Note: All footnotes are in parenthesis and may be found on the appropriate link at the end of the article.

The enclosing of land with some form of fencing material dates far back into history. Out of the desire for ownership, independence, and safety from intrusion, many different types of enclosures have been developed. The hedgerow, the stone wall, and the rail fence are expressions of these psychological and economic desires. Hence, when the early colonists-bearing with them the inheritances of the past-came to the New World, they began to build enclosures. The nature of these early fences was conditioned largely by the kinds of materials available. In New England, they were built largely of stones, while in the South, they were constructed of rails. These two types of fence construction predominated until the western movement reached the prairies where the supply of stone and timber was insufficient.(1)

This situation resulted in experimentation with a number of other materials. Hedgerows were gradually developed, and a few homesteaders even resorted to mud and ditch enclosures. Timber was brought from neighboring States, but its cost was generally too great for those who lived on the frontier where the increased increment of their land was none too certain. As the line of settlement pushed farther west, the problem of fencing became even more acute. The small farmer found that the cost of fencing increased while the total income from his land diminished. The seriousness of the problem attracted the attention of the Federal Government, and in 1871, an elaborate report was issued by the Department of Agriculture. This report revealed that fencing, even in themost timbered areas, was very costly and that it was almost prohibitive to those who lived on the marginal lands of the western prairies.(2) As a result, the Great Plains were largely left unsettled until certain inventions became available.

In their attempts to find an economical fencing material many of the homesteaders turned to smooth wire which had been developed in the East during the early part of the nineteenth century.(3) Although it was superior and generally cheaper than other materials, it did not meet all the exigencies of a prairie fence. The iron wire of that day was affected adversely by extreme temperatures; it snapped in cold weather and sagged in hot. Furthermore, it had no terror for the livestock of the open range; they loosened the posts and broke the wire by constantly rubbing against it. Finally with the hope that animals could be satisfactorily confined within wire fences, men in the West turned to the problem of improving them.

Like many other agricultural inventions, smooth wire with some form of a barb on it has a long history. The early beginnings were in the Eastern States. The first crude patent was taken out by William D. Hunt of Scott County, New York, in 1867; he was followed in the same year by Lucien B. Smith of Ohio, and in the next year by Michael D. Kelly of New York.(4) These three inventors laid the foundations for barbed-wire fencing by furnishing the basic patents, and, though none of their own manufactures ever proved very practical, they did serve to suggest certain improvements and new ideas that soon were to crystallize into a fence adaptable to the Western States.(5)

It was natural that practical barbed-wire fencing should have been first perfected and manufactured at DeKalb, Illinois. This city is located on the edge of the prairies, where the ongoing settlers pushed into the broad treeless expanses of the West, and where the real need for such fencing was first felt. Farmers and mechanics put their minds to this problem, and a check of the 394 patents listed by the American Steel and Wire Company in its three-volume set of Early Barbed Wire Specimens reveals that 176, or nearly half of the total, were issued to Illinois inventors.(6)

In the early 1870's, a number of men in the immediate vicinity of DeKalb began experimenting with this new type of fencing. Sociologically speaking, this community was conditioned for such a cultural innovation, and the environmental challenge had so emerged that a rather sizeable group responded. Two of them developed patents that produced a practical and durable fence at low cost. J. F. Glidden, on his farmstead near DeKalb, perfected a fence that eventually became the pattern for most of the barbed-wire producers and consumers, while Jacob Haish, a local lumber dealer, developed simultaneously the "S" barb that served as a close second for a short time.(7) These patents were similar; both had two twisted wires, the main difference being in the way the barbs were attached. By 1874, Isaac L. Ellwood, a hardware merchant in DeKalb, saw the possibilities of the Glidden barb and purchased a half interest in the patent for a few hundred dollars, formed a partnership with the inventor, and began producing by hand a few thousand pounds per year.(8) Haish entered the business at the same time, and from these two small factories came the first successful production of barbed wire on a commercial scale.(9)

