The Wire That Won The West
IT WAS FITTING THAT Abraham Lincoln, the Illinois rail-splitter, was the President who signed the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered adult white male citizens 160 acres of land west of the Mississippi. Under its terms homesteaders would become owners of their land if they lived on it for five years and made annual improvements, one of the simplest of which was fencing. Following the Civil War thousands of impoverished veterans from both sides rushed to the territories to stake their claims. The Homestead Act nearly foundered, however, on the simple fact that there were hardly any trees on the prairies with which to build fences, a problem that had slowed Western migration for a generation. Illinois,on the edge of the new lands to be settled, would be the center of efforts to find new fencing methods and materials. By the end of the century, half of all American fence patents would belong to residents of the state, many of them from the small town of De Kalb.
To a farmer the primary purpose of a fence is to keep animals, wild and domestic, away from crops. When the first colonists came to New England, they often built fences from the abundant stones they j turned up from their fields. Wood from the seemingly inexhaustible I forests later provided most of the fencing in the East.
Shipping wooden rails to the treeless Great Plains, however, was very expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that the use of such fencing resulted in a cost per acre almost equal to the price of land in more humid regions—which, of course, defeated the purpose of the Homestead Act. Settlers were not the only ones anxious to find an effective type of fencing. The U.S. Army needed a way to keep cows fenced in because by the late 1860s the buffalo were almost gone and it had to raise livestock to feed its troops on the Great Plains.
Some settlers tried making barriers of mud (whence the expression homely as a mud fence ) or topping earthen banks with a minimal number of rails, but neither practice was much help in keeping hungry animals out. Pioneers in a few areas found limestone bedrock, from which they laboriously erected borders—mining the stone by drilling holes, pouring water in, and waiting for it to freeze and crack the limestone blocks. Others tried planting thorny hedges, such as Osage orange, but these required time to grow, took up space, needed tending, harbored rodents, could be eaten by animals, burned easily, and were hard to move. Conventional wire fences were cheap, but they tended to sag in hot weather and snap in cold, and large animals could easily knock them over.
Farm publications of the 1860s were obsessed with the subject, and from 1866 through 1868 no fewer than 368 fence patents were issued. Three of these, in 1867, marked the first efforts to come up with an “armored fence.” In April, Alphonso Dabb was awarded a patent for a “picketed wrought iron strip” designed to keep people from scaling walls or fences. In June, Lucien B. Smith received one for “wire fencing armed with projecting points,” but this was eventually annulled in favor of a patent awarded the next month to William D. Hunt, who had filed earlier. Financial difficulties prevented Hunt from exploiting his invention commercially, and he produced less than half a mile of it by hand before he sold his rights to Charles Kennedy of Hinckley, Illinois, for $1,725 in October 1874. Two years later Kennedy assigned his interest in the patent to two other Illinoisans, Joseph F. Glidden and Isaac L. Ellwood.
While Hunt’s invention was the earliest that resembles what we now know as barbed wire, Michael Kelly of New York City came up with the first practical and popular form, which he patented in 1868. (It was close in design to one patented in France in 1865, but that was little known even there and had no influence on American developments.) Kelly originally conceived of the wire, which was later called the Thorny Fence, to keep cats off his roof. His innovation was to attach barbs to two wires twisted together. He may have intended this to lock the flat, diamond-shaped barbs into place, as his attorney later argued, but he did not say so in his patent application. This lack of precision, or of foresight, would doom his challenges to later barbedwire patents. Kelly’s wire was a moderate success, and his patent was later bought by Glidden.
The real birth of the barbed-wire industry occurred at a county fair in De Kalb, Illinois, in 1873. Three neighbors attended together: Glidden, a farmer and sometime inventor of agricultural equipment; Ellwood, who owned a hardware store; and Jacob Haish, a lumberman. What caught their attention was a display by Henry M. Rose of a 10-foot-long strip of wood with wire points protruding outward, designed to be attached to an ordinary wire fence. Rose had first tried to control a wandering cow by putting a contraption on its head that would prick the animal if it tried to push down a fence. He realized that he could accomplish the same thing if he put the stickers on the fence instead. Nothing came of his invention (which would have done little to ease the wood shortage), but it inspired his neighbors.
