The first pioneers to the West were of a different sort of man, more adventurous and more wandering, and were known as the American cowmen. Coming early to the West, they had discovered endless plains of tall grasses, where wild buffalo and wild cattle aimlessly grazed. The conditions of the land did not invite permanent settlement, due to the scarcity of trees and water. Yet to the cowmen, who had serendipitously "turned his oxen out to die in the winter on the high plains, but found in the spring that they were "not only alive but in better condition then when he had turned them loose""(9), new opportunities became apparent. And thus the cowman developed his sense of place and sense of ownership of the Plains and Southwest:
He saw it as natural rangeland and he used it as such. He took upon himself the tending of great herds. He marshalled cattle from natural grasslands to natural water. He turned to the lonely life of keeper of stock, guarding his animals against wolves and indians, fire and drought, shadeless heat and driving cold. The land which he had found open and free for range cattle, he maintained open and free for range cattlemen; he kept it intact. But he came to regard it in its early history as his own domain.(10)
While the cowmen had settled the West prior to the Civil War, it was not until after the Civil War that their empire was built. For in these years the demand for meat reached unprecedented levels, driving the cattle of the cowmen to high values. Thus, "the men who controlled the ranges suddenly were in a position to gain great benefit"(11). With this potential benefit came the need for a hierarchy to establish their power, and thus the cowmen established codes to govern the West and to protect it from outsiders. Principal among such codes was the Law of the Open Range, "the unwritten rule of free access fo grass and water"(11). Most cowmen did not own the land on which their cattle grazed, and thus the Law of the Open Range secured their rights, by warning farmer-pioneers "not to stand in the cowman's route to the ranges, not to block his way with towns and fields--and of all things--fences"(11).
And hence the problem of the frontier arose. For farmers needed fences to protect their crops from livestock, and these fences threatened the livelihood of the cowman. Yet, up to 1873, no suitable fencing existed for the pioneer-farmer. Nevertheless, in this year, as it has been seen, an invention in fencing would transform the lives of farmers and cowmen alike and would create a true struggle for the American frontier.
Traditionally fences had been used by farmers to keep livestock out of their crops. Yet, in Texas, in the 1880;s, tradition was changing, and for the first time ranches were being built utilizing barbed wire to keep livestock in. The most prominent of these ranches, the Frying Pan and XIT, served to demonstrate to cowmen the benefit of fencing, and thus they existed as harbingers of the new frontier.
The first ranch, the Frying Pan, was bought by the barbed wire men of Illinois, Henry Sanborn and Joseph Glidden. The men hoped to use the ranch as an experiment for barbed wire. For "they had come to the Texas Panhandle to promote their long sought material suitable for fencing the Western Plains"(115). These two men saw the fencing as a method to keep their cattle in, and thus they presented a novel purpose for the new fencing. In the end, 150 miles of barbed wire fencing was constructed at a price of over 39,000 dollars, to contain 1500 head of cattle. Their experiment worked, yet both men were seen as outsiders to the cattle culture of Texas. It would take further examples to convince the cattlemen of this use of their product.
The second ranch, the XIT, developed out of the burning of the Texas capitol building in 1881. Following the destructive burning, the Texas legislature, in 1882, declared "that state-owned lands would be set aside for the erection of a new statehouse"(120). The legislature further decreed that the building must be one foot taller than the national capitol building in Washington, and thus three million acres of Panhandle Plains were set aside to cover this incredible cost. The men to receive this land, in exchange for building the massive building in Austin, were of the Capitol Syndicate of Illinois. Quickly, they developed their ideas of how to construct the prodigious XIT ranch.
Principal among their ideas for the ranch was barbed wire fencing. They saw early the benefits of barbed wire fencing, for they were in a unique position:
They were not free-pasture men. They were not champions of the Open Range. They themselves, though controlling cattle, were not even cattlemen in the usual sense of the term. But neither were they squatters or nesters, come to break up the land into small farms and settlements. They were in a unique position; they were owners whose cattle would obviously benefit from fencing, and they were ranchers who believed in confinement of herds, although the extent of their ranges belied the use of such a word as "confinement." Their outlook presaged an overall change in philosophy for the cattle industry. They were among the first to put into practice the theory that cattle-proof fences were advantageous for Western cattlemen as well as for agriculturalists.(134)Indeed, with its incredible amount of fencing, land, and cattle, the XIT ranch made a powerful statement. In the years following its construction, other ranchers would follow its course, transforming the Open Range into a closed land of fences.
