How Barbed Wire Tamed the West’s “Wild” Era
On November 28, 1965, a local television station in North Texas aired a special about a discovery outside a Fort Worth courthouse: a rusty old roll of barbed wire.
The station received calls from several collectors in the area who identified the four-point barb as an 1871 patent of John C. Merrill. These callers knew right away that this seemingly innocuous bit of wire was actually a significant artifact, a prominent figure in the Old West’s often bloody history.
The following year, collectors met at the Arlington Texas State Bank and agreed to form a club — the Texas Barbed Wire Collector’s Association. The TBWCA’s creation inspired other collectors to get organized as well. There are now thousands of such organizations.
To this day, collectors still scour every bit of earth in the western U.S. — from the arid expanses of the Texas Panhandle to Montana’s grasslands — eager to get their hands on pieces of a simple invention that forever changed the character of what was once the Wild West.
Of course, before barbed wire ever became a collector’s item, it was originally designed to serve a purpose. Most of us know on a basic level what barbed wire does: it creates a boundary, keeps out unwanted things, and keeps other things contained. Some of us never give barbed wire any further consideration than that.
But if we take a closer look at the context in which it was developed, we can start to see it as the central object that created a sharp boundary among the many peoples that populated the Old West. By enabling landowners to carve out their territory and close the open range, barbed wire brought modernity to the American West. In doing so, it created fortune for some — and spelled disaster for others.
The invention of barbed wire is a story of winners and losers. Inventors got rich off their patents, entrepreneurs profited from effectively marketing the so-called “Devil’s Rope” to Anglo settlers, and cattle barons swallowed up huge swathes of grazing land hitherto used in common. On the other hand, most cowboys became obsolete and lost their jobs, small-time operators got squeezed out of a competitive market, and semi-nomadic Native American tribes lost the ability to move freely about the open range.
Life in the West Before Barbed Wire
Thomas Hobbes once characterized life before states and rulers as “nasty, brutish, and short.”
To be sure, this statement represents quite a sweeping generalization — not to mention some ignorance. It would be equally unnuanced and ignorant to apply these terms to life in the nineteenth-century American West. Nevertheless, it remains impossible to gloss over how brutal, violent, and chaotic the “Wild” West could often be.
Historian Marilynn Johnson, in her study of violence in the West, points out that there existed plenty of tightly-knit communities in the West that stayed largely peaceful. These groups included, of course, some Native American tribes, but also bands of European and American settlers. That being said, such pockets of peaceful living were, at least until the twentieth century, the exceptions to the rule.
We can easily identify two sources of trouble that often led to conflict in the West. The first was the enormous cultural and linguistic diversity of the frontier. Of course, one ought to consider diversity a good thing that enriches the human experience, but that wasn’t the perspective held by many living in the West at the time. Euro-American settlers had little desire to coexist with Native Americans, and Native Americans had good reason to be suspicious of the West’s newcomers.
Added to this issue was the porous nature of territorial boundaries. Settlers’ and Native Americans’ land claims often overlapped. If there were treaties or legal agreements concerning territory, these could easily be ignored. Furthermore, owners of private property had no reliable way to fence in their land. One method of fencing could have been the use of wood, but most ranchers and farmers lacked the means to access such material coming from far-away forests.
In the absence of well-defined boundaries and state law enforcement, and with numerous distinct cultures and interest groups vying for the same space, many parts of the Old West saw regular outbursts of violence. The scale of this violence ranged from individual conflicts to quasi-warfare between groups.
At times, the state, if it was present at all, even sanctioned acts of violence — either by encouraging Anglo settlers to stage attacks against Native Americans or Hispanic communities, or by vowing to protect large commercial interests from outside interference.
Range Wars: the West’s “Civil Wars”
Besides gunfights involving notorious outlaws, one kind of violence in the West that receives much attention is an inter-group conflict known as a “range war.” In short, a range war involved a battle between conflicting interest groups over land in the American West’s vast open range. Because boundaries were porous and legal claims to property were difficult to enforce, people often felt they had little recourse besides the use of force to assert their right to use land.
