The Transformation of the American Frontier

"With the fencing of the West, despite the many troubles that accompanied it, there came a newer, more stable way of life. The great open ranges gave way to legally enclosed farms and ranches. The grangers took over and began to cultivate the soil and irrigate and improve their farming techniques. The cattlemen began to develop smaller ranches, better feed, better techniques, better breeds of cattle--And the barbed wire fence had played its part in bringing about these changes." (Heritage of Kansas, September, 1960, 28)


Agricultural Transformation: The Move from Ranching to Farming

With the rise of barbed wire at the end of the nineteenth century came a host of agricultural changes that would transform the American frontier. The first of such changes were simply and generally improvements in agriculture as a whole, but in the end these changes would lead to more and greater changes, that would transform the frontier from the land of the rancher to the land of the farmer.

It has been noted that the fencing of the frontier made farming possible, for without it, farmers could not protect their crops and their livelihood. Yet, it must also be seen that "the barbed wire fence made better farming possible . . . Fences not only protected the growing crops from livestock, but also gave the farmer an opportunity to use the fields as pasture after harvest"(Hayter 10). And thus, on the fertile soils of the Plains, and with the help of irrigation and the windmill, farming fluorished on the frontier.

The technology of fencing also led to agricultural improvements in the cattle industry. Most importantly, barbed wire fencing led to an improved grade of livestock. In the past, the health, and thus value, of cattle had been strained by the effects of endless wandering on the Open Range. With the advent of fencing, cattle could be contained to a limited area, which was much more beneficial to their bodies. Furthermore, these cattle could be fed during the winter time, and it was noted that the animals consequently "increased in number and weight as well as value"(Hayter 10). Fencing also ended another tradition detrimental to the health of the cattle: the great cattle drives. Due to the incredible mileage traversed on these drives, the opportunity for disease, and the resistance of nature, cattle reaching their destination after a cattle drive were not in a superior condition. Fencing led ranchers to abandon the cattle drive for railroads, and thus "instead of marketing the cattle by "a long, weary drive" they could, with pastures, be held off the market and fattened and only part of the herd shipped off at a time"(Hayter 11). It may be seen that in actuality, the end of the cattle drives was economically advantageous to the rancher. Barbed wire fencing served still other purposes improving the value of cattle and the ranching industry. Acting as an effective barrier, it reduced losses of cattle due to straying or theft. Furthermore, it ended the need for branding, which was claimed to reduce the value of a cow by as much as two dollars. Lastly, barbed wire allowed the introduction of blended stock to the Plains, whose value greatly superseded that of the Longhorn. In the past, the Longhorn, solely, had been utilized due to its hardy and resistant nature and its ability to endure the hardship of the Plains. But with the improvements that have been heretofore discussed, other breeds could be introduced. And thus the Longhorn vanished, and "in his place [came] the Shorthorn, Angus, and the Hereford, with their better beef producing qualities"(Hill 83).

Despite the improvements in the beef cattle industry, it was noticed even at the time that "the country is fast becoming the land of the big farmer and small cowman"(Hill 83). Much of this change was due to the greater economic yield that farming produced, due to its improvements. Yet barbed wire fencing also contributed directly to the economic decline of the ranching industry. For fencing cost a great deal, and ranching on a large scale required a great deal of fencing. This cost proved to be too much, for in the end, "the profits in the business were not adequate to support a debt structure such as many of them contracted during the boom days, and as a result the crash came, ruining many of the best companies"(Hayter 16).

The great agricultural changes that fencing brought to the frontier had transformed it forever. With improvements in agriculture, the face of the land had changed:

The advent of barbed wire was an important factor in the decline of the cattle kingdom. It brought about the disappearance of the open, free range and converted the range country into the big-pasture country. It sounded the death knell of the native longhorn and made possible the introduction of blended stock. With barbed-wire fences the ranchman could isolate his cattle and, through segregation, could introduce blended stock. Barbed wire put an end to the long drive, made the cattle trail a "crooked lane," and forced the cattlemen to patronize the railroads whether he would or not. Barbed wire has made stock-farming rather than ranching the dominant occupation on the Great Plains. (Webb 317)
Truly, it may be seen that barbed wire had transformed the American frontier forever.