The Devil’s Rope Comes to Texas — and a Giveaway

Kathleen Rice Adams header

young longhorn

Longhorn cattle in the Texas Hill Country

Texas has seen a number of mass migrations since the Mexican government opened the territory to Anglo settlers in the 1820s, but perhaps none were as transformative as the influx that took place immediately following the Civil War. Carpetbaggers, footloose former Union soldiers, and dispossessed former Confederates all found attractive the state’s untamed rangeland brimming with feral cattle called longhorns. Many a man with nothing more than guts and grit built a fortune and a legacy by shagging longhorns from deep scrub and driving the tough, stubborn, nasty-tempered critters north to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. Others pushed herds to Montana and Wyoming to begin new lives where the West was even wilder.

Between 1866 and 1890, cowboys drove an estimated twelve million longhorns and one million horses north. A crew of twelve to twenty men could push a herd of 2,000 to 3,000 beeves about ten to fifteen miles a day, reaching Kansas railheads in three to four months.

The development of barbed wire in the mid-1870s — along with an incursion of sheepmen and farmers — put a crimp in the cattle drives by crisscrossing Texas’s wide-open spaces with miles and miles and miles of fence. To protect themselves and their herds from the yahoos who would use Texas range for something besides Texas cattle, wealthy ranchers strung wire around the land they owned or leased, often extending their fences across public land, as well. What once had been open range across which cowboys drove enormous herds of steak on the hoof became parceled off, causing no end of frustration and unfriendly behavior.

Fence-cutting began almost as soon as the first of the wire went up. Small confrontations over “the Devil’s rope” happened frequently, with wire-nipping taking place in more than half of Texas counties.

barbed wireIn 1883, the conflict turned bloody. Instead of merely cutting fences that got in the way during trail drives, bands of armed cowboy vigilantes calling themselves names like Owls, Javelinas, and Blue Devils destroyed fences simply because the fences existed. Fence-cutting raids usually occurred at night, and often the vigilantes left messages warning the fence’s owner not to rebuild. Some went so far as to leave coffins nailed to fenceposts or on ranchers’ porches. During one sortie, vigilantes pulled down nineteen miles of fence, piled the wire on a stack of cedar posts, and lit a $6,000 bonfire.

In response, cattlemen hired armed men to guard their wire…with predictable results. Clashes became more violent, more frequent, and deadlier. In 1883 alone, at least three men were killed in Brown County, a hotspot of fence-cutting activity, during what came to be known as the Texas Fence-Cutter War.

The bloodiest period of the Fence-Cutter War lasted for only about a year, but in that period damages from fence-cutting and range fires totaled an estimated $20 million — $1 million in Brown County alone.

Although politicians stayed well away from the hot-button issue for about a decade, in early 1884 the Texas legislature declared fence-cutting a felony punishable by a prison term of one to five years. The following year, the U.S. Congress outlawed stringing fence across public land. Together, the new laws ended the worst of the clashes, although the occasional fracas broke out in the far western portion of Texas into the early part of the 20th Century.

Texas Ranger Ira Aten

Texas Ranger Ira Aten

The Texas Rangers were assigned to stop several fence-cutting outbreaks, and being the Texas Rangers, they proved remarkably effective…with one notable exception. In February 1885, Texas Ranger Ben Warren was shot and killed outside Sweetwater while trying to serve a warrant for three suspected fence-cutters. Two of the three were convicted of Warren’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In 1888, a brief resurgence of fence-cutting violence erupted in Navarro County, prompting famed Texas Ranger Ira Aten to place dynamite charges at intervals along one fence line. Aten’s method was a mite too extreme for the Texas Adjutant General, who ordered the dynamite removed. The mere rumor of the explosive’s presence brought fence-cutting to a rapid halt in the area, though.

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Though Civil War battles left few scars on Texas, the war’s aftermath was devastating — and not just because barbed-wire fence appeared. Texas existed under federal martial law for five long years after the war ended, becoming the final member of the Confederacy to repatriate only under duress. During Reconstruction, lingering animosity led some of the occupation forces to plunder and terrorize their jurisdictions. Bearing their own grudges and determined to become an independent republic again, Texans demanded “the invading foreign army” remove its boots from sovereign soil. A U.S. Supreme Court decision finally ran the rebellious Lone Star State back in with the rest of the herd in 1870, at last reunifying a divided nation.