Following this introduction, patents on all shapes and forms of barbed wire appeared, and small factories sprang up in most of the adjacent villages. Since the wire was manufactured by hand and required little capital to start production, almost anyone could enter the business.(10) Blacksmiths, carpenters, and mechanics rushed to share the profits, each making his own particular barb. By 1884, local publications referred to at least 13 different concerns in the immediate vicinity of DeKalb, while Joliet and Chicago each had 8 factories running in 1883, and St. Louis had 11 in 1886. A few concerns operated in Iowa and Kansas, and others sprang up in the East, but the real center of the industry during its early years lay in northern Illinois.(191)

The production of these small mills increased rapidly from year to year as automatic machinery was perfected and people became accustomed to this new type of fencing.(12) It is impossible to give accurate figures on the total production of barbed wire in the United States during these years, since records were poorly kept at that time. Moreover, several of the concerns were "moonshiners" and purposely concealed their output. A few publications, such as the Iron Age and the Chicago Industrial World placed the average annual tonnage for 1880-1884 at somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 tons, or between 400,000 and 600,000 miles of single-strand wire. By 1888, it was estimated by Charles G. Washburn at about 150,000 tons and in 1895, somewhere in the neighborhood of 157,000 tons.(13)

During the early years much of the barbed wire was of inferior grade since the smooth wire from which it was made was often brittle and uneven in quality, due to hard and soft spots. Over half of the production was painted instead of galvanized, and as it was dipped after the barbing operation, it often rusted and broke.(14) This matter was adjusted somewhat with the introduction of the Bessemer process. Many different styles of barbs were put on the market, ranging all the way from the "spur-wheel" to the "chain-link."(15) Not infrequently farmers purchased the smooth wire separately and applied the barbs with special instruments after the wire had been placed on the posts.(16)

Most of the tonnage produced in the western mills was sold in the Prairie States where the farmers first discovered the merits of this type of fencing.(17) A number of the manufacturers sold to jobbers who in turn sold to local merchants. However, the larger and stronger concerns had general agents with exclusive rights in certain States. Perhaps the most famous of these was the partnership of Sanborn and Warner, who were contracted by the makers of the Glidden barb for the entire United States and later for Texas.(18) These men made their headquarters at Houston and whole trainloads of barbed wire were shipped from their warehouse. In 1885, an editor took a "peep into the immense warehouse" at Houston and "left fully impressed with the idea that they had taken a contract to fence in the entire State."(19) Advertisements in Texas newspapers stated that their sales were "five times greater than those of all others combined" and that it was sold "in nearly every town in the State."(20)

These men found plenty of competition in selling their product. There were a large number of manufacturers, and "moonshine" wire was, as one salesman put it, "as free as water." The infringement of patents was a common practice, for many of the concerns found it necessary to pattern their fencing after a few of the better patents in order to get a share of the business. This made it difficult for certain well-established firms, who were licensed and had regular agents, to sell their wire. Not having to pay royalty fees, the unlicensed manufacturer and dealer had considerable advantage.(21) Those who purchased the wire were likewise under constant surveillance by detectives, and competing dealers who threatened them with suits, for, under the patent laws, the innocent user was just as liable as the vendor. This situation caused many consumers to look with suspicion on barbed-wire merchants.(22) The companies, in order to overcome this apprehension, promised to "defend any and all suits brought against their customers," but this did not allay the fears, and in a few places the tension became so great that the farmers banded themselves together into protective societies.(23)

