Barbed Wire: The Fence that Changed the West by Joanne S. Liu
Copyright 2009 Mountain Press Publishing Company
This is a history book of just how it was that a simple product made of steel managed to change history in a twist of the wire, over a period of decades.
In times preceding the advent of barbed wire, farmers in the eastern part of the country made fences of stone and of wood to mark the boundaries of their fields, as well as keep livestock, wild animals, and other people off of their fields, to protect their growing produce from damage, theft, and loss.
When the westward expansion began in the 1840s, increased in the 1850s with the 1851“Go West, Young Man” saying attributed to John L. Soule, combined with Manifest Destiny, it became impractical to farm land which could be homesteaded. One could not keep his own, nor his neighbors’ cattle or wild horses out of his oats, hay, corn, or vegetables. Hence, many homesteads which began with high hopes and expectations were abandoned after a few years when they could not make a living on their land.
There were large cattlemen, who for the most part ran their branded cattle on wild grasses, according to season and water availability, between Texas and Saskatchewan, New Mexico to Manitoba, Missouri to Alberta. The cowboys of the old west branded their livestock, and kept watch on the herds as they roamed the plains. The Native Americans too, used these wide-open spaces to hunt wild game, and follow their game wherever the herds went. The cattlemen, cowboys, and Natives were in competition. However, large-scale wars seldom broke out between these groups.
Westward settlement became even more popular in the aftermath of the US Civil War, ending in 1865. With nothing left of their homes and farms, many took advantage of the Homestead Act, and sought to make new lives in the west. Open range was the rule of the land, and “fence out” was the rule, as opposed to the eastern “herd law” and “fence in” rule. That is a matter of variation in State Laws regarding agriculture and livestock to this day.
However, when the settlers – farmers – came along, it all changed. Some of the early farmers, especially those who could afford it, had fencing materials shipped in from the east on the railroad. The less affluent tried digging trenches around their fields. Either way, this was a very expensive proposition. The book says that an 1940 publication claimed it took $1.70 worth of fencing to prevent the loss of $2.40 worth of crops. It cost $640 to put a fence around a 160 acre parcel of land. They needed a cheaper. effective form of fences to put up in the Great Plains, where there are too few trees to make wooden fences, and where rocks and stones are not nearly as plentiful as they are in the east near the Appalachian or Ozark Mountains. It also did not go over well with the cattlemen, cowboys, or Natives. Organized parties would take down or punch holes in the fences or fill in the trenches. They did not take kindly to this. Hence, many skirmishes broke out among cattlemen, farmers, cowboys, and natives.
The aftermath of the Civil War left the western cattlemen in turmoil too. As many of the cowboys left the ranches to join the war – on either side, the cattle were untended. After the war, herds roamed everywhere, many of which were unbranded. This led to people trying to get those unbranded – hence unclaimed – cattle for themselves. This was considered cattle rustling, as many of the cattlemen – large and small, claimed the cattle were theirs.
Smooth-wire fencing has been available since the 1830s. However, it lacked effectiveness. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, several people and corporations developed twisted wire, usually with barbs of their own types. They each patented their own “twist of the wire”, but patent law was not as good as it is now. The legal battles over barbed wire patents had the effect of making patent law more effective, and the operation of the patent office being effective at protecting patents. This enhanced protection of intellectual property – including inventions, processes, and operations, greatly helped the industrial revolution and the manufacture of better and better things to enhance all of our lives.
Of course, violations of patent or “pirate” imitations of the patented item are not a new phenomenon. During the late 1870s-1890s, “moonshine wire” was manufactured and sold in great quantities, and the buyers of such counterfeit products were liable as well. Hence, all sellers of barbed wire came under suspicion by the farmers and ranchers in the west. This led to what was called the “Free Wire Movement”, countered by those interested in defending their patents.
Nonetheless, putting up barbed wire angered both the cattlemen and the Natives. It also led to the deaths of millions of cattle during harsh winters. It has to do with the way that cattle put their back to the wind or incoming blizzard, and slowly move away from it – usually they would drift south. When the cattle would encounter a fence, they could no longer move, and died along the fence. This became a horrible crisis during the brutal winter of 1885. Later, it was discovered that building drift fences shelters in areas where the cattle would congregate during blizzards would save their lives. I’d always wondered why there were shelters on the same corner of pastures, mile after mile – but which corner varies among wide areas. This is my answer to that puzzle.
Cattlemen, cowboys, and Natives were even more displeased with this more effective fencing – which they called “the devil’s rope”. Fence cutting became more common, but the farmers did not just take it lying down. They’d put up new fence, certainly, especially with this new barbed wire being much less expensive than other fencing, but also used patrols to guard their fences.
Also during the 1880s, as prime farmland homesteads became more difficult to get, people would just lay claims to land. Certainly, many of these fences were cut by the cattlemen and natives. Fence cutting had become a felony while putting up an illegal fence was a misdemeanor. Gone unchallenged, after a period of years, the land enclosed by the illegal fence would become legally the property of the person so laying the claim. This is the legal philosophy of adverse possession. False claims – of someone using a fictitious name to gain a parcel of land, or a cattleman having everyone in his employ file a claim to a homestead under the agreement that the homestead would be turned over to the cattleman, were very common. To allow the title of the land to be salable, adverse possession laws had to be used here too.
So many cattle died in the winter of 1885, and demand for meat was so high, and the price went up after the death of an estimated 200,000 cattle, that there was a movement to get rid of barbed wire in the late 1880s. However, farmers resisted this. The problems with the cattle deaths were abated, the price of barbed wire, and the designs improved, and the demand returned higher than ever.
This was also the cause of the decline, and the demise of the cattle trails, once predominant in the Old West. Instead, cattlemen fenced in their huge, large, and modest spreads. To ensure enough food, they began farming grain and hay as cattle feed, or paying neighboring farmers to raise their cattle feed in fenced fields. The cattle faired better in these confined spaces, where they could be better protected from hazards of the wild. Shipping the cattle to market by railroad to large slaughterhouses in Kansas City, Chicago, and other areas was faster, cheaper, and safer than having a long cattle drive to get them to market.
As cattlemen too, adopted the practice of fencing in and claiming their land – marking the demise of the Open Range philosophy throughout the west, the Natives found their traditional ways of life following herds of buffalo and other animals destroyed. Instead, they found themselves signing treaties assigning them parcels of reservation land. The Cherokee Outlet – now the panhandle of Oklahoma, had a lot of cattle driven over it to rail heads. They began charging tolls for cattle to cross their land.
Hence, it was barbed wire that played a big part in turning the United States from a small area of populated territory with wide-expanses of land with only a few Native Americans on it into being fully claimed, populated. This change brought its new set of problems, which are not yet settled.