Barbed Wire (from "Have To" History)

Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About... Barbed Wire

Three Big Things:

1. Barbed wire became the fencing of choice in the west after the Civil War. It was relatively cheap, withstood a wide range of conditions, and held back the biggest, most stubborn livestock.

2. Barbed wire favored homesteaders moving west, who tended to be small farmers. It threatened, and eventually helped destroy, the mythical “open range” and cowboy culture.

3. Barbed wire is rarely asked about specifically in history standards; it’s central to a wide variety of stuff that is, however.


Kansas Barbed Wire MuseumThere are barbed wire museums in nearly a dozen different states. That’s right – museