The Wild West of Yester-Year

Wire the Whole World
By Rachel Kovaciny

In the 1966 western The Rare Breed, aging cattleman Bulldog Burnett (James Stewart) opines, "Wire! They'll wire the whole world. Telegraph wire. Barbed wire. There's always been free passage across this range!" As he talks, he cuts his way right through someone else’s barbed wire fence. In that cowboy's mind, no landowner had the right to restrict the travel of people and animals by putting up this newfangled barbed wire stuff all over the place.


Barbed wire is such a common sight nowadays, we don't even notice it most of the time.  A twist of wire with little thorn-like bits of wire attached to it—even if you don't live in a rural area, you know what it looks like.  You can find it on farms, prisons, military installations, even at your local home improvement store. But barbed wire hasn't always existed, nor was it strung from fencepost to fencepost all across the west.  The first US patent for barbed wire dates only 151 years ago, to Lucien Smith in 1867.  A few others experimented with the idea before Smith, but until the 1860s, barbed-wire fences did not exist.  After many tweaks, by the mid-1870s, the barbed wire we would recognize was on the market.


It wasn't long before those dealing with livestock saw how useful it could be.  Gardeners could keep large animals from trampling their gardens by stringing the wire around their veggies in no time at all rather than building a wooden fence.  You could fence off whole fields in less time than it would have taken just to split the rails for a traditional fence.  Farmers embraced this time- and labor-saving invention and began enthusiastically putting up barbed-wire fences to protect their property. This was especially useful in the west, where many ranchers let their cattle roam free, only rounding them up once or twice a year.  These free-range cattle often ate or trampled the crops nearby farmers were trying to raise.  You can see why they'd appreciate a cheap, efficient way to keep someone else's animals out.  But as they fenced off their fields and orchards, they restricted the available grass and water for these cattle, which made ranchers angry.  


We see this played out in western books and movies repeatedly, like in Rogers and Hammerstein's classic musical Oklahoma!, where there's an entire song devoted to why "The Farmer and the Cowman" should be friends.  But farmers weren't the only ones to fence off vast tracts of what had previously been free grazing land.  The railroads used it along their tracks where they crossed private land to keep farm animals from wandering onto the tracks. Now, not all ranchers disliked barbed wire fences.  Many bigger ranches fenced off their ranges to ensure their own livestock had plenty of grass and water.  This meant they didn't have to use as many ranch hands to chase down strays or keep herds separate.  It made repairing fences quicker and easier too—just twist the wires back together if they got accidentally or deliberately cut. No more chopping down valuable trees for rails. No more wondering whose property ended where.


But for free-range cattlemen, this was bad news.  Many smaller ranchers held attitudes like that voiced by Bulldog Burnett in The Rare Breed—they thought ranges should be left free so their cattle could find good grass just as easily as the big ranch's cattle.  That the cattle liked gazing in other people's fields wasn't their concern, they thought. Much as they disliked it, barbed wire fences were there to stay.  Bulldog Burnett could cut his way through one fence or a hundred, but he could never stop progress.  In fact, barbed wire has been referred to as the invention that truly tamed the west.  Most historians consider the fencing off of what had been free range to be the end of the cowboy era. We can romanticize life on the open range, we can argue over whether the farmer and the cowman could ever truly be friends, but we can’t change that barbed wire changed the American West forever.