Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Barbed wire signaled the end of the Old West and the beginning of modern ranching. Its advent during the 1870s and 1880s sounded the death knell for the trail drive and the open range and allowed the expansion of farming. Cattlemen at first resented barbed wire, but after a decade of wrangling over access to water and grasslands and waging fence-cutting wars, they acknowledged its benefits and adopted the newfangled fencing.

No single person invented barbed wire, but in 1874 Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, was the first to receive a patent for his innovation, a double strand of twisted wire interspersed with shorter lengths wrapped around it to form barbs. A few run-ins with the barbs convinced even stubborn critters to avoid the fence. Glidden dubbed his design "the Winner," a name that proved prophetic. He joined forces with a local merchant, Isaac L. Ellwood, to manufacture the Winner; soon they counted among their customers 150 railroad companies, who used the fence to protect their tracks from herds running free. Eventually more than a thousand barbed-wire designs flooded the market, many with colorful names such as Split Diamond, Necktie, Buckthorn, Arrow Plate, and Spur-Rowel.

In one persuasive incident in downtown San Antonio in 1878, barbed-wire salesman John W. "Bet-a-Million" Gates successfully corralled a herd of rambunctious longhorns inside a fence of Glidden's wire, which, he bragged, was "light as air, stronger than whisky, and cheap as dirt." Ranchers all across the Great Plains had to acknowledge that Gates's claims were true. They also appreciated barbed wire's availability in a region short on wood for fences, its resilience in extreme weather, and its ease of installation. Most importantly, it permitted the selective breeding of stock. The legendary plainsman Charles Goodnight, for example, was able to maintain a pure strain of imported English Herefords and to develop the "cattalo," a buffalo-shorthorn cross.

Not all of the consequences of barbed wire were good. Large outfits could better afford both the fencing and the labor to erect it; smaller-scale ranchers were enraged to find themselves cut off, overnight, from once-public water holes, pastures, and trails. In Texas angry cowboys struck back at cattle barons with nighttime wire-snipping raids. By 1883 the attacks had escalated into violence, forcing the Texas Rangers to patrol dozens of hot spots and prompting the state legislature to declare fence cutting a felony (a law that still stands today). And during severe blizzards throughout the Plains, drift fences– intended to prevent herds from drifting off the ranch–instead proved fatal to livestock, which headed south by instinct, only to pile up at the wire and freeze by the thousands.

Today barbed wire is a fixture of the Great Plains. Cowboys have long counted among their regular duties the erection, inspection, and repair of fence line. The open range has long been closed, but barbed wire's story is preserved in two archives, the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse and the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas.

Anne Dingus Austin, Texas

McCallum, Henry D., and Frances T. McCallum. The Wire That Fenced the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Slatta, Richard W. The Cowboy Encyclopedia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.

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