Monday, December 1, 2014

This Means War: the Devil’s Rope Comes to Texas

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.

–from The Cowman’s Lament”
(Texas folksong, origin obscure)

The Fall of the Cowboy, Frederic Remington, 1895
(Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Texas saw a massive influx of former Confederates dispossessed by the Civil War and seeking a place to start over. Texas seemed like a good spot: The state offered plenty of open range and brimmed with feral cattle called longhorns. Many a man with nothing more than guts and grit built both fortune and 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, 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)
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 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.

In Prodigal Gun, a barbed-wire fence touches off a war in the Texas Hill Country, bringing an infamous gunman to Texas for the first time since he left to fight for the Confederacy sixteen years earlier. Reviewers are calling the book “a gripping, vivid western” wrapped around a love story. Prodigal Gun is available in paperback and e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. All royalties will be donated to charities benefiting the hungry and animals in the U.S.

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


  1. Kathleen,

    Great article. However, fence cutting is still a frequent activity in Colorado (and perhaps elsewhere) along with cattle rustling. A rancher has to ride the fence line and fix the cut wire. Fence wire is cut for many reasons. The cutter wants access to go hunting, to put their own cattle to graze on their neighbor’s grass, to steal cattle, to take firewood, rocks, or search for gold or Indian artifacts. Sometimes it is done because of feuds, or plain maliciousness. I guarantee that fence cutting is far from over in the western United States. I speak from experience and most ranchers carry protection.


    1. Dang, Charlie, that post is as interesting as Kathleen's terrific article.

      Now let's all go buy a copy of Prodigal Gun and donate to rescue animals. (which is a wonderful thing for you to do, Kathleen)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Charlie, I'm glad ranchers and cowboys carry protection! Fence-cutting can be dangerous business. I imagine a certain amount of it still occurs in most livestock states, but at least it's no longer a running gun battle (I hope).

      Rustling of cattle and horses remains a bigger problem than most folks realize. Instead of drovers, modern rustlers use tractor-trailer rigs. I don't know about the rustling laws in other states, but in Texas rustling is a third-degree felony. Under Texas's "stand your ground" law, rustlers risk being shot if they're caught in the act.

      The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh? Thanks for stopping by! :-)

    4. Frank, I agree! Charlie always chimes in with interesting stuff. I love it when others have more information to share any blog post and are willing to share their knowledge. Enriches all of us, doesn't it? :-)

      Thanks for your kind words about the royalties. That move was inspired by my late other half, who was passionate about both causes. If y'all gentlemen buy copies to support the cause, wear a mask so you don't endanger your Man Cards. ;-)

    5. My daughter, on her three expedition to track down a marauding puma in Mexico a few years ago, passed through several ranches and cut the fences, but repaired them. That's a common practice there. Normally though she'd simply jump fences, but she had her horse so loaded with provisions, water, grain, etc she didn't try any fence jumping. She and the vaqueros on the family ranch routinely carry fence cutting/repair tools.

  2. Texas Ranger Ira Aten sure knew how to exercise the art of problem-solving, Kathleen.

    1. I got a kick out of Ira Aten's response to the fence-cutting problem. We love our Rangers for their crime-fighting exuberance, but they've been known to get a mite too creative on occasion. :-D

  3. As usual, a very informative and fun to read post. Do love me some history, and this time period is endlessly fascinating. Thank you for adding to the knowledge. Doris

  4. Doris, I learn all kinds of things from every single one of your posts wherever I find them. Glad I can return the favor on occasion, sweetie. If all of us research-aholics stick together, our heads will get so full of knowledge they'll explode. :-D

  5. Thanks for the scoop. By "barbed wire," I presume you really mean "bob war," right?

  6. Now Vonn, I wouldn't be much of a Texan if I didn't mean "bob wahr," now would I? ;-)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Kathleen, so sorry it has taken me so dang long to get here! One thing and then another--all day long. And it ain't over yet! I really really loved this post. You pack a ton of facts and interesting things into every post you put up, and I always learn something. (I know...I shouldn't say that in public, Okie to Tex...) LOL
    Great post, as always!

    1. You really shouldn't say things like that in public, Okie. People will talk. ;-)


  8. Interesting article. Thanks much for posting. There's a privately published book that can be found on the web called "War Wire." Its the history of the military use of barbed wire, but addresses its development and use in the Old West as well.

    1. Thanks for that tip, Gordo! I'll have to find that book. You're always giving me tips about useful books. Do you have something against my poor, groaning bookshelves? ;-)

    2. Invest in more bookshelves! One can never have too many, or of those things that go on them.

  9. As an aside, Texas passed a law way back that it was illegal to carry a wire-cutter. Cops and deputies could stop a car and search it by merely saying they were checking for wire-cutters. I think it was revoked back in the 1930s. They didn't have to bother with profiling.

  10. War Wire:

    Its listed on Amazon. Maybe you can find it elsewhere. Its difficult to track down some of these privately published limited number printed books.

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