Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fencing the West With Devil's Rope by Tom Rizzo

When Joseph Glidden attended the DeKalb County Fair of 1873, he spotted something that triggered an idea. Not only would it change his life, but the way of life across the American West, as well. 

During the fair, he saw Henry M. Rose, another Illinois farmer, exhibiting a wooden fence to which he had attached a row of sharp spikes along the sides. Rose said the barbs, that could be attached to existing fencing, would result in livestock keeping their distance because of the painful barbs of coming into contact with the sharp points.

Glidden, however, perceived a broader application by attaching the sharp barbs at intervals along smooth wire

He then twisted the wires together to hold them in place and prevent them from sliding. The simple twisting action made his wire superior to others. 

After submitting the design, the government issued Glidden a patent on Nov. 24, 1874. Other inventors filed court challenges against Glidden, but he survived litigation attempts.

The original idea for barbed wire surfaced in the early 1860s when President Abraham Lincoln made the Homestead Act law. 

The Act provided 160 acres of unoccupied public land to each settler who would receive outright ownership as long as they lived on the land for five years and made improvements. 

One of the big issues these settlers faced was buffalo and free-grazing cattle that destroyed crops.

The problem ballooned to catastrophic proportions, but most of the patents for barbed wire were ineffective. New York blacksmith Michael Kelly, in 1868, patented his "Thorny Fence" creation, the first successful barbed wire produced. 

But, homesteaders found that Glidden's simple invention proved the cheapest and most durable way to fence their land. As a result, by 1880, more than 80 million pounds of it was sold, making it the most popular in the nation. 

Glidden's wire soared in popularity because lumber wasn't readily available on the mostly treeless Great Plains. 

Since wood was in short supply, farmers built their homes of sod. Fencing was expensive. Wood rails had to be shipped in by train and wagon from distant forests. The process was time consuming.

Cattle ranchers, nevertheless, needed a reliable way to control their herds, and farmers realized fencing was necessary to prevent animals from trampling their crops.  

Barbed wire proved a more economical and more durable alternative.

At first, cattlemen disliked the idea because of the dramatic changes it caused.

The flat, rolling, treeless grassland and undefined prairies and plains that gave rise to the open-range cattle industry was undergoing a transition to farmland. 

Barbed wire helped define the land, which attracted more settlers to the Plains. 

But, as history shows, change can be painful.

Cattle that once roamed freely, were no longer able to do so as thousands of homesteaders began stringing barbed wire fence around their property. Ranchers found it impossible to stage long cattle drives across open range to railheads in Dodge City or Abilene. 

Cattle herders realized more fenced-off land made them more dependent on dwindling public land, which would eventually become overgrazed. It signaled the end of cattle herding as they knew it, and threatened its very existence.  

Cattle ranchers, who resisted this new way of life, weren't the only casualties of progress.  

Nomadic Indian tribes - already forced from the lands where they once roamed freely - found their living patterns significantly altered. They began referring to barbed wire as the Devil's rope

This reshaping of the West triggered numerous legal battles, along with bitter personal disputes.  The cost was high. Many lost expensive court battles. Others, however,  lost their lives. 

This transition exploded into a conflict when some cattlemen, especially in central Texas, signaled their displeasure at the closing of the open range by cutting fences so their herds could find grazing land. Much of the violence ended in 1884 when a new Texas law made fence-cutting a felony. Other states approved similar laws. 

The first major setback to barbed wire fencing took place in the mid- to late-1880s.

Cattlemen in the Texas Panhandle and adjacent ares erected large sections of barbed wire fences - known as drift fences - to prevent cattle in the north from migrating onto southern ranges. During the blizzard conditions of the Northern Plains, cattle instinctively turned south which caused overcrowding and decimating what remained of already overgrazed grasses of the Panhandle.

Extreme winter conditions on the Plains in 1885-1887 forced cattle in the north to move as far south as they could until halted by the drift fences. This created what would be called "the big die-up.