GLIDDEN AND ELLWOOD became partners in 1875. The following year they joined forces with the great wire maker Washburn & Moen, of Worcester, Massachusetts, in an attempt to turn Rose’s idea into an easily manufactured, all-wire product. By this time Haish had become their bitter enemy. Glidden’s design, prophetically named the Winner, had been awarded patent no. 157,124 on November 24, 1874. But Haish came up with his own innovative design, the famous “S” wire, in 1875 and battled Glidden and Ellwood—and later Washburn & Moen—in court. Washburn & Moen, for its part, vigorously sued other wire makers whose inventions came too close to Glidden’s concept (it usually settled by buying out the new product) or were outright illegal “moonshine” products.
The opposition, led by Haish, collapsed on December 15, 1880, when a Chicago court declared Haish’s wire to be an infringement. Still, Haish held an unassailable patent for the machine that manufactured his wire (Glidden and Ellwood had been getting by with a design based on a modified coffee grinder). Washburn & Moen wanted it and allowed Haish to continue manufacturing wire as part of a settlement. By this time advances in metallurgy had produced alloys that greatly reduced the problems of brittleness and sagging, and the demand for the prickly product had topped 80 million pounds a year. The company was to become one of the great industrial concerns of the Gilded Age.
After nearly two decades of litigation, the final lawsuit about barbed wire was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Washburn & Moen in 1892, a year after the original Glidden patent had expired. A patent could be claimed for any attachment that was even slightly different from those already patented, and there was no shortage of imagination, as the 446 patents issued for barbs by 1892 indicate (not to mention the 1,500 other unregistered styles; there are 900 examples of barbed wire on display at the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas). After the surge of inventiveness, only 21 more patents were granted between 1892 and the end of the century, and only a handful have been approved since then.
Some of the barbs were little wheels; others varied the number of wire strands twisted together and had as many as four points per barb; still others were flat ribbons with die-cut barbs or pricks. While some designs worked better than others, good marketing generally determined the success or failure of a type. Oddly, no patent can be found for one of the most popular types of the last century, Baker’s Perfect Flat Barb, even though its inventor, George S. Baker, owned other barbed-wire patents.
According to John Mantz of the American Barb Wire Collectors Society of Bakersfield, California, the design history of barbed wire can be divided into three stages. Before 1876 users thought the only way to keep cattle away from the new fences was to make the barbs sharp and long. These “vicious” wires often injured the animals, even those that just accidentally scraped against them. Abel H. (“Shanghai”) Pierce, a bear of a man who managed a huge spread across two Gulf counties in Texas, spoke for many when he said: “It may keep ’em in, by God! But my cattle would cut themselves and die from screwworms, and I’ll be damned if I treat my critters that way.” The negative image of the new fencing nearly caused the industry to collapse in the face of resistance and persisted long after the barbs had been made less dangerous.
The early 1880s saw “obvious” wires flourish, as manufacturers sought to produce barriers that the cattle could see and presumably avoid. Wooden blocks and tags of many types were inserted into the wires. Fencing of thin metal strips, from which barbs were die-cut, were popular. However, these were expensive to produce. The next phase saw a modified version, with the industry ultimately settling on the Glidden invention with its two small, medium-sharp barbs held in place by a double strand.
Westerners resisted barbed fencing for two reasons besides its supposed viciousness. One was skepticism that it could work. Cattle were not used to staying in pens; this was the era of the trail drive. Texas was full of cattle, so in late 1876 Washburn & Moen sent a salesman, John W. Gates, to San Antonio. Gates, then just 21, had great self-confidence and enthusiasm, but he did not sell much wire at first. Finally, he bet a friend that his wire could stop a charging bull.
Gates decided to make a public spectacle of the bet. He received permission to fence in San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza. After building a corral, he drove longhorn cattle into the arena and fired a gun. The cattle charged the fence, were repulsed, and charged again and again, finally giving up. The audience was stunned, and by nightfall Gates had sold hundreds of miles of what he touted as the lightest, strongest, and cheapest fencing available.
