The Desperado of the Plains

Branding cattle in Moffat County, Colorado today by Carol Highsmith.

Branding cattle in Moffat County, Colorado today by Carol Highsmith.

It was easy, from killing or re-branding an occasional cow, to see the profits of a larger operation. The faithful cowboys who cared for these herds and protected them even with their lives in the interest of absent owners began in time to tire of working on a salary, and settled down into little ranches of their own, starting with a herd of cattle lawfully purchased and branded. An occasional maverick came across their range and they branded it. A brand was faint and not legible, and they put their own iron over it. They learned that pyrography with a hot poker was very profitable. The rest was easy. The first step was the one that counted; but who could tell where that first step was taken? At any rate, cattle owners began to take notice of their cows as the prices went up, and they had laws made to protect property rapidly enhancing in value. Cow owners were required to have fixed or stencil-irons, and were forbidden to trace a pattern with a straight iron or “running-iron.” Each ranch must have its own iron or stencil. Texas as early as the 1860’s and ‘yo’s passed laws forbidding the use of the running-iron altogether so that after that it was not safe to be caught riding the range with a straight iron under the saddle flap. Any man so discovered had to do some quick explaining. The next step after this was the organization of the cattle associations in several territories and states which made the home of the cattle trade. These associations banded together in a national association. Detectives were placed at the stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City, charged with the finding of cattle stolen on the range and shipped with or without clean brands. In short, there had now grown up armed and legal warfare between the cowmen themselves — in the first place very large-handed thieves — and the rustlers and “little fellows” who were accused of being too liberal with their brand blotching. The prosecution of these men was undertaken with something of the old vigor that characterized the pursuit of horse thieves, with this difference, that, whereas all the world had hated a horse thief as a common enemy, very much of the world found excuse for the so-called rustler, who was known to be doing only what his accusers had done before him.

There may be a certain interest attaching to the methods of the range riders of this day, and those who care to go into the history of the cattle trade in its early days are referred to the work earlier quoted, where the matter is more fully covered.

Cattle Raid

Cattle Rustlers

The rustler might brand with his own straight running-iron, as it were, writing over again the brand he wished to change; but this was clumsy and apt to be detected, for the new wound would slough and look suspicious. A piece of red-hot hay wire or telegraph wire was a better tool, for this could be twisted into the shape of almost any registered brand, and it would so cunningly connect the edges of both that the whole mark would seem to be one scar of the same date.

The fresh burn fitted in with the older one so that it was impossible to swear that it was not a part of the first brand mark. Yet another way of softening a fresh and fraudulent brand was to brand through a wet blanket with a heavy iron, which thus left a wound deep enough, but not apt to slough, and so betray a brand done long after the round-up, and hence subject to scrutiny.

As to the ways in which brands were altered in their lines, these were many and most ingenious. A sample page will be sufficient to show the possibilities of the art by which the rustler set over to his own herds on the free-range the cows of his far-away neighbor, whom, perhaps, he did not love as himself.

Such, then, was the burglar of the range, the rustler, to whom most of the mysterious and untraceable crimes were ascribed. Such also were the excuses to be offered for some of the men who did what to them did not seem wrong acts. The sudden hostility of the newly-come cow men embittered and inflamed them, and from this, it was easy and natural to the arbitrament of arms.

The bad men of the plains dates to this era and his acts may be attributed to these causes. There were to be found among these men many refugees and outlaws, as well as many better men,  went wrong through the point of view. Fierce and far were the battles between the rustlers and the cow barons. Commerce had its way at last. The lawless man had to go, and he had to go even before the law had come.



The vigilantes of the cattle range, organizing first in Montana and working southward, made a clean sweep in their work. In one campaign they killed somewhere between 60 and 80men accused of cattle rustling. They hung thirteen men on one railroad bridge one morning in northwestern Nebraska. The statement is believed to be correct that, in the ten years from 1876 to 1886, they executed more men without the process of law than have been executed under the law in all the United States since then. These lynchings also were against the law. In short, it may perhaps begin to appear to those who study into the history of our earlier civilization that the term “law” is a very wide and lax and relative one and one extremely difficult of exact application.


Go To Next Chapter – Wild Bill Hickok

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019

About the Author:  Excerpted from the book The Story of the Outlaw; A Study of the Western Desperado, by Emerson Hough; Outing Publishing Company, New York, 1907. This story is not verbatim as it has been edited for clerical errors and updated for the modern reader. Emerson Hough (1857–1923).was an author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels of life in the American West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in literature and motion pictures.  For years, Hough wrote the feature “Out-of-Doors” for the Saturday Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines.

Cowboys in North Park, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

Modern Cowboys in North Park, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

Other Works by Emerson Hough:

The Story of the Outlaw – A Study of the Western Desperado – Entire Text

The Cattle Kings

The Cattle Trails

Cowboys on the American Frontier

The Frontier In History

The Indian Wars

Mines of Idaho & Montana

Pathways To the West

The Range of the American West


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *