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What is the History of Barbed Wire?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Mar 16, 2014

@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.

By lluviaporos — On Mar 16, 2014

@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.

By browncoat — On Mar 15, 2014

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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