Barbed Wire Shaped Western America

Part 4:


I look at barbed wire as a form of art. The hundreds of different designs in the wire, the barbs, the twists, etc. But it was created for a use: to help manage where the cattle could roam.

Think of the U.S. before any pastures – one big open range with natural landmarks the only way the cowboys could somewhat corral their herd. But with the innovation of fencing, cattlemen could better round up the herd, whether it was to move them to another pasture, or to load them up to take to market. Dan Crummet’s history and perspective makes for a good read. Article from here

Barbed Wire Shaped Western America
Fortunes made and land transformed by the invention of wire with barbs built in.
By Dan Crummett

If the end of the Civil War opened the Old West era, the coming of barbed wire shortly thereafter marked the beginning of the end of that much-heralded period in U.S. history.

After the end of the Civil War, the Great Plains became a destination rather than an obstacle to westward movement for our young nation’s growing population. As settlers, mainly farmers and ranchers, moved into the open spaces, normal fencing materials on which they depended east of the Mississippi River became scarce.

Still, the lush prairie was ideal for grazing cattle, and new developments with steel plows made the prairie soils ripe for growing crops — a dichotomy that would rumble across the Plains in violent confrontations between ranchers and farmers for years. Barbed wire would play a part in that turmoil, and its use eventually would be found to protect crops and to make intensive animal agriculture economically possible in the vast Plains.

The first U.S. patent for barbed wire was issued to Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio, in 1867, but the barbed wire we know today became popular in 1874 when Joseph Glidden, DeKalb, Ill., perfected it and received patents on his version. At that time, Glidden, Jacob Haish, Frances Washburn and Isaac Ellwood were known as the "Big Four" in the development and marketing of the specialized wire. By 1874, Glidden and Ellwood were through fighting one another for various patent rights and joined forces to form the Barb Fence Co. in DeKalb.

The real boost for the new technology — which had just recently begun to spark the imagination of cattlemen — came in 1876 when an associate of Ellwood, John Warner Gates, fenced off Military Plaza (the area in front of the Alamo in San Antonio) and penned cattle there successfully. That first "demonstration project" convinced the crowd of barbed wire’s ability to restrain cattle, and within a few hours Gates had become relatively wealthy in the lobby of the nearby Menger Hotel, taking orders for the wire for Ellwood’s Illinois company.

Not long afterward, however, Gates parted company with Ellwood and started his own unlicensed and highly successful barbed-wire manufacturing business in Texas. Finally, as the industry began to consolidate with more than 150 manufacturers making wire for the demand the Old West was creating, Ellwood and Gates buried the hatchet and created the American Steel and Wire Co. That firm would later become part of U.S. Steel Corp., which held a monopoly in the market into the 20th century.

Because barbed wire was an economical way of enclosing large tracts of land, it became popular with cattle and land companies dependant upon grazing the millions of acres of the Great Plains, both north and south. By the 1880s, enough competition existed in the Plains that northern cattle migrating away from blizzards became a problem for southern ranchers, and all cattle were a problem to farmers trying to grow crops. In 1885 southern ranches had fenced their northern borders to prevent migrating herds, and extreme weather killed up to 75% of the migratory cattle at the fence line in what is known as the "Big Die Up."

Range wars involving cattlemen who wanted to maintain the open range and those who didn’t, along with farmers who wanted to be left alone, erupted through the period, until a federal law passed in 1885 prevented fencing across public domain lands. Within 15 years, enough wire had been stretched on private property that "open range" was a relic term for the history books, and many historians say that fact, alone, was the end of the Old West, as it made migration of native populations of humans, buffalo and introduced cattle impossible.

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