their techniques, the law made this illegal and the cattle thieves resorted to using just a piece of curved wire which could be manipulated easily into the desired shape.

The ranchers usually waited until calves were weaned before branding them, and these young ones became easy targets for cattle rustlers. They would cut holes in the fences, steal the calves and put their own brand on them. Sometimes the young cows would instinctively attempt to return to their mothers, regardless of the distance between them. This led to trouble between the ranchers and rustlers, whose brand would be identified when the calves returned.

The rustlers started to pen the young ones, only branding them after they had learnt to eat grass. There were other more heinous methods used to keep them from returning to their mothers such as: the muscles supporting the calves eyelids were cut to make them temporarily blind and therefore incapable of finding their way back; a hot iron was placed between their toes making their feet too sore for them to walk; the calves tongues were sometimes split so that they would be unable to suckle and in the most extreme cases the cow was killed meaning that the calf would no longer have any reason to return.

Associations for cattlemen were formed and these would be responsible for checking the brands at auctions to decrease the number of stolen cattle making it to sale. In the 1930s, cattle rustling changed with vehicular advances. Thieves with trucks would steal the animals during the night, immediately butcher them and then sell the meat in nearby markets the following morning. In 1941, the McCarren Law was passed which stated that the maximum penalty for transporting stolen cattle, and/or meat, would be a fine of U$5000 and 5 years imprisonment.

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