A large part of the population of the Old West made their living based on the cattle trade, either directly or indirectly. During this time, there were many instances of cattle theft which could take place for different reasons. Native Americans would often steal a few cattle to feed their tribe, during times of shortage. The differences they had with the settlers meant that many of them also stole cattle as a form of revenge or to chase ranchers away from their hunting grounds. They would also start stampedes to drive off any cattle they couldn’t take. During and shortly after the Civil War, Mexican rustlers were also a major problem, along the border. Their main targets were South Texas ranches, and it is estimated that they stole 145,000+ heads of cattle between 1859 and 1872.
The vast majority of the cattle stolen during this period was taken by other ranchers, or cowboys, however. Cattle rustlers from Texas would go into Mexico and swim large herds of ‘wet stock’ across the Rio Grande at night, leading them to the markets. They also targeted other ranchers on the plains. Their success at cattle rustling came from their skills as cowboys, such as roping, branding and trailing the beasts. It was also easy to register a brand, with a few animals, and then add to their stock with those that they stole. This caused many ranchers to stop hiring cowboys that owned their own cattle.
More daring rustlers would begin stampedes with entire herds on the northern trails, defending themselves with rifles if pursued. In the Wild West, rustling was a serious offence and frequently resulted in lynching from a group of vigilantes. The rustlers would hide the herds on the western ranges, in box canyons, until they could be rebranded. The majority of thieves used a ‘running iron,’ instead of a regular stamp iron, which was a straight rod with a curve at the heated end. This was soon outlawed, and they switched to using a piece of heavy wire that could be carried easily and bent into any shape.
Many ranchers would wait until their calves had been weaned to brand them, which caused rustlers to begin targeting the younger animals. They would cut pasture fences and drive the calves to their own corral, before stamping them with their brand. One of the major problems with this was the calf escaping and returning to their mothers, even over long distances. The new brand would identify the thief and he would be in danger of being lynched. Rustlers would go as far as to kill the mothers, so that the calves could not return. Cattle rustlers continued to be pests to the ranchers, until the 20th century, and then the practice gradually died down.