A Kiss to Remember

 

My newest story, The Trouble with Honey, takes place during Reconstruction in Texas: A marshal’s widow can escape a Union Army manhunt only with the help of an outlaw condemned to hang. The novella is part of the trilogy The Dumont Way, which begins a saga chronicling the lives and loves of a Texas ranching dynasty from before the Civil War to the turn of the 20th Century.

The Dumont Way is available in the five-author boxed set A Kiss to Remember. Three other Petticoats and Pistols fillies also contributed to the collection: Cheryl Pierson, Tanya Hanson, and Tracy Garrett.

 

Excerpt:

Boots meandered across the stone floor. The marshal’s snicker slapped Daniel between the shoulder blades. “Injun Creek hasn’t seen this much excitement in a month of Sundays. We’re planning quite a celebration for you.”

One of life’s great mysteries: Had Halverson been born arrogant, or had the skill required practice? “Always did fancy a crowd of folks looking up to me.”

Whistling, the marshal moved away. Daniel stared at the dingy clapboard across the alley. That wall wouldn’t present much challenge. This wall, on the other hand… A barrel of black powder and a lucifer would come in handy right about now.

He rested his forehead against the bars. Daisy would dig up his body and throw a second hemp party if he didn’t show up for the wedding.

The jailhouse door scraped open, and a swirl of fresh air tapped him on the shoulder. Fingering the tender crease running from his eyebrow to his hairline, he pivoted. If Halverson’s lucky shot hadn’t dropped him—

His fingertips stilled. So did his breath.

The marshal ushered in a voluptuous vision and lifted a tin plate from her hands. An abundance of golden hair, gathered in soft swirls at the crown, framed her head like a halo. Curls fell beside rounded cheeks.

“What’re you doing here?” Judging by the pucker in his tone, Halverson had eaten one too many sour apples. “Where’s that old drunk you insist on keeping around?”

“Henry hasn’t touched a drop in—”

“What? Twenty-four hours?”

The angel raised her chin. “He isn’t feeling well.”

Daniel drifted to the front of the cell and slouched onto the forearms he draped over a horizontal bar. The familiar voice… Nectar, fresh from a hive.

Gracing Halverson with a shallow smile, the buxom beauty tipped her head toward the plate. “Chicken and dumplings for your prisoner’s supper.”

Steam rising from the lump meant to be his meal carried a whiff of old socks. Daniel’s thoughts churned right along with his stomach. High point of the day: bad vittles. Now, the lady… She was downright mouthwatering.

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A Kiss to Remember is available exclusively on Amazon (free for those who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited). I’ll give an e-copy to one of today’s commenters who answers this question: If you had migrated to Texas after the Civil War, would you have settled in town or on a ranch or farm? Why?

Thanks for stopping by today! I’m looking forward to your comments. 🙂

 

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Kathleen Rice Adams
A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen's tales, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang's hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.

28 Comments

  1. Kathleen, I’ve always wanted to write a book about how barbed wire changed the world.
    It really did. It was HUGE.
    And yet it’s a single … sharp wire.

    1. It’s amazing such a simple concept had such an enormous — and lasting — impact, isn’t it? Barbed wire went a long way toward civilizing the west in some ways…while at the same time proving no compass point will ever be truly civilized while people inhabit the area. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by, Mary! 🙂

  2. I’m a country girl at heart who likes to have room to roam around me and the sounds of nature (rather than people), so I guess my choice would be to farm. Also, since I descend from farmers on both sides of my family, it’s probably in my blood. If it’s of any interest, when my grandfather turned to the natural gas industry in East Texas (Gladewater), his daughters kept the large family garden going, I guess as women usually did, and as my mom told me.

    1. I forgot since you mentioned the War, my g-g-grandfather and his two oldest sons started out in Texas for the war, but only the oldest son returned.

      1. That kind of result of the war was all too common, sadly. 🙁

        Wouldn’t you like to have one of those large family gardens today? Fresh produce just tastes better than store-bought, I think. There’s a huge community garden movement in Galveston these days, since so few homes have enough room to grow more than one or two veggies. The community gardens usually mean everyone who participates gets to share a nice variety of fruits and vegetables — and the garden plots put vacant lots to good use, as well. 🙂

        Nice to see you, Eliza! Hope all is well with you and yours. 🙂

  3. Kathleen, when I worked at the Nat’l Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum here in OKC, there was an entire room devoted to their collection of barbwire samples. They are encased in glass drawers that pull out from the wall sideways, like books on a shelf. One day when I was at work, a patron came to find me in another display. “Ma’am, would you come here a minute?” I went with him to the barbwire collection. He told me he had driven from Brownsville, TX, I think it was, to see this barbwire collection. He was as excited as a kid in a candy store. I quickly realized, he didn’t “need” me for anything–just wanted someone to share his joy with. I really hadn’t given barbwire that much thought up until that day–but just seeing him get so excited and the light in his eyes over so MANY SAMPLES of it is something I’ve thought about in the years since.

