Barbed wire is a ubiquitous feature across much of the West, where the invention played a crucial role in the settlement of the West for farming and cattle raising. Like most everyday inventions, few individuals give barbed wire extensive thought, although the history of barbed wire is actually quite interesting, incorporating cowboys, Indians, guerrilla fence cutting, and land activism. A few strands of wire can cause quite a fuss.
Barbed wire is usually defined as any wire which incorporates multiple strands twisted together, with periodic barbs of protruding wire spaced regularly along the barbed wire. These barbs of wire keep cattle in and nuisance animals out. Barbed wire does not require stringing techniques as meticulous as other types of wire do, allowing many miles of the material to be installed and maintained quickly and cheaply. Barbed wire also has cousins such as razor wire, which uses sharpened razors instead of barbs for additional security.
When the American West was settled under Manifest Destiny, farmers brought cattle with them. Initially, cattle roamed the plains loosely, identified by brands when they were periodically rounded up. However, poaching became an issue, and Native American groups were disgruntled by the damage caused as cattle grazed their traditional lands. As a result, the ranching community started to seek out methods of fencing.
Smooth wire was in frequent use throughout the West, and had been used for centuries to contain livestock. However, the wire was not terribly effective at containing cattle, and in large plots of land could not be properly maintained. In the 1860s, Joseph Glidden invented barbed wire, using twists of sharp wire at periodic points along a strand of smooth wire to provide an obstacle to livestock.
Initially, barbed wire was called “the devil's rope,” and use of the wire was strongly resisted by the public. Cattle often injured themselves quite badly in an attempt to get through barbed wire fences, and some non-ranchers thought that the use of the wire was inhumane. In addition, numerous free range ranchers feared that increased use of barbed wire would decrease their access to public grasslands.
Thus the fence cutting wars were born, with free range ranchers cutting miles of barbed wire across the West in order to liberate their cattle. The Native Americans followed suit, because barbed wire fences obstructed the free passage of many traditionally hunted game animals, such as buffalo. These fence cutters were early land activists, determined to effect policy changes through direct action.
The attempts to keep the American West open failed, mainly due to the cheap and effective barbed wire which was rapidly strung across public grasslands. Barbed wire is used in ranching all over the world, and continues to be cut by activists protesting land use policies, farming practices, and the confinement of ungulate species. The seemingly unremarkable fencing material is worth a second look.