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‘Bristling Barbs’

Barbed wire ushered in a new era on the prairies of the American West

No matter which side of the fence you’re on, history is clear: Barbed wire, alternately cursed and praised by farmers, ranchers, settlers and politicians, did not have smooth beginnings en route to reinventing the American West.

In a 1939 Agricultural History journal article titled “Barbed Wire Fencing—A Prairie Invention: Its Rise and Influence in the Western States,” author Earl W. Hayter describes “bristling barbs”: the fencing that carved a new face of the West.

In addition to writing that barbed wire “encouraged the further settlement and exploitation of the Great Plains,” Hayter explained that the fencing forced bitter battles over land ownership, ended the open-range era of cattle drives, and dictated that travelers follow roads rather than cross formerly wide-open, unfenced land.

Barbed wire is essentially that: smooth wire with barbs. Its American origins date to 1867, when William D. Hunt of New York was issued the first crude patent for the fencing. Over the next several years, inventors in the DeKalb, Illinois, area began experimenting with barbed wire. One of them, farmer Joseph Glidden, known as the “Father of Barbed Wire,” perfected a fence whose twisted, double-stranded design is still seen throughout Texas.

In 1874, DeKalb businessman Isaac Ellwood purchased a half interest in Glidden’s patent and formed a partnership with him. In the wake of their work, tough competition arose among small factories. By 1889, Ellwood, who was manufacturing barbed wire on a commercial scale, had ventured to the Lone Star State to market his product. He used part of his growing fencing fortune to purchase what now is the Renderbrook Spade Ranch in West Texas—one of the state’s first spreads to use barbed wire.

Barbed wire, as is befitting the name, sparked many a controversy: Livestock sometimes were killed by the electrical charge when lightning struck nearby fences, and cattle huddled along fence lines during blizzards froze to death when they couldn’t find shelter.

But not even the violent fence-cutting war of the early 1880s, which started in Texas, could stop the proliferation of barbed wire. As Hayter wrote, “a new chapter was ushered in on the plains. The stockmen and farmers with their better breeds of cattle, better management, better grass, and smaller herds had come to stay.”

Rachel Frey, editorial intern