Other types of fencing materials also occasioned some competition, especially in communities where lumber was plentiful. In 1875, Ellwood notified his Minnesota agent that he did "not expect the wire to be much in demand where farmers can build bush and pole fences out of the growth on their own land and think[s] the time spent in canvassing such territory very nearly lost even if some sales are made."(24) Even as late as 1885, rails and stone were competitors of barbed wire in certain counties of Texas and Montana. The cattlemen and the small property owners were by no means in full agreement on the wisdom of fencing the range country.(25) They knew from sad experiences what a barbedwire fence could do to herds during storms, and the Colorado Cattle Growers Association went on record in 1884 as being averse to fencing the range.(26) Barbed wire was denounced by many as cruel, and, to crystallize this sentiment, anti-barbed-wire groups were formed to combat its use and to bring pressure on legislators to enact laws making those who built wire fences responsible for damages.(27) In some States many years elapsed before this type of fencing was legal; in others, the courts, even after it was legalized, held the owners responsible for all damages "unless constructed with planks in connection with the wire."(28)

In spite of competition and opposition, the sales of barbed wire increased steadily. Agricultural journals and newspapers, cognizant of their circulation and advertising, were generally in favor of this type of fencing, for they were well aware that it was less expensive and more effective, and that it facilitated western settlement.(29) The manufacturers aided their own cause by developing "more merciful barbs and shorter prongs"; the farmers alleviated much of the injury to stock by placing boards on the wire so as to give it greater visibility; and the livestock became adjusted to it. Soon several of the States had regulations requiring farmers to fence if they expected to recover damages from roving stock.(30) Farms were becoming smaller in size as the population increased, and this in turn increased the demand for wire; for, as the size of the enclosure decreased, the number of rods of fence per acre increased.(31)

The railways were also large consumers of barbed wire, as most of the States required them to fence their right-of-ways if they expected to escape responsibility for damages.(32) The fact that there were 93,671 miles of railroad trackage in 1881, all needing a 3- or 4-wire fence on both sides of the track, indicates their potentialities as customers.(33) Railroad companies in the Middle West began rather early to utilize this type of fencing. Ellwood reported in 1879 that he was furnishing 59 roads with the Glidden barb, and by 1885, the number had increased to "over one hundred."(34) The Western Fence Company of Chicago, a concern devoted entirely to railroad-fence construction, set up thousands of miles of wire fence, employing from four to five hundred men with their own equipment of sleeping and dining cars.(35)

The sales of barbed wire were further stimulated by the gradual decrease in prices. When the manufacture of this fencing material first began in 1874, the prices ran as high as 20 cents per pound; the following year they dropped to 18 cents; and during the succeeding years continued to fall until, by 1893, some concerns quoted for as low as 2 cents.(36)

Meanwhile, in the Western States where most of the barbed wire was being used, changes were taking place as a result of its influences. In describing these changes it should be noted at the outset that barbed wire was not the only factor involved. Barbed-wire fencing encouraged the further settlement and exploitation of the Great Plains. For a time during the early seventies, settlement of this region was slowed down considerably, partly because of the high cost of fencing materials. If the homesteader wished to safeguard his crops, he had to have fences, and yet their cost was prohibitive.(37) Barbed wire helped to solve this problem at a cost within the range of the small farmer. On the level prairies, a settler could enclose a field with a 3-wire fence at an average cost of about $150 per mile, while with board, stone, or rail, he could not approach that figure.(38) Board and picket fences often ran as high as $300 per mile.(39) With wire-fencing materials selling at the above prices, homesteaders flowed into the Great Plains.(40) Around their small farms they built enclosures, and as a result the neighboring stockmen were gradually pushed back where grass was still free and settlers scarce.(41) In 1883, the cattlemen of Texas were forced into the dry, free range of the Panhandle. In the following year the small agriculturists of New Mexico were bringing pressure on what one observer called "the grandest interest of the country,"(42) and the Cheyenne Live Stock Journal reported that the thirty eastern counties of Nebraska were under fence and that the stockmen had to move westward for free range.(43) By 1885, many of the cattlemen in Montana were grazing their stock on the "high altitudes," and by 1886, word came from Dodge City that the "large stock ranges of Kansas have all been settled up by the hardy sons of toil, and the ranchman was obliged to move Westward to some other country which was yet unsought for by the immigrant of the East."(44) Finally, in 1887, from the last remaining range country, came word from the Territorial Governor of Washington that "the plow is turning down the bunch grass and the fence is driving out the stockmen."(45)