Westerners’ love of the open range was less easily overcome. After the Civil War, Texas cattlemen had virtually taken over the area of what would become 12 states, using vast amounts of free grass and water to fatten their livestock. “For rapidity of expansion there is perhaps not a parallel to this movement in American history,” states the historian Walter P. Webb in The Great Plains .
Although they were individualists by nature, the cowmen developed a highly cooperative culture centered on the spring and fall roundups and trail drives as they pioneered the new art of managing enormous herds by horseback. Since they could not keep individual ranchers’ animals separate on the trail, they used brands to define ownership. Shanghai Pierce reflected the widespread and deep-seated attachment to this regional way of life when he declared, “As long as water runs and grass grows here, this will be open prairie.” The system allowed cattlemento put their money in livestock rather than tie it up in land. One of Pierce’s competitors, W. B. Grimes, for example, kept enormous herds of cattie but owned only 11 acres for most of his life. Yet much Western land was not very fertile, and its scrubby vegetation could provide only a limited amount of grazing. As new cattlemen kept flooding the plains, something had to give.
IN 1881 GLIDDEN and one of his investors, Henry Sanborn, decided to make a grand experiment to show how their product, along with other progressive ranching techniques, could make cattle raising more productive. They bought 250,000 acres in the Texas Panhandle and called it the Frying Pan Ranch (part of which later became the city of Amarillo). It was meant to demonstrate the value of barbed-wire fencing by allowing cattle to feed in a protected area and then be shipped, rather than relying on the long trail drive. By 1890, as the invention took hold, Amarillo was one of the largest cattleshipping stations in the world.
Another important event in the development of barbed wire took place in 1881, when the state capitol in Austin burned down. In exchange for building the new, grandiose capitol, the contractors were given three million acres in the Panhandle, covering nine counties. Since there was no point in owning land if it remained open to all, the owners decided to fence it in. The spread became the XIT Ranch and required 6,000 miles of barbed wire to enclose it, primarily a wide, flat metal “ribbon wire” patented by Jacob and Warren Brinkerhoff. The XIT was not founded for the purpose of promoting the new fencing, but it had that effect because it was the biggest barbedwire project ever undertaken.
By the 1880s, with the range getting more and more crowded, large companies began to set up fences not only around land they owned but also around public lands. In Colorado one firm illegally enclosed 600,000 acres. The easygoing law of the open range was on the verge of collapse. Range wars were inevitable, with one side seeking, legally or illegally, to monopolize a portion of the range for itself and the other side trying to keep it open. Such wars also involved water rights and disputes between cowmen and sheepmen whose herds grazed on the same lands. William H. Bonney, the 19-year-old Billy the Kid, became infamous as a hired gun during one of the earliest and most famous of these, New Mexico’s Lincoln County War in 1878. Although the conflict was primarily about economic power, it began with resentment over fencing. The Kid was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, and his grave is enclosed with barbed wire. (The tombstone reads, “the only enclosure that ever held the Kid.”)
In the 1880s even herd owners who disliked barbed wire began erecting “drift fences” to keep unattended cattle from the north out of their overgrazed territory. When a series of alternating droughts and blizzards occurred from 1882 to 1887, Northern cattle piled up against the fences and died of exposure in huge numbers. Fierce battles, with frequent exchanges of gunfire and an unknown number of deaths, arose between the large, wealthy fence builders and the smaller cowmen. The general public was sympathetic to the little guy, and juries refused to convict those accused of belonging to fence-cutting “clubs.” Roy Bedichek, a naturalist who grew up in Texas in the 1880s, recalls the aftermath of one fence-cutting episode: “During the night a frightful transformation had occurred. Each tightly stretched strand had been cut between each pair of posts, and the wire had circled up about them, giving the line as it led away into the sun a frizzled appearance, as of a vicious animal maddened so that every particular hair stood up on end.”
Other methods besides cutting were used. According to the historian R. D. Holt, “In the early days a drift fence was erected in what is now the northern part of Schleicher County, and as this fence controlled much land not owned by the fence owners there was considerable dislike to the fence. The ‘old-timers’ would often take it down and leave it down when it obstructed their path. It became common sport for the boys living near by to meet and practise roping the posts of this fence. With their ponies at a dead run, they would cast their loops and then see how far they could drag the posts and fence.”