Once the cattle reached the fences they couldn't move forward, and wouldn't turn back. Gathered together against the wire without warmth or food and water, they either smothered or froze to death. Some cattlemen lost as many as three-quarters of their herds. In 1885, a federal law was enacted aimed at preventing installing such fencing across public domain land.

Barbed wire features a broad range of unique designs. 

The Kansas Barbed Wire Museum displays about 2,000 varieties of barbed wire. 

Barbed wire collectors have their own organizations, including:

Joseph Glidden's basic design is still in use.

His simple adaptation - cheaper to erect than any alternative - made him the Father of Barbed Wire, and forever changed the landscape of American West.


  1. In my novel Hell Fire in Paradise, Finn McBride builds barb-wire fences for a living. Also, there's an Elmer Kelton novel out there somewhere on a guy that builds fences. Thanks for the info, Tom.

  2. My brother and I built way too much fence. It was our luck to be born to the pickiest man around. Our fences had to be works of beauty. Stretching the wire can get a bit exciting. Bad cuts happen when the wire breaks. Weird things happen when you turn the fencer on and the insulators are messed up. I love suburbia.

  3. Thanks, Chuck and Jacquie. This past weekend, I visited the Butler Longhorn Museum, a few miles from where I live, and saw a barbed wire display. What struck me was a framed pair of gloves that were used to string the wire. Huge, thick, steel-tipped. They reminded me those chain link armor gloves of medieval times. What did you wear, Jacquie?

  4. A fascinating article, Tom. Thank you for the information

  5. Back in my brief cowboyin' days as a teenager, I once faced - while on foot - an angry and charging 800 lb. yearling heifer. I was standing petrified three feet to the right of a barbed wire fence. Fortunately, the heifer chose the fence over me at the last second. It didn't even slow her down. Only thing I know is that the boys around here call it "bob war." Thanks for a great post, Tom.

  6. You're welcome, Keith. Glad you enjoyed it.

  7. Phi--Well, I'm glad he chose the fence because I would guess side-stepping a charging heifer wouldn't do much good. "Boy,stay away from that-air bob war fence!"

  8. As I recall, the foreman was truly put out with me for allowing that heifer to mangle the fence and some of herself.

  9. Great information. I used to help my husband string barbed wire. I hated it because it wants to always coil back in on itself and it's easy for it to roll around your hand or arm. I like electric.

  10. Great post. When i was doing day work for ranchers around Weatherford I remember thinking: Man, this cowboying stuff is a heck of a lot like building fence...

  11. Kathy, you and Jacquie should trade stories. I can't imagine what it would be like controlling a barbed wire fence from coiling back on itself.

  12. Marc, thanks. Glad you liked it. Enjoyed your analogy about ranching and fencing. Both tough, demanding, and unpredictable.

  13. Tom, we wore thick leather gloves. The good news is that the gloves prevented some of the barbs from poking, although we still ended up perforated. The bad news is the gloves prevent you from doing work requiring fine motor skills, such as making a good, tight twist. You have to take them off for that sort of thing.

  14. Tom, if you ever get to Oklahoma City, go visit the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. They have an entire room devoted to barbed wire--vertical drawers pull out of the wall all the way around to display the different kinds of barbed wire. It is just amazing. I enjoyed your post--always learn something new & different from you!

  15. Jacquie, the gloves I saw were definitely perforated. And, you are right about the dexterity issue. These must be similar; they were so large, I doubt they could be used to perform any other type activity.

  16. Cheryl, I visited the museum once, but many, many years ago. That particular room I did not see, but probably wasn't there at that time. It would be an amazing exhibit to see. I was taken by surprise at the different kinds of wire. An historian told me this week that in many cases, the configuration of the wire served as an identity of the particular rancher or farmer, and you could tell to whom the fence belonged to by its design. Pleased you enjoyed it.

  17. although it's hard to tell. I can't imagine they would have the wire facing inward because that would be a huge suggestion towards something beyond just an airport...such as a concentration camp.building a chain link fence