In desperation and as a final resort, the cattlemen built barbed-wire fences to hold the land that remained. Miles upon miles of "bristling barbs" were strung across the short-grass prairies to keep the nesters out. With this cheap material, fences were thrown up promiscuously, and the public domain was illegally fenced, enclosing the water holes and securing great pastures by fraudulent entries. A disappointed home-seeker from Brent County, Colorado, described this situation when he wrote his Government that "the honest tiller of the Soil and Small Stockman are entirely debarred from the use of their lands belonging to the Government-many of their lands would be taken up by Homesteaders if they were open for Settlement."(46) Barbed wire not only aided the small farmer to gain a foothold in the Great Plains; it enabled the cattleman as well to secure and hold range land for his herds.

The barbed-wire fence made better farming possible. An Iowa agricultural editor, commenting on this matter, stated that the wire fence enabled the farmer to "cut his farm into desired lots and fields at a small expense of time and means and thus observe more generally and fully the laws which govern the excellence of the crop secured by a wise rotation."(47) Fences not only protected the growing crops from livestock, but also gave the farmer an opportunity to use the fields as pasture after harvest. In the western country, fences also compelled travelers to follow the roads rather than cross fields, which was long a common practice on the frontier. The wire fence did not occupy as much space, nor did it shade the crops or harbor weeds, insects, and small animals like the other fencing materials .(48)

Along with improved farming came an improved grade of livestock. Fences confined the animals to restricted areas, and they no longer had to rustle far and wide for feed and water. As a result, hay and inside ranges were used during the winter months, and by 1889, many of the western stockmen were feeding corn and alfalfa hay.(49) Thus, a higher grade of beef cattle was produced. The president of the American cattle trust summed up this matter very nicely when he remarked: "A hay stack is better than a snow drift. A pasture with a moderate herd of well-bred cattle, with feed and shelter for winter, is worth more than a myriad of half-starved brutes roaming over the plains."(50)

When farmers and stockmen resorted to enclosures, the animals increased in number and weight as well as value-a result comparable to the increase of farm crops which followed the introduction of the grain binder.(51) Bulls were enclosed in pastures and no longer allowed to roam over the prairies at will, mixing with inferior cattle.(52) This more careful attention to breeding increased the number of cattle, for it materially cut down the death rate of bulls. An observer in 1886 found that when bulls were allowed to roam the range the losses of them often ran as high as five times as great as cattle.(53) The same was true with calves. In the early eighties, Joseph Nimmo found that they "dropped at all seasons of the year," but with pastures and shelters, this came to an end, and a larger percentage were raised to maturity.(54)

The practice of weaning calves in the fall of the year was also given encouragement with the coming of the barbed-wire fences. One editor wrote in 1884 that the cattle "owners should secure lands and enclose pastures in which to wean calves. They will find that by so doing their cattle will grow larger, and it is large steers that make the best beeves and bring the top prices in the market. We therefore suggest the advisability of keeping the range bulls in pastures at certain seasons of the year, and the same pastures would answer for weaning calves."(55)

Barbed-wire fences were instrumental in helping to break up the cattle drives from the southern to the northern ranges, and this in turn brought about radical changes in the methods of fattening and transporting livestock. For years the cattlemen had driven their stock over the long trails to railroad stations or northern ranges, but with the influx of homesteaders who fenced the trails and water holes, the drives were forced farther to the west and ultimately had to be abandoned altogether in favor of the railroads.(56) By diverting or stopping this practice the farmers no longer had to suffer the crime and disorder as well as destruction of crops that accompanied a great drive.(57) Moreover, by closing these trails much of the stock disease that tormented the western farmers for nearly a decade was greatly reduced, and the lawsuits, killings, and quarantines which often accompanied a herd of infected cattle were reduced to a minimum.(58) The abandoning of the drive also made for better beeves as well as better prices. Instead of marketing cattle by "a long, weary drive" they could, with pastures, be held off the market and fattened and only part of the herd shipped at a time.(59)

