What is Goodland’s Not-So-Secret Identity? Can you name a person, place, thing or event that really stands out to you as a signature part of life in Goodland? The High Plains Museum will be hosting a Kansas Town Hall Program in October and we are starting to look at how our identity has developed. When one thinks of branding irons what do you think of? Most think of the Old West and cowboys on cattle drives, but branding irons have been around for thousands of years.
Branding livestock has been around since 2700 BC with the Ancient Egyptians. Ancient Romans also used branding irons but not for livestock as much. When we think about branding irons however we think of the cowboys and the West. Branding irons sear a specific identifying symbol into the cow to help identify the cow’s owner. It was also a means of protecting cattle from thieves and to help separate the cattle when it was time to take the herd to market.
The symbol on a branding iron can be letters, numbers or shapes and can be simple or have embellishments such as wings or feet that are added to the letters, numbers or shapes. These embellishments add to the name of the brand. For example if a letter has wings it is flying while feet mean walking. Thus, if the branding iron was a “C” the name would become “Flying C” or “Walking C”. There are several other designations for the names that can be found here.
The High Plains Museum has many kinds of branding irons. Some are single letters, while others are several symbols combined; this is called a ligature which according Merriam-Webster is “a printed or
written character consisting of two or more letters or characters joined together; such as ae.” The photograph on the right shows a branding iron that has the letters “BE” and is 21 inches long. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing that the BE stands for, but like the other branding irons it does help to define Sherman County’s identity.
When settlers first came to Sherman County, much like today, it was wide open space. Many of the settlers were farmers or ranchers and needed a way to identify their cattle. Branding irons were used to achieve this. However an issue arose with the cattle on the open plains. Huge herds of cattle could and would destroy crops with the homesteader being helpless against the herd. Over time homesteaders took it upon themselves to start to kill some of cattle, which prompted the herd owners to send cowboys to catch the culprits. In return Sherman County homesteaders founded the “Homesteaders Union Association” or the H.U.A. It was a secret organization with a secret handshake, password and members had to take an oath; which if broken the punishment was death. The purpose of the H.U.A. was to help protect those homesteaders who took action against the huge herds of cattle, so that no punishment would result. The club reached its peak in 1887 and gradually declined afterwards.
This organization along with the branding irons helped define our identity by allowing ranchers to thrive in the area. The H.U.A. also helps define our identity by showing that the people of Sherman County were willing to come together to help one another out. It also shows that organizations could be powerful tools and agents of change, whether good or bad. While cattle are not as popular as they once were in the area, there are still ranchers around who use branding irons to help identity their cattle. It is something that was an Old West tradition that has never been forgotten.
This Kansas Town Hall program is funded in part by the Kansas Humanities Council, in partnership with the Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum. Additional support is provided by the Edith Leveranz Stunkel Foundation of Manhattan, Kansas.