Such disputes found their origin in the explosion of the cattle industry that occurred around the time of the U.S. Civil War. There was plenty of money to be made off of raising cattle, and thanks to the vastness of the West’s open range, abundant land on which to operate. After Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, settlers came pouring into the West to raise cattle or to farm.
As the cattle industry boomed and homesteaders continued to move in, competition for good grazing land grew fiercer. Not only did ranchers want to ensure their cattle had space to roam, but they also wanted to keep their livestock protected from potential diseases originating from other ranchers’ cattle.
With the competition heating up, the West suddenly didn’t feel quite so open and unending, and rival factions fought over valuable territory. One of the most intense of these range wars was the Johnson County War of 1892, a bloody conflict between cattle barons’ hired guns and small-time local operators. After several weeks of violent skirmishes, President Harrison dispatched troops to Wyoming to finally quell the fighting.
The frequency of gunfights, range wars, and vigilante violence in the second half of the nineteenth century was such that several hot-spots in the West had exponentially higher murder rates than modern-day Chicago, Baltimore, or D.C. Because so much of this violence can be traced to struggles for control over land in the West — and the region’s eventual integration into the U.S. economy — historians often refer to these struggles as the “western civil wars of incorporation.”
From about 1865 to 1920, these civil wars were ultimately fought over the future direction of the West. Cattle barons, ranchers along routes like the Chisholm Trail, and other entrepreneurs appeared on a quest to “tame” the West by bringing the region into the American project of capitalist expansion. Those resisting these designs included minor homesteaders or smallholders, cowboys, and Native Americans.
With little progress made from the use of force or any kind of threat of legal action, one invention emerged as the ultimate tool in bringing order to the West: barbed wire.
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The Inventors of Barbed Wire
Barbed wire germinated as a concept in France around the mid-eighteenth century. It failed to develop beyond an idea, though, in large part because Western Europe already experienced its period of “enclosure” in past centuries. There was no longer anything like an “open range” in this part of the world, and therefore no need to develop better fencing techniques.
Necessity often breeds invention. We’ve already seen that in the American West, where boundaries were at best loosely defined, there existed a great necessity for superior fencing — and wood wasn’t going to cut it. So it was that the notion of barbed wire re-emerged among American inventors.
One of the first such inventors was not himself a man of the frontier. In fact, he came from the industrial North, far away from the rough-and-tumble life of the Great Plains. This shouldn’t be too surprising, though, given that the American public often became swept up in the Old West’s drama. Either they consumed stories about famous outlaws, or — in this case — they eyed the vast western territories in search of the next great economic opportunity. Michael Kelly, of New York, surely knew he could make a fortune if he could find a way to solve the West’s fencing problem.
Kelly became the first to introduce a working barbed wire prototype to market. Though the U.S. Patent Office officialized his invention, Kelly’s wire failed to satisfy farmers and ranchers. The issue, apparently, was that the barbs were incredibly sharp and not prominent enough. Cattle easily fell victim to the wire, and so did people. Nevertheless, Kelly’s so-called “thorny fence” succeeded in showing how to use double strands to make the wire stronger, which would in turn inspire others to improve upon his patent.
In De Kalb, Illinois, a farming hub then considered a gateway to the grazing lands of the Great Plains, Joseph Glidden took up the U.S. Patent Office’s challenge to refine Kelly’s invention. A farmer himself, Glidden knew a thing or two about crops being destroyed by wandering livestock.
Glidden’s model took two strands of wire, like Kelly’s invention, then used a locking method to hold the barbed spurs in place. To reduce the likelihood of injury, he also made the barbs more prominent and dulled the barbs’ points. On top of these innovations, Glidden conceptualized the machinery that would help mass-produce his barbed wire.