Enclosures did much to reduce the number of strays and stolen animals, for on the unfenced ranges horses and cattle wandered away from their owners by the thousands. In 1887, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association reported that "4,000 estrays had been recovered."(60) The number not recovered was unknown. Mavericks, too, were a source of expense and trouble for the cattlemen, and it was not until their herds were brought under fence that the losses were reduced.(61) With wire fences, stock stealing became more difficult. The expense of combating this curse had been high, since the range men were compelled to hire detectives, and in some places it had reached such proportions that the cattlemen mobilized themselves into protective associations "to look out for, and catch if possible, horse or cattle thieves."(62) The losses from stampedes were also greatly reduced, for stock under fence was less wild and more easily handled; the shutting off of swamps, marshes, and boggy spots by wire fences also helped to cut down the death toll.(63) Before the era of the wire fence, a large number of horses followed the wild mustangs and were lost. On a single unfenced farm near Cheyenne nearly two hundred mares wandered away.(64) Wild horses were numerous in most of the Western States, and few of the ranchmen escaped the loss of some of their horses. The New Mexico Stock-Grower reported in 1884 that almost "every ranchman in the Territory seems to be hunting for lost horses."(65)

The time-worn custom of branding and counter branding was a perplexing problem for the westerner. The number of brands had increased so rapidly that it became difficult to originate a new one. Thomas Sturgis, one of the great cattle kings, in a speech before a stockmen's convention at Denver in 1886 called attention to the multiplicity of brands, and the Elbert Tribune reported that there were at the time over nine thousand in Colorado alone with many variations "running all the way from a plain saw-horse to a lop-sided water jug."(66) Besides the complexities of the system, branding had certain definite limitations that were becoming noticeable.(67) The Tanners Association of America at its convention in 1886 devoted a whole series of discussions to the effect of branding on the value of hides, and it was estimated at that time that it caused a loss of $15,000,000 a year to the stockmen of the plains. The Laramie Boomerang estimated that a cow branded on the side was worth $2 less; while the Colorado Live-Stock Record went so far as to say that a branding-iron mark would lessen the value of a good horse by $50.(68) With the introduction of enclosed pastures, branding became less common, since stock no longer were allowed to roam and mix with other livestock of the range.

The constant fear of Indian raids on the cattle herds was also somewhat lessened when fencing came into vogue on the plains. When cattle were moved over the trails, the Indians often swooped down upon the herders and tenders, killing and stealing.(69) The situation became so desperate in some parts of the country that stockmen equipped their trail men with sufficient guns and ammunition to repulse any marauding party. For example, the drive from Oregon into the Yellowstone country in 1880 found the drivers supplied with 120 men, 160 "stand of loaded rifles ... good for about 3,000 shots at any band of hostile Indians that may attack them."(70)

This new fencing material was not always beneficial to stockmen. Animals were killed in rather sizeable numbers by lightning that struck the fence wires; many died of the "screw worm" as an aftermath of wire injuries; and the death rate from drifting during blizzards was always high. In the heavy snow storms barbed wire prevented the cattle from moving about freely, and as a consequence they huddled together along the fence lines and "shivered to death."(71) Prairie fires that so often swept over the grass lands of the West occasionally left the livestock to perish from starvation as the fences held them within the burnt pastures.(72) Fencing was also a factor in depleting much of the valuable timber on the western plains. The cattlemen and small farmers alike cut down acre after acre of logs to be used for fences, landing chutes, and buildings.(73) It also caused some curtailment of the hide and bone industries that had flourished on the western ranges, for the animals no longer perished in such great mimbers.(74)

