The Devil’s Rope

It was a simple device –nothing more than small sharp-cut loops of metal strung between twisted strands of wire.  And yet, apart from the telegraph and the railroad, no invention played a bigger role in changing the landscape of the American West.  Indian tribes, who detested it, called it the devil’s rope.  Most folks called it by its common name – barbed wire.

Before 1870, America’s Great Plains were sparsely settled with little concern for boundaries.  After the Civil War, things changed.  Ranchers moving out onto the plains needed to fence their property against encroaching settlers.  The railroads needed to keep livestock off their tracks, and farmers needed to keep stray cattle from trampling their crops.  Wood and stone fences were expensive and impractical over long distances.  Thorny hedges took time to grow and didn’t do well under the dry conditions of the west.  Fencing with plain wire strung between posts had been tried, but cattle could simply lean against the fences and push them over.

The first U.S. patent for barbed wire was issued in 1867 to Lucien B. Smith, who is regarded as the inventor.  Joseph F. Glidden received a patent for the modern invention in 1874.  The photo shows a length of Glidden’s original hand-made wire.  He called his invention “The Winner” because it beat out competition from other inventors for the patent.

By the late 1870’s many companies were making and successfully selling the new wire.   Barbed wire fences required nothing more than wire, fence posts, and devices such as staples to hold the wire in place.  They were simple to build and fast to erect.  Large areas of land could be fenced in a relatively short time.  And the painful barbs kept animals from pushing on the fences.

Not everyone was happy about  barbed wire.  While slow moving animals like cattle and sheep were rarely harmed by the fences, a horse racing into the sharp wire could be cruelly injured.  Native American tribes hated the wire because it interfered with their hunting and migrations.  But nobody hated barbed wire more than the stock growers who depended on open range for their vast herds.  One major source of conflict was the “Big Die Up” incident in the 1880’s.  Cattle tended to migrate south in the winter, away from the northern blizzards.  In the terrible winter of 1885 thousands of animals died because they couldn’t find a way around the fences.  Later other cattlemen, especially in Texas, began cutting fences to allow cattle to pass through.  Conflict erupted, with vigilantes joining in, causing chaos and death.  The fence cutting wars ended with the passage of laws that made cutting fences a felony.  Finally, barbed wire put an end to one of the most dramatic periods in American history – the great cattle drives of the late 1800’s.

I have my own memories of  barbed wire.  As a child growing up in a small farming community, I was snagged, jabbed, scratched and caught  more times than I can remember, sneaking through fences to play.  Do you have any barbed wire memories?

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19 thoughts on “The Devil’s Rope”

  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    Interesting post. During my childhood barbed wire was simply the obstacle I had to get over to explore my grandparents’ farm and the surrounding area.
    Just looking at your pictures brings back memories of crawling under or climbing over the fences to get to the fields and other adventures. A number of scratches, gouges, and torn shirts and pants mark my childhood.
    Then as I got older it became the pain in the neck obstacle to doing chores. :o)

  2. Enjoyed your comment, Kirsten. It sounds like your memories of barbed wire are similar to mine – climbing over, crawling through and under, and getting snagged.
    Some folks out there might have very different memories of barbed wire, in places where it’s used to keep people out, or in.
    Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Barbed wire and I have a miserable relationship and I have the scars to prove it. Over never worked for me and through or under only worked when there was someone else around to help.

  4. Hi Elizabeth, I remember climbing over a barbed wire fence to get to some berries. I was only five at the time and it took forever to climb over that fence because my clothes kept snagging.

    Once I reached the other side I ate my full of berries. It was then that I noticed a bull heading straight at me. I don’t know how I managed to get over that fence so quickly the 2nd time but I did, though I was pretty scratched up.

    There’s something magical in saving yourself from a bull at the age of five. After that, I figured there was nothing I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. I often wonder how the kids of today learn those valuable lessons.

    Thank you for posting–and for bringing back a “painful” but pleasant memory.

  5. Ow. Sorry for reviving a painful memory, Connie. I remember when I was little my grandpa, who kept a few cows, decided to go modern and put an electric fence around his pasture. The first time I touched it, it knocked me flat. There was no second time.

  6. Love your bull story, Margaret. What a great lesson you learned – that you could do anything you put your mind to. And I’m guessing you pretty much have. Thanks for an inspiring post.

  7. Elizabeth, I have done my share of crawling through barbed wire fences. And I never did it without being jabbed or stuck. Those barbs just seem to reach and grab you. Oh, the memories.

  8. A lot of us have painful memories of barbed wire, Linda. But whatever was on the other side of those fences must’ve been worth the ouches, or we wouldn’t have taken the trouble. That’s where the good memories come in. Thanks for posting.

  9. Yep been there with the barb wire fences. We had them. We had some pigs we couldn’t keep in so my dad decided to put in an electric fence. I even got tangled up in it one time and it wasn’t fun at all. We still could keep those pigs in the pen with the electric fence so we finaly got rid of them. Some teens even put a sigh up down on the road that said Caution Hog Crossing

  10. Elizabeth, I found your post interesting to read and it does bring back memories. When I was a child, I grew up on a small farm with some cattle. I remember going through the barb wire fencing to get to the other side. I remember doing my share of crawling through the barbed wire fences. I was also pinned up against the barbed wire fence by one of the cows we had, which wasn’t fun having it poke me in the back. The memories that I have.

  11. Hi Elizabeth, I’m a suburban girl but I do recall seeing barbed wire on outings. I keep thinking of the poor cattle trying to outrun blizzards or fires, getting stopped by it.

    Great informative post! oxoxox

  12. I, too, remember crawling underneath barbed wire on my friend’s farm. I love those days. In the climate in which we are today, those memories — that at the time weren’t special — seem special now. 🙂

  13. My granny use to say, Don’t mess with barb wire, because you ain’t going to win. She was right; I have quite a few scars from getting to close the barb wire. Or how many pairs of jeans got snagged when I climbed the fence.

  14. Back with you after an absence and some trouble with my pesky internet. Some great comments here.

    Quilt Lady I loved your pig story. Pigs are smarter than they look and great escape artists. Maybe that’s why I have a hard time eating them.

    And being pinned to a wire by a cow? Wow, that’s scary, Becky W. Sounds like it could have turned out really bad. Glad you escaped with a few scratches.

    That is one of the sad aspects of barbed wire, Tracy, that it’s caused animals to die. I also think of it on prisons and concentration camps. It has its darker purposes as well as useful ones.

  15. And you still have scars, Estella? Wow you must have had some nasty tangles with that wire!

    Tracy and Kay, it funny how something as annoying as barbed wire can be linked to happy memories. Maybe it has to do with being a child and taking chances, knowing that a few scratches were worth whatever was on the other side.

    Your granny was a wise, wise woman, Carissa. Her warning would apply to a lot of things today.

  16. I have a nice long scar on one knee that has faded with time. I caught it climbing through a fence into a pasture.

    Our son was attacked by a bear in the pasture behind our house. His left arm was clawed, but he got a multitude of cuts when he dove through the barbed wire fence to get to the house. They were more obvious injuries because they were on his face, hands and arms.

  17. Oh my gosh, Patricia. Don’t know where you live, but your life must be an adventure. So glad your son survived and got through the barbed wire. As many of these stories prove, that wire has its good and bad sides. Thanks for a memorable comment.

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