By Kathleen Rice Adams
I’m going to leave old Texas now.
They’ve got no use for the longhorn cow.
They’ve plowed and fenced my cattle range,
And the people there are all so strange.
|The Fall of the Cowboy, Frederic Remington, 1895|
(Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)
Between 1866 and 1890, Texas 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.
|(photo by Darius Norvilas,|
used with permission)
Fence-cutting began almost as soon as the first wire went up. Small confrontations over “the Devil’s rope” happened frequently, with wire-nipping taking place in more than half of Texas counties.
In 1883, the conflict turned deadly. Instead of merely cutting fences that got in the way during trail drives, bands of armed 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 cut nineteen miles of fence, piled the wire on a stack of cedar posts, and lit a $6,000 fire.
In response, cattlemen hired armed men to guard their wire…with predictable results. Clashes became more violent, more frequent, and bloodier. 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 those twelve months damages from wire-nipping 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 erupted in the far western portion of Texas into the early part of the 20th Century.
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.
Descended from a long line of Texas ranchers, preachers, and teachers on one side and Kentucky horse thieves and moonshiners on the other, Kathleen Rice Adams had no choice but to become an outlaw. Maybe that’s why all of her protagonists wear black hats. Visit her at KathleenRiceAdams.com.