An increase in the number of railheads meant that driving cattle long distances was no longer necessary. However the golden age of the cowboy really ended when the open range was divided up and fenced under private ownership. The means for restricting the vast open spaces was a type of fencing which was cheap, easy to erect, and above all more-or-less impervious to cattle – wire with barbs on it.
The alternatives prior to this date hadn’t been very practical. To buy, transport and put up wooden fencing of any length was prohibitively expensive. There was a thorny bush called Osange orange which was quite effective, but it was time-consuming to transplant and grow.
Lucien Smith of Ohio is considered to be the inventor of barbed wire and he took out a patent in 1867. But Joseph Glidden, a farmer from Illinois, made modifications which eventually, after an initial refusal, were considered novel enough to warrant a patent which was issued in 1874. The main advancement of his design was that the barbs were held in place by a second wire, twisted on the first. He had worked this out by means of experiments at home, using a coffee mill. His style of barbed wire was called ‘The Winner’.
Barbed wire was introduced to Texas in the late 1870’s. At first people were suspicious, thinking that cattle might hurt themselves on the barbs, and also there was conflict between the farmers who wanted to protect their crops and the ranchers who wanted freedom of movement over the range. But demonstrations in 1876 showed that cattle could be successfully and safely contained by barbed wire and after that it became big business. It had further advantages from a farmer’s point of view. A delighted fan wrote to Glidden saying how it withstood the wind and didn’t create snowdrifts while at the same time taking up negligible room and doing nothing to exhaust the soil or cast shade.
In the 1880’s there was an incident called the ‘Big Die-Up’ in which barbed wire played a major role. Rangers in the Texas Panhandle had been seeking a way to protect their depleted grassland from the southward drifting of cattle in winter and over the course of the early 1880’s they built so-called drift fences of barbed wire until there was a complete barrier. In late December 1885 a series of blizzards made cattle retreat instinctively toward the south but they were unable to get past the drift fencing and in a short time they froze to death or were smothered in heaps in their thousands. Some, trapped in open areas, fell victim to wolves or coyotes. Whole herds were almost wiped out. The next winter was equally severe and many more cattle were lost in the same way, resulting in the bankruptcy of a large number of ranch owners.
Barbed wire was also controversially used by cattle barons as a way of claiming large tracts of land so as to protect them from the herds of new settlers. Sometimes they fenced in not only their own land, but public domain land as well, leading smaller cattlemen to retaliate by cutting fences. This practice erupted into the Fence Cutting Wars which raged across many southern states in the early 1880’s. Vigilantes became involved and there was chaos and even deaths.
Fence cutting had considerable local support in some areas. In Texas there were groups of cowboys with colourful names like the Owls, Javelinas or Blue Devils, who cut fences, but the practice was made a felony, first in Texas in 1884 and then in other states. On the other hand a federal law of 1885 forbade putting fences across public domains. Gradually the troubles subsided. Barbed wire still has considerable negative press but only when it’s being used for other, very different purposes.