    You know how crazy I am about your Dumonts! LOVE those people and their stories. Always a twist! Thanks for this excellent post!

    Cheryl

    1. Bobwahr, Okie. BOBWAHR! 😉

      I wish I could’ve been there when that museum visitor got so excited. That must’ve been a kick. People collect the various kinds of wire, and I understand some of the rarer types can be quite valuable. It IS kind of fun to look at. There are so many different designs…none of them particularly friendly looking. 😀

      Thanks for the kind comment about the Dumont clan and the post! 🙂

  4. Hi Kathleen, yowzers, that barbed wire looks nasty. I remember reading, I think the blizzards of 1888? how cattle trying to find forage and outrun the weather got caught in the wire, piled up by the hundreds, and froze. All so sad.

    I loved meeting the “pet” longhorns at the Silver Spur Ranch in Bandera. They thundered up to our hayride and it was thrilling…then they slowed down promptly and got fed a treat. Oh, it was awesome. Great post as usual, Tex. xo

    1. Sadly, barbed wire was a big part of the problem during the Great Die Up. I can’t even imagine how devastating that winter must’ve been. 🙁

      Today’s longhorns are actually pretty docile; ranchers have worked to breed the mean out of them. Thank goodness, too, because those horns are wicked! I’m glad you got a chance to “meet” a herd of them. They’re unique, and we’re still very proud of them here. Next time you’re in Texas, you’d better let me know, young lady!

      Thanks for stopping by, my friend! {{{hugs}}}

  5. Very nice piece! I’ve had a few fence wars myself, the worst of which left a four-inch scar along my left knee.

    1. Yes, but that was from fighting WITH the fence, not ABOUT the fence. Fighting with bobwahr is always a losing proposition. The dang stuff cheats.

      A four-inch scar on YOUR knee must run almost the length of your leg. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by, Vonn! {{{hugs}}}

  6. I would have settled on a ranch. I have always wanted a ranch with lots of horses. I can see myself doing that. I love the outdoors and being surrounded by nothing.:)

    1. That does sound heavenly, doesn’t it? I’m a city girl now, but I sure could go back to country livin’, I think. 🙂

      Nice to see you again, Mary!

  7. I like the romanticism of ranch living. But, I’m a wuss and would probably live in town.

  8. My choice would probably be a ranch… I like the wide open spaces and horses.

  9. Wow, never knew about the fence cutting wars! I would have been on a farm since that’s what I grew up on anyways.

    1. Texans are always getting into some kind of a fracas. That’s just how we roll. 😀

      I take it you don’t live on a farm anymore, Susan? Do you miss country life?

  10. I really enjoyed the post on barbed wire. Oh, who am I kidding, Bobwahr for sure. I was shocked when I learned how to spell it as a kid. I grew up a mixture of small town, farm, and cowboy. My maternal grandparents had a farm. We lived in the town a short distance from them and I spent many days with them. Fresh veggies were good but the canning not so fun but worthwhile. My paternal grandfather was a real cowboy in the sense that he worked cattle in his early years. So I grew up with tales of ranching. I think I got the best of all my upbringing. I think farming a small?, garden would be good. I have to admit that now I would feel lost without running water/bathroom facilities and electricity.

    1. You and me both, Connie! I remember visiting my mother’s three maiden aunts in Paris, Texas, when I was about eight. I was as tall as the tallest of them, which was enough of a shock, but I remember being totally floored that they had no running water in their house. The privy was out back, and they had a hand pump in the kitchen for well water. They heated dishwater and bathwater on the stove. I don’t remember what they did about laundry, but I imagine they boiled dirty clothes in a big kettle. I can’t think about that visit without realizing how spoiled I am. 😀

  11. Alway interesting to read about texas history. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kim! 🙂

  12. The winner of the boxed set is…

    VONN MCKEE!

    Congratulations, Vonn!

    1. YIPPEE! You’re all right…for a Texan!

  13. Sounds good. I ordered my copy back in July. Haven’t yet had the opportunity to read any of the books, but hope to soon.

  14. YIPPEE! You’re all right…for a Texan!

  15. I would have settled on a ranch. Love horses and open spaces. Like to grow my own vegetables and also have a orchard.Go to town to church and socialization but other ranchers would be close friends.

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