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What is the History of Barbed Wire?

Barbed wire revolutionized fencing in the late 19th century, transforming agriculture and land ownership. Invented in 1874, it became a symbol of the American West, demarcating boundaries and altering the open range. Its use in warfare added a grim chapter to its history. How did this simple invention become so influential? Discover the story that threads through our past.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Barbed wire was controversial when used by cowboys to keep cattle contained.
Barbed wire was controversial when used by cowboys to keep cattle contained.

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.

Barbed wire keeps cattle in and other animals out of a grazing pasture.
Barbed wire keeps cattle in and other animals out of a grazing pasture.

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.

Barbed wire has been used by farmers looking to contain livestock since the 1800s.
Barbed wire has been used by farmers looking to contain livestock since the 1800s.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who invented barbed wire and when was it first used?

Barbed wire was invented by Joseph F. Glidden, a farmer from DeKalb, Illinois, who patented his design in 1874. His invention was inspired by an earlier version displayed at a county fair by Henry M. Rose. Glidden's design featured twisted wire with sharp barbs that was effective in restraining cattle, revolutionizing fencing practices in the American West.

How did barbed wire change the American West?

Barbed wire had a transformative impact on the American West by enabling settlers to fence off large areas of land for private use, effectively ending the era of the open range. This led to the enclosure of common lands and the establishment of defined property boundaries, which was crucial for the development of agriculture and the containment of livestock, fundamentally altering the social and economic landscape of the region.

What were some of the controversies surrounding the use of barbed wire?

The introduction of barbed wire sparked significant controversy, particularly among ranchers and farmers. It led to the "Fence Cutting Wars" in the 1880s, where open range cattlemen saw the fencing as an infringement on their grazing rights, leading to legal disputes and violent confrontations. Barbed wire was also seen as a symbol of the loss of the frontier and the restriction of freedom for both humans and wildlife.

How has barbed wire been used outside of agriculture?

Beyond its agricultural applications, barbed wire has been used for security purposes in various contexts. It has been employed in military settings to create obstacles and fortify positions, notably during World War I and II. Additionally, barbed wire has been used in prisons and detention facilities to prevent escapes, and it has become a ubiquitous symbol of confinement and control in these environments.

What advancements have been made in barbed wire technology?

Since its invention, barbed wire has seen several advancements to improve its durability and effectiveness. Manufacturers have experimented with different materials, such as galvanized steel and high-tensile wire, to enhance corrosion resistance and strength. Modern barbed wire can also feature more sophisticated barb designs and spacing, tailored to specific needs, such as wildlife preservation or maximum security applications.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

bythewell

@Iluviaporos - There are far better ways of keeping cattle in check, in my opinion. Barbed wire only gets used because it's cheap and doesn't have to be pulled as taunt as smooth wire to keep animals in or out.

I've found too many animals that managed to get themselves tangled and injured, or even killed in barbed wire to think it's a good idea. I'm a much bigger fan of using electric fences. It might seem like a crueler, or even more dangerous thing to use, but it isn't. Usually one zap is enough to ensure that cattle will never even try to get through a fence and even if it manages to get loose from the posts, it is much less likely to cause permanent injury. Plus you can easily put up temporary electric fencing.

lluviaporos

@browncoat - Well, I mean, it has been used on occasion to keep humans in a particular area as well, although it's not as effective by itself, because usually people can just avoid the barbs.

I do find it somewhat ironic that a lot of people use it in tattoos to symbolize how powerful or against the rules they are, when it's actually all about rules and regulations.

It isn't a bad thing though when it is used properly. It can keep cattle from ranging into places where they aren't supposed to be.

browncoat

That's really interesting. I never knew that there were actual politics involved with barbed wire. I always thought that it was just used as a metaphorical statement when people put it in posters and things like that symbolizing a police state or other forms of control.

I can definitely see why the Native Americans were against it, and I wonder how much it contributed to the declining numbers of bison in the United States.

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    • Barbed wire was controversial when used by cowboys to keep cattle contained.
      By: outdoorsman
      Barbed wire was controversial when used by cowboys to keep cattle contained.
    • Barbed wire keeps cattle in and other animals out of a grazing pasture.
      By: Springfield Gallery
      Barbed wire keeps cattle in and other animals out of a grazing pasture.
    • Barbed wire has been used by farmers looking to contain livestock since the 1800s.
      By: Patryk Kosmider
      Barbed wire has been used by farmers looking to contain livestock since the 1800s.