For a time it looked as if the barbed-wire industry was again on the verge of collapse in the face of hostility and the difficulty of punishing fence cutters. Then in February 1884 an emergency session of the Texas legislature declared fence cutting a felony punishable by one to five years’ imprisonment, enforceable by the Texas Rangers. Laws governing when lands could be fenced were also passed. The heat of the battle had lasted less than a year, although cases still cropped up for years thereafter.
Because it was a republic when it entered the Union, Texas controlled its own public lands. In other Western states the federal government was in charge, and it took 12 to 18 months before Congress took similar action to stop wire cutting and illegal fencing. The argument gradually changed, and by the time it ended, it was no longer over whether the prairies would be fenced but by whom. On one side were the new type of homesteaders, called ranchers, who both farmed and kept cattle. Small ranchers thought the cattle barons were unfairly laying claim to land that gave them a near monopoly on the market, while the big concerns believed that the ranchers were rustlers who stole their cattle.
In Johnson County, Wyoming, things came to a climax when cattle barons decided to intimidate the small ranchers by bringing in hired gunmen. Twenty-five gunslingers came on a special train from Denver. They were joined by 21 others, including reporters, at Cheyenne, and set forth on April 5, 1892. A week later they had killed two suspected rustlers, two of their own had died, and they were holed up in a ranch, surrounded by a mob of at least 200 angry men. Wyoming’s acting governor, Amos W. Baber, appealed to President Benjamin Harrison for help. On the third day of the siege, just as a wagon filled with dynamite was about to be pushed against the cabin, federal troops, with bugle blowing and flag flying, came to the rescue.
As Don Cusic comments in Cowboys and the Wild West , “More than any other event, the Johnson County War symbolized the arrival of the New West settled by homesteaders and the end of the Old West, ruled by cattlemen with their huge herds, large ranches, hired gunfighters, and use of public grazing lands for their own.”
Shipping of cattle by train eventually replaced the trail drive, but during the transition the railroad was seen as almost as much of an enemy to cowmen as the wire. When tracks moved west, the trains not only brought the hated settlers but kept hitting livestock. And then, one railroad executive observed, “the leanest, boniest, rangiest of cows immediately became a full-blood registered prize bull,” and compensation was demanded. Losses were high, but the railroads hesitated to keep animals away with fences that could injure them and result in further lawsuits. They also hesitated to help the barbed-wire industry, which they saw as a threat to their lumber shipment business, still hoping wooden fences would take hold in the West. But Isaac Ellwood had begun selling wire to the Chicago & Northwestern line in 1877, and in time railroads became one of the industry’s biggest customers, fencing off track while providing passage gates for migrating herds.
BARBED WIRE ALSO HASTENED the process of subduing the West’s remaining bands of Indians. Besides making it easier to feed federal troops, the fences disrupted Indian trading, hunting, and fighting habits. Old paths between villages were cut off, wildlife could no longer move along traditional routes, and it became increasingly difficult to conduct raids. Col. Charles Goodnight of the Texas Rangers—a rancher who invented the chuck wagon—declared that the Rangers and barbed wire had “solved the Indian problem” for Texas.
Barbed wire found uses beyond agriculture. In 1899 the South African Boers used it to surround prison camps. It is now standard hardware for prison perimeter fences. It also began to be used around the world to protect buildings from intruders. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the wire was put up to defend Port Arthur in Manchuria. By World War I the traditional military tactic of infantry rushes had been ended by long, sharp, closely spaced barbs on wire that was designed to stand by itself in loops rather than be placed on fences—a more lethal updating of the nineteenth-century abatis and chevaux-de-frise. During World War II the Japanese placed barbed wire in harbors to entangle American submarines. The countermeasure was the development of Navy frogmen to open a way for the subs.
But the most important impact of “devil’s rope” was that it played a role perhaps greater than the Winchester rifle, the Colt .45, or the railroad in the settlement of the American West.