An insight at a county fair in 1873 transformed the West
After the Civil War thousands of impoverished veterans rushed to the territories to stake their claims under the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered adult white male citizens 160 acres of land west of the Mississippi. Under the law’s 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. The land rush 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.
Experimenting with making fences out of mud, limestone, and thorny hedges proved impractical. 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.
While there were early attempts at “armored wire,” the real birth of the barbed-wire industry occurred at a county fair in DeKalb, Illinois, in 1873. Three neighbors—Joseph F. Glidden, a farmer and sometime inventor of agricultural equipment; Isaac L. Ellwood, who owned a hardware store; and Jacob Haish, a lumberman—attended and were enthralled with Henry M. Rose’s display 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 placing a device on its head that would prick the animal should it try to push down a fence. A far easier solution, he realized, would be placing the stickers on the fence instead. Nothing came of his invention (which would have done little to ease the wood shortage), but it did inspire his neighbors.
Glidden and Ellwood became partners in 1875, joining forces the following year with the great wire maker Washburn and Moen, of Worcester, Massachusetts, in an attempt to turn Rose’s idea into an easily manufactured, all-wire product. Glidden’s design, prophetically named “the Winner,” had been awarded U.S. Patent No. 157,124 on November 24, 1874. Haish had since split from his neighbors and come up with his own innovative design, the famous “S barb” wire, in 1875 and unsuccessfully battled Glidden and Ellwood—and later Washburn and Moen—in court.
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. 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. 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.
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, called the property the Frying Pan Ranch (part of which later became the city of Amarillo), and fenced it. 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 cattle-shipping stations in the world.
In 1877 the Chicago & North Western line began buying barbed wire, and in time railroads became one of the industry’s biggest customers, fencing off track while providing passage gates for migrating cattle. 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.
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 19th-century abatis and cheval-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.