Barbed wire also brought about some interesting social changes. The 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.(75) This was no small item with the westerner, for under the local herd laws of many of the counties the farmers as well as the stockmen were compelled to look after their own livestock.(76) Roundups, too, were expensive, and the fenced pastures aided the owner in eliminating the necessity of sending cowboys to all the adjacent roundups to identify his cattle.(77) Moreover, the reduction in the number of cowhands had a decided influence on the moral and ethical standards of the community. For years lawless cowpunchers had toted six-shooters, frequently causing distress and perturbation to those whom they met. At times their lawlessness reached such high proportions as to make it necessary to employ troops to repress them.(78) A reporter from Kansas City stated that eighty indictments were returned against the Texas cowboys who made pilgrimages there in droves.(79) In time sentiment was developed against this lawless group. In 1882, some of the more prominent stockmen went on record as agreeing that the "day of the sixshooter cowboy is passed, and that class should not be employed on the range."(80) By 1885, practically all of the cattlemen were united in a movement to outlaw the practice of carrying a gun by their employees, since the need for such a weapon was no longer necessary.(81)

The fence also made changes in certain aspects of urban life in the West. It was not an unusual practice for cowhands to drive their wild herds directly through the towns and villages when moving over the trails or from one range to the next. In 1882, seven herds passed through the little Texas town of Bandera, and in 1884, Cheyenne reported that "it may be alright to make the thoroughfares of Cheyenne a cow pasture but it certainly isn't calculated to give strangers an exhalted opinion of the City to see a lot of forlorn bovines wandering aimlessly about the streets after nightfall."(82) Cattle herds were not only troublesome to the farmer's crops, but with their long horns they often hooked and tore down the sod shanties.( 83)

Along with permanent settlers in the West came commerce and industry. Railways were given added impetus when stock trails were broken up; slaughter and packing houses were erected in some of the western cities; boards of trade, banks, hotels, and loan companies sprang up, and by 1889, many of the communities in the Panhandle had built small creameries.(84) Irrigation entered the scheme of prairie life in the late eighties, and with the fencing of the water holes, many ranchers had to drill wells and erect windmills.(85) Barbed-wire fences caused the value of land to increase, especially where the stockmen strove desperately to get hold of it for their range. Land in Texas, that once sold for a few cents per acre, increased more than 100 per cent in value with the introduction of fences.(86)

Fencing of the western plains by the large cattle companies sometimes retarded for a time the building of churches and schools. A petition from some settlers in Pratt County, Kansas, illustrates how the enclosed pastures interfered with such cultural institutions. They asserted that the "fence in many instances runs so near the lands owned or occupied by actual settlers that it interfears [sic] with ... further settlement of the public domain.... And your petitioners would further state that the County is now so poorly settled that the present settlement [sic) are unable to enjoy Church and School privaleges, and unless the County settles ... your petitioners would be compelled to abandon ... the cheering influences of the Church & School."(87) In certain communities the delivery of mail was delayed and obstructed by the wire fences that stretched for miles across the plains irrespective of roads or trails, and settlers often had to drive miles out of their way to get to the post offices.(88) The building of roads was retarded, and even the main highways were occasionally reduced to thirdrate trails, since the fences compelled the traveler to open and close gates.(89)

Business conditions in several of the western towns were made uncertain by the enclosing of lands and trails. Owing to the difficulties of driving stock through certain parts of the western country, the livestock markets for handling Texas cattle were transitory. In 1870, they were located somewhere near the village of Newton, Kansas; later they were moved to Great Bend, then to Ellsworth, and finally, in 1885, to Dodge City and Hays.(90) Such a migratory movement of business interests was certainly not conducive to stable urban life.

