Social Transformation: The End of the Open Range and Cowboy Culture


With the rise of fencing came the end of the Open Range and the culture that had been sustained by it. It gave in to a land more developed and more civilized. Towns began to prosper, the economy fluorished, and law took hold. The days of the old, wild West were gone forever, for with barbed wire fencing had come a social transformation of the American frontier.

The culture of the Open Range was dictated by the amorphous Code of the Range, which neither drew boundaries nor created strict regulations and allowed for a common sharing of the American frontier. It featured the American cowboy, who wandered through the frontier, guarding and trailing cattle, riding lines, and living alone. Its greatest event was the annual roundup, where cattle were gathered, separated, and branded, offering an ounce of control and structure to the culture once a year. The Open Range was a lawless land, where the six-shooter and vigilante justice ruled. It may be said that it was an uncivilized land, in complete disregard for the social structures and foundations of the East. Yet with the rise of fences throughout the land, a primitive structure had been established, which would quickly erase the culture of the Open Range from the land. Foremost, the barbed wire fences ended the cowboy, whose purpose and role had become obsolete. He was no longer needed to ride lines or to roundup cattle, nor to guard cattle or to trail them, for the fence had both changed and assumed his purpose. And thus "fencing of the land enabled the farmers and stockmen to reduce their costs of employment, as they were able to reduce the number of herders, line-riders, and cowhands in general"(Hayter 12). The need for the cowboy had vanished, and with it, the majority of the cowboys had vanished as well.

The end of the Open Range and the cowboy brought in itself other social implications to the frontier. First, "the reduction in number of cowhands had a decided influence on the moral and ethical standard of community"(Hayter 12). Law was no longer established by the six-shooter, and a sense of civilization pervaded the land. Urban life, no longer traumatized by cattle drives and unrestrained cowboys, became more stable, and communities began to grow and fluorish. With this permanent structure and stability in the West came an increase in commerce and industry. Railroads, hotels, banks, and boards of trade began to occupy the land. The West was quickly becoming civilized, in the Eastern sense of the word. On a smaller note, barbed wire affected tax colleting and also entered the political arena. These effects are mentioned to demonstrate the diversity and multiplicity of effects of barbed wire on the social structure of the West. Thus it may be seen that the social effects of barbed wire were both many and of great importance. The barbed wire fence had ended the cow culture and in its place had established a farm and urban culture. Barbed wire had fenced the West, but more importantly it had transformed it both socially and agriculturally.