Habits that Linger

Celia Hays and others commented on Monday’s post about certain typeface characters that became handwriting (and vice versa) and that lingered for a while. I can attest to that, because of a surprise I encountered when looking at ranch records from the late 1800s: numbers from the 1400s.

A bit of background. Many of the ranches in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico, and the South Plains as well, had Scottish or English owners. They tended to send over division managers from the Auld Sod, especially the Scottish companies. (Which might explain why the Matador and a few others survived so long, but I digress.) These men tended to be focused, moderately educated, but not polished. None had a college education or business-school training that I have discovered thus far. Some originally came from rather isolated parts of the British Isles before clawing their way up the ladder.

So, I was going over livestock numbers, weather reports, and the like for a major foreign-owned ranch. The years were the 1880s-1900s. There were lots of numbers. Lots, and lots, and lots of numbers. Some managers had almost Spencerian handwriting that was a joy to read. One had chickenscratch*. But one in particular caught my eye. First, he kept very good accounts. Second, he used half-eights for fours, and other archaic symbols. Third, he’d slip into Gaelic, or translate directly from Scots Gaelic into English, with all the quirks that entails.

I never did learn much about him, his personal life or background. I suspect, perhaps, he learned to read and write in a dame school, taught by an old woman in the village. First he learned Scots Gaelic, then English, or English heavily weighted toward Gaelic. The Renaissance numbers fit into an isolated area where people kept records only for themselves, and saw no need to change to whatever was fashionable.

The accountant who checked the books must have sighed a little when those reports came in. Or perhaps not. The manager did a good job, his columns added up correctly, and everything made sense. Granted, he did draw the short straw to have to inform HQ that the property had less than half the cattle** purported to be on it at the time . . . I didn’t envy him when I read those pages. I wager that the, ah, exclamations of dismay from Edinburgh could be heard as far as Albuquerque.

What ever became of the manger? I don’t know. Perhaps he returned to Scotland. Perhaps he moved to a different ranch, hired away at higher wages. His contributions stopped just after 1900, if memory serves.


*I just thought his handwriting was bad. I started reading, er, more like decoding, letters from a Royal Navy officer to his kids in the Panhandle a few years later. Ye doggies. Bad writing plus cross writing plus blue ink on blue paper . . . Wow.

**The ranch finally did a complete round up of every cow, horse, and mule on the place. The rough estimates of reproduction based on the stock that supposedly came with the ranch had been . . . exaggerated. Seriously exaggerated. 50% exaggerated. I never did find out if the ranch got a refund on the taxes they’d paid on the stock that wasn’t there. That makes me suspect that they didn’t.

7 thoughts on “Habits that Linger

  1. I have no idea what a half-eight is, or how numerals looked in the Renaissance. Nor has a quick web search helped.

    I’m assuming the Matador is a ranch.

    • Matador, LS, LX, Swan, ROW, Rocking Chair, Quien Sabe . . . Some of the names make sense, others, well, Quien sabe?

      (Quien Sabe is the nickname for any complicated Spanish brand that doesn’t really have a good, short description).

    • Imagine a hand-written 8, with the top curve removed so you are left with a small u or v perched on top of the lower loop. That’s a half-eight, or four.

  2. Yep, darn those ‘mobile’ animals… Especially those that had a little ‘help’ mobiling along… so to speak…

    • I heard stories from my granddad (born ca. 1885 in Wyoming) that a certain skill with a cinch ring was prized in some quarters and despised in others. Everybody had cinch rings, runnin’ irons on the other had could get you hung.

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