During the heyday of barbed-wire fencing many parts of the West experienced an era of unprecedented violence, crime, and public immorality. The intense struggle between the "free grasser" and the "fencer" to gain possession of the range and water holes brought on much of this conflict. Commissioner Sparks of the General Land Office, in commenting on this situation, stated that it "is doubtful if the world has ever witnessed such criminal prodigality.... Whole counties have been fenced in by the cattle companies, native and foreign, and the frauds that have been carried on by individuals on a small scale are simply innumerable.(91) In the race to gain control, barbed wire was thrown up everywhere, irrespective of titles, roads, or laws. Cowboys, aunts, uncles, and cousins were conscripted to hold down homesteads and to squeeze out the small farmer and stockman.(92) The Texas Land Office reported that over one hundred thousand square miles of land in the State were held by occupants who were "there in violation of law" and that "appeal to the local civil authorities" in that unorganized territory was useless.(93)

As a result of this tense situation people became violent and destructive. A fence-cutting war which started in Texas extended even as far north as Montana before it subsided. People were killed, property was destroyed, business was crippled, and peaceful people were alienated against one another.(94) A special report from Las Vegas, New Mexico, described the extent of organization of the fence cutters in that area. Mounted and placed in squads of convenient number, they would ride up to the fence, a man would drop off at a corner and cut half a mile or more to where the next man had begun, then jump into his saddle and rush to the head of the line again, after the fashion of school boys playing leap frog.(95) A number of reasons have been given for this unusual destruction, but a series of letters in the Galveston News throw some interesting light on the social and economic theories that actuated many of the cutters. Apparently the motives behind much of this disturbance were diverse, for small farmers as well as large stockmen experienced the nippers alike.(96) One writer stated that the fence cutting was incited by the theories of communism; another said it was greenbackism; while another remarked that it was agrarianism.(97) "Agrarianism," one correspondent wrote, "is a system of spoliation," while "Communism is, in the highest degree, salvatory in its tendencies."(98) In this case agrarianism probably meant big pastures with their attendant monopolistic control, while communism involved a free and open range. Those who favored the big pastures argued that the free and open ranges had been "the parent of crime in Texas. It has been the educator of the mavericker, the brand blotcher, cattle-thief and the fence-cutter."(99)

These barbed-wire fences affected many groups and, as a consequence, many classes were directly or indirectly involved. The building of pastures tended to throw cowboys out of work, and small stock owners claimed that the large owners fenced them away from water, roads, and business centers. Sheepmen as a rule opposed the closing of the free range, and to the rustler the barbedwire fence was a natural detective.(100) Thus, the cutting of fences was not opposed by many groups of people. A quotation from one of the contemporaries of that day shows how universal its acceptance actually was. "Fence cutting never would have become so great and destructive if it had not met with such popular sentiment. Men of influence gave expression of favor. Many good men 'winked' at it until it had gone from the highest to the lowest. It found its way to the fireside of every home, and the greviences [sic] of the lawless element of the communistic fence-cutters were held up in glowing colors."(101)

Fencing helped to eliminate some of the difficulties connected with tax collecting. Where cattle were allowed to roam over the range, the owners were able to escape taxation, for it was difficult to ascertain exact numbers. This situation militated against fencing the ranges, since many of the stockmen wanted to be able to drive from one county to another in order to avoid tax collectors. In some areas this procedure became such a common practice that collectors sought to tax all cattle in their jurisdictions, even if they belonged to stockmen in adjoining counties.(102) In some parts of the West such conditions brought on strained relations between the cattlemen and the permanent propertied class. A letter from a settler in Harper County, Kansas, expressed the situation as follows: "In the name of God, I ask, is this a republican form of government, when the poor man, with barely enough to keep soul and body together and pay for his 160 acres of land, must pay the taxes of the country and the cattle kings go free? If so, I was a big fool to spend three years of my life to defend such a country."(103)