In 1873, the U.S. government granted Glidden’s invention a patent. Other inventors attempted to sue Glidden, presumably for stealing their work, but none of these lawsuits succeeded. To this day, Glidden’s wire remains the most readily identifiable of the hundreds of models that eventually hit the market. The design’s effectiveness had much to do with this success, but aggressive sales, marketing, and distribution was at least equally critical.
Selling Barbed Wire: The Entrepreneurs
Glidden, as a prairie farmer himself, had not just a financial, but also a practical, interest in barbed wire’s development. His firsthand knowledge was instrumental in creating more effective wired fencing, but Glidden lacked the capital and business know-how to distribute his invention. Greater involvement from investing interest became necessary in ensuring barbed wire could spread across the West.
Enter Charles G. Washburn and Philip W. Moen, of the Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company. Based out of Worcester, Massachusetts, these New England entrepreneurs had grown their company into one of the most prominent players in the iron and steel industry. Their success left them well positioned to enter new ventures, and like other northern industrialists of the time, opportunity in the West beckoned.
They were fortunate, then, to take early notice of the magic occurring in De Kalb, Illinois. Hungering for promising new investments, Washburn and Moen took particular interest in Glidden’s patent. Upon meeting the inventor, Washburn and Moen promised Joseph Glidden a sizable profit share if he would agree to sell his patent to their manufacturing company. Glidden wisely reasoned that Washburn and Moen had the appropriate business acumen, cash on hand, and industrial experience necessary to produce his barbed wire at scale, and so he agreed to sell his patent.
Washburn estimated that his company spent about $120,000 on various barbed wire patents (including Glidden’s), and $30,000 on land and manufacturing equipment in De Kalb. In today’s dollars, this would represent about a $5 million investment — a small price to pay to acquire a virtual monopoly in the invention that would “tame” the West.
Such funding would ensure that Glidden’s wire had the resources needed to distribute barbed wire across the western United States. In addition to proper manufacturing infrastructure, though, Glidden also needed help getting the word out to ranchers and farmers about his wire. He needed salesmen.
Fortunately, Glidden knew a good salesman through marriage: Henry Bradley Sanborn. In late 1874, Glidden wrote to Sanborn, saying: “We should very much like to have you interested in this fence business…It promises to be a big thing and needs deliberation.” Sanborn agreed, and began travelling around the De Kalb area to spread the gospel of barbed wire to local farmers.
After finding quick success in the De Kalb area, Sanborn set his sights on a larger prize: Texas, the undisputed capital of America’s cattle industry. Sanborn traveled to North Texas with his partner, J.P. Warner. The two became the first barbed-wire salesmen in the Southwest, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, they had the obvious benefit of being the only source for better fencing in the area. On the other hand, barbed wire was still a new concept, and drew suspicion from homesteaders and ranchers, and full-on ire from cowboys and other enthusiasts of the open range.
According to historians Henry and Frances McCallum, the lack of initial excitement for barbed wire owed to a variety of factors: Texans suspected the salesmen to be vanguards of a northern scheme to control the southern economy. Apart from that, local farmers and ranchers simply doubted that barbed wire would actually work.
There were also objections from people with vested interest in lumber, seeing as how barbed wire threatened to make wood fencing obsolete. Finally, many Texans — but especially cowboys — rejected barbed wire both on the grounds of its cruelty towards animals and its threat to the open range concept.
Sanborn and Warner concluded their unsuccessful Texas venture in a pessimistic mood. Their defeat did not signal the end of the sales campaign in Texas, though — it was still just beginning.
John Warne Gates, a confident and eager twenty-one-year-old from northeastern Illinois, soon picked up the mantel left by Sanborn and Warner. With Joseph Glidden’s and his business partners’ blessings, Gates took a stab at the Texas market in 1876. Instead of North Texas, though, he headed for San Antonio, a frontier town at the time that was also considered America’s “cattle mecca.”
Early on, young Gates’ charisma won over local merchants — and even some cowboys. Nevertheless, most still did not see value in the product he sold. Sure, they’d drink and play cards with him well into the night, but they still wouldn’t touch that barbed wire.
