Cattle raiding is iconic of the colonial frontier in Southern African history and historiography. Incorporating settlers and Africans as aggressors and victims alike, archives and ethnohistories depict raiding as thieving, subverting authority, and inciting conflict. Despite the in-depth anthropological attention given to ‘Bushman raiding’ and frontier commandos, comparatively little work has focused on the social and cultural function of cattle raiding within chiefdoms: that is, examining cattle raiding as socially embedded rather than simply transgressing authority and property ownership. This article explores how these narratives of ‘disorder’ have been constructed, and some alternative perspectives on nineteenth-century cattle raiding as a social institution. Through vignettes drawing on archival, archaeological, ethnographic and folkloric evidence, this article offers glimpses of what narratives of the recent past could look like if views of raiding-as-disorder were revisited and revised. I draw attention to where raids were illegal versus illicit, the role of cattle as social agents, and the logic underpinning designations of raiding as resistance. Developing a view of raiding as social practice permits us to interrogate archival perceptions of raiders as outlaws and raids as analogues for warfare, thus enabling more nuanced investigations of conflict in Southern Africa's past.