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?