This continued resistance pushed Gates to engage in some creative thinking. A new idea came to him one night while at a Mexican chili parlor. Observing a medicine man performing in the plaza, Gates turned to his friend and reportedly said: “I think I’ve got it. We’ll sell more barbed wire than you can shake a stick at. We’ll give ‘em a show, right out in front. Get the wildest damn cattle in Texas — corral ‘em here with barbed wire and then let ‘em try to get out. That’ll show ‘em. Ain’t a cowhand livin’ won’t go for that!”
Gates chose San Antonio’s old Military Plaza as the site for his show. In the days that it took to construct the corral — surrounded, of course, by Glidden’s barbed wire — word got around about the gimmick. On the day of the show, Gates corraled dozens of strong Longhorns behind the wire. A sizable crowd of onlookers turned out as well, probably eager to see the salesman’s experiment fail.
But to their surprise, the angry Longhorns charged at the wire yet failed to breach it. After several failed attempts, they gave up on trying to break through the fencing and reverted instead to groveling about their predicament.
What followed was a Hollywood-like sequence that’s difficult to countenance. Word of Gates’ achievement spread like wildfire, and barbed wire became almost an overnight success in the region. With sales of barbed wire in the Southwest exploding, it wouldn’t be long before farmers and ranchers from all over the West were placing orders for the miracle product.
Barbed Wire Draws Cowboys’ Ire
For barbed wire’s inventors and investors, as well as the ranchers and farmers who purchased barbed wire, it was agreed that the open range system presented a challenge to the West’s future development. Others, though, viewed enclosure as tantamount to erasing an entire way of life. Among this group, cowboys featured prominently as advocates for maintaining the open range.
Prior to the advancement of barbed wire, cattle owners allowed their livestock to freely roam and graze across vast swathes of territory. Apart from such natural barriers as canyons and rivers, ranchers depended on cowboys to keep cattle at least loosely contained. Cowboys also protected livestock from thieves and predators. Perhaps most important of all, though, cowboys orchestrated long-distance cattle drives across the West, moving cows to different ranges after spring and fall’s great roundups.
For most cowboys, this wasn’t simply a job that ranch owners paid them to do. It was an entire lifestyle. The year-round movement across prairies and plains on horseback, eating hastily-prepared rice and beans and sleeping under open skies, all while wrangling huge herds of cattle and fighting off the occasional wolf, bandit, or Native American. This was what life in the West signified for cowboys. Wild and dangerous the life may have been, but for them it meant they could have a world of their own.
Because barbed wire promised to make the West orderly — and therefore hospitable — to greater numbers of people, cowboys sensed a grave threat to the world they’d created. They also perceived their jobs becoming mostly obsolete. With barbed wire, cattle owners had a way of keeping their cows enclosed and much better protected from wildlife, disease, and thievery. While there would still be need for some cattlemen to look over the animals, far fewer would be required than was the case in the open range era.
Faced with these threats, cowboys felt they had two options: fight back, or adapt. In the former case, some cowboys attempted to organize against cattle barons to protect their interests, as we saw in the Johnson County range war from earlier. Cowboys also rebelled by cutting through barbed-wire fences and moving cattle through private property. Such fence-cutting could sometimes result in quasi-warfare between cattle barons’ hired protection and cowboys.
Cattle owners often had greater resources and the law on their side, so despite cowboy resistance, barbed wire and enclosure prevailed. By the turn of the twentieth century, being a cowboy became a niche occupation. Most former cowboys had no choice but to try to get into the ranch-owning game themselves, or to move on to new work entirely.
Related read: Everything You Need to Know About Cowboy Chaps
Enclosure’s Effect on Native Americans
Barbed wire eroded a way of life for many groups of people, not just cowboys. We don’t often think of cowboys and Indians as sharing common interests, but in the case of barbed wire, they did. The open range facilitated a semi-nomadic way of life that suited both cowboys and Native Americans well. For centuries, the Plains Indians, along with many other tribes in the West, flourished by being able to move freely across vast distances, and by being able to hunt for bison and other large mammals in open fields.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Euro-American expansion into the West contributed to a slow population decline for Native American groups. The introduction of barbed wire fencing accelerated this decline by restricting freedom of movement for migratory animals — and the indigenous groups who followed and subsisted off these animals.