A striking example of the transition from the Old Guard of free-range cattlemen to the new revolution of fencing may be seen in the character of Abel "Shanghai" Pierce, whose ranch near Matagorda, Texas occupied much of the Texas Gulf Coast. In the early years of fencing, Pierce was fully opposed to the prospect of fencing the Open Range. He claimed that ""as long as water runs and grass grows here . . .," "this will be open prairie""(142). His cattle roamed openly on the Plains for many years up until the 1880's. At this time, following the lead of the XIT and Frying Pan, and due much in part to his brother's farming aspirations and a conflict with a neighbor, Pierce began buying his land and fencing it in with barbed wire. It may be said that "the final factor which changed "Old Shang" Pierce from a "free grass man" to a landowner and builder of fences was the proven suitability of barbed wire as fencing for the prairie-plains"(148). And like Pierce, many other ranchers who had held on to the ways of old were giving into the ways of new. Fencing with barbed wire had been accepted on the frontier, and the closing of the Open Range was at hand. Yet the swift changes of this revolution would not come without conflict, and the 1880's were full of conflicts arising out of the opposition to barbed wire fencing.
The first major setback to barbed wire fencing came to be known as "the big die up"(128) and occurred between 1885 and 1887. Between 1882 and 1885, when barbed wire ranches were still uncommon to the Plains, large sections of barbed wire fences, known as "drift fences," were "erected by cattlemen of the Texas Panhandle and adjacent areas in an effort to keep cattle in the north from coming onto southern ranges"(129). With the approach of strong winters, cattle from the North would turn south, overcrowding and destroying what remained of the already overgrazed Panhandle grasses. Thus to prevent such an occurrence, the cattlemen of the Panhandle constructed a massive "drift fence" from East to West, creating a massive barrier to the herds of the North. As planned, when the extreme winters of 1885-1887 hit the Plains, the cattle of the North moved south as far as possible, until impeded by the "drift fences" that had been constructed. However, no one was prepared for the consequences of this new built barrier. The results were as follows:
They moved "like grey ghosts . . . [with] icicles hanging from their muzzles, eyes, and ears," toward the Texas Panhandle, and directly into the fences. There they were stalled; they could not go forward, and they would not go back. They stood stacked together against the wire, without food, water, warmth or shelter. The pressed close against each other in groups all along the fence line, and sometimes they gathered in bunches reaching as much as four hundred yards back from the fence. Still there was not enough warmth in their huddled forms to counteract the cold, and within a short time they either smothered or froze in their tracks. (132)The cattlemen of the Plains were outraged with the resultant enormous loss, which was estimated to be as high as 75 percent in some herds. The result was "only resentment--growing, mounting, raging resentment, which was sure to cause a serious setback in plans for the future of barbed wire"(135). For the men of the Plains had their first reason to oppose and hate barbed wire, and as time progressed, greater reasons would develop.
The greatest cause against barbed wire grew out of the closing of the Open Range. With the purchase of land and fencing in of the range, many small ranchers and cowmen were left without land for their cattle to feed on and without water for their cattle to drink from. Thus with the growing hatred of barbed wire, and now a new impetus for survival, many men of the frontier began to take action. The first steps were simply cutting down the fences, but quickly, the scene developed into a full range war. Small interests were matched against big interests, as blood was shed, fences were cut to pieces, and communities were torn apart. Vigilante justice reigned supreme, and terror seized the land. Eventually state legislatures were called to end the problem, which did not cease until the late 1880's. In the end, the barbed wire had won. Yet the range wars had made their mark on the history of the West as a final stand against the arrival of change.
With the legislation to protect barbed wire and further legislation to promote homesteading, the frontier had been won. The Open Range was gone, and in its place stood a land covered by fences. Yet the change to the landscape did not stand alone with the advent of fencing, for in addition, many cultural and agricultural transformations had occurred as well. Through an examination of these further changes that barbed wire incurred upon the frontier, its complete meaning may be better understood. For from this, it may be seen how an invention, with its humble beginnings in De Kalb, could come to truly transform the American frontier.