Barbed wire also entered the political arena. Large cattlemen were influential with governors and legislators, and through powerful livestock associations, often brought pressure to bear not only upon them but on presidents as well. In 1884, the Governor of Texas was compelled to call a special session of the Legislature to cope with fence-cutting problems.(104) The same year the cattlemen of Wyoming and Colorado sent a memorial to their Congressmen stating that they did "not advocate, in theory or practice, the system of enclosing with fence large bodies of public land."(105) Lobbyists employed by the stockmen were common at the seats of government where they fought desperately to protect their rights and to nullify "all attempts to break up the cattle interests."(106) In 1888, a reporter from Wyoming remarked that the Legislature had been "favorable to the range interests" for years.(107) General B. F. Butler was a favorite with many cowmen, not only because of his legal talent, but because he held large interests in ranches. He was occasionally employed by cattlemen to investigate land titles and defend them against Government encroachment as well as promote their national programs.(108) Small farmers likewise entered politics in order to protect their interests. They filed countless petitions of redress and opposition with their Congressmen, and also retained legal talent.(109) Ex-Congressman W. A. Hall of Missouri used his good offices with J. B. Belford, a Representative from Colorado, with the hope of forcing the Prairie Cattle Company to remove its fences. In a letter to Belford, he said: "I believe I can influence a number of the Missouri delegation to co-operate with you in remedying the [fence] evils ... if you wish it."(110)

Barbed-wire manufacturers were also prominent in political circles. They contributed freely to campaign chests in both State and National elections, and at times were able to even elect some of their own group to high office.(111) The Governor of Illinois conferred the honorary commission of colonel on a number of them.(112) Albert B. Cummins, later United States Senator from Iowa, was a member of the board of directors of the Barker Wire Company at Des Moines, and first rose to prominence among the farmers of Iowa because of his fight against the barbed-wire trust.(113) A number of legislators in the Western States capitalized on the rural vote by introducing measures against the patent system which was stimulated largely by the influence of the drive-well and barbed-wire patents.(114) This agitation was so strong among the farmers that the Iowa Legislature passed a resolution, requesting the President of the United States to have his Attorney General bring suit against the barbed-wire trust in order to set aside all their patents. Two years later, this same body passed by a two-thirds vote an appropriation of $5,000 to aid the farmers in fighting the barbedwire monopoly.(115) The rebellion of the farmers in the West against these patents was so vigorous that it stirred the inventors throughout the Nation to organize an association to look after their interests.(116) In 1879, even Thomas A. Edison was drawn into the squabble, and he made a direct appeal to General Butler to use what political influence he had to protect the patent system.(117) The inventors held a national convention with delegates from every section of the land to stem the tide of agitation against the patent system, and a delegation was despatched to the platform committee of the Democratic Party to seek their support.(118)

Finally, barbed-wire fences aided in the downfall of the cattle companies as well as the "cow culture" that had developed on the Western Plains during the seventies and eighties. When trail driving disappeared-largely because of the fences-this cultural pattern began to decline, and in its place came, with the influx of the grangers, an economic and social structure that was built, in part at least, on an agricultural system of corn, wheat, and cotton.(119)

The failure of many of the large cattle companies was due to a large extent to the financial burden incurred in the fencing of large tracts of land. 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."' Even as early as 1883, the western press gale forewarnings to the rapidly expanding industry. The Texas Live Stock Journal reported that the "million-acre ranch will soon have to submit to the dissecting knife"; which will inevitably bring an "end to the cattle business on these plains"; the Mobeetie (Texas) Panhandle said that "Since the advent of the fencing feature on the ranges, we have been expecting that stockmen might become possessed of too much live property for their own good. Land and fences are a heavy expense added where before was none, with no present visible income for the sums invested; and the temptation to add a few more head [of cattle] to increase the profits must cause a man's natural desire for gain to place a constant strain on his judgment."(121)

By 1888, most of the leading livestock journals had rung down the curtain on the large pastures with their "bristling barbs." The following comment in the El Paso Tribune reflects the attitude of many Westerners: "When one has to lease land in Texas, buy water fronts ... and build fences, his fate is sealed."(122) Another commentator wrote that the cattle industry "once held in such high esteem by capitalists, is in a very crippled condition. Every man who has money in it is anxious to leave the ship."(123) The industy had overexpanded, and as a result a new chapter was ushered in on the plains. The stockmen and small farmers with their better breeds of cattle, better management, better grass, and smaller herds had come to stay. Barbed-wire fencing had played its part in bringing about this transition.


Article taken from Agricultural History, Volume 13, October 1939