Enclosure of land clearly impacted semi-nomadic peoples like the Comanche, Apache, and Navajo of the Southwest, as well as the Plains Indians further north. More settled Native Americans, though, were also affected.
The Cherokee Nation, for instance, owned land in common within the Oklahoma territory allotted to them. Once they began leasing unfenced land to Anglo ranchers, though, they unwittingly introduced enclosure to their territory as well. For as soon as Texans began moving into the Cherokee Nation en masse in the 1880s, they brought barbed wire with them. After that point, the amount of land actually held by Cherokees grew smaller and smaller.
Barbed wire did more than simply act as a convenient fencing tool, then. It made older ways of life and traditional practices in the U.S. West obsolete, and therefore assisted in eroding cultures deemed antithetical to the burgeoning modern American system.
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The Thorny Legacy of Barbed Wire
For those who saw the Old West as a wild place in need of taming, technology proved a valuable tool in making the American West amenable to modern life. In this regard, no technology had a greater impact on developing the West than barbed wire.
Creating a cheap and highly effective way of securing private property had obvious benefits for livestock owners and farmers — and to the inventors and investors who put their intellectual and financial capital behind barbed wire. After the introduction of barbed wire, Anglo-American settlement in the West exploded, the cattle industry soared to new heights, and many so-called cattle barons and large landowners grew filthy rich.
The use of barbed wire hasn’t come without its costs, though. By bringing an end to the Old West’s open range era, barbed wire ended the era of the cowboy. Barbed wire also severely curtailed the movement of semi-nomadic Native American groups, and the migratory prey they depended on for survival. Already beleaguered by U.S. expansion into the West, barbed wire practically assured there would be hardly a chance for the survival of western America’s indigenous cultures.
Barbed wire has done much more than mark territory and protect property. It drew a line between ranchers and cowboys, settlers and Indians, and between the Old West and the modern American West.
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References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.
- A&E Television Networks. (2009, November 19). Joseph Glidden Applies for a Patent on His Barbed Wire Design. History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/joseph-glidden-applies-for-a-patent-on-his-barbed-wire-design
- Antique Barbed Wire Society. ABWSEducation – Antique Barbed Wire Society. (n.d.). https://www.antiquebarbedwiresociety.com/abwseducation.html
- Barbed Wire. Oklahoma Historical Society | OHS. (n.d.). https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=BA016
- Fencing the Great Plains: The History of Barbed Wire. National Park Service. (n.d.). http://npshistory.com/brochures/home/barbed-wire.pdf
- Gershon, L. (2017, June 24). How Barbed Wire Changed Farming Forever. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/how-barbed-wire-changed-farming-forever/
- Johnson, M. S. (2009). Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford Books.
- Krell, A. (2003). The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire. Reaktion.
- McCallum, H. D. (1985). The Wire That Fenced the West. University of Oklahoma Press.
- National Archives and Records Administration. (2017, October 11). Glidden’s Patent Application for Barbed Wire. National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/barbed-wire
- Netz, R. (2009). Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Wesleyan University Press.
- Texas State Historical Association. (1952). Barbed Wire. Texas State Historical Association. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/barbed-wire
- Walcheck, K. (2023, May 1). Barbed Wire’s Impact On The History Of The West. Barbed Wire’s Impact On The History Of The West. https://bozemanmagazine.com/articles/2023/05/01/117217-barbed-wires-impact-on-the-history-of-the-west
by Miles Reding
Miles Reding is a freelance writer from Austin who writes about history and politics, and enjoys writing fiction as well. He received his BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin and a MA in history from Northwestern. More of his work can be found at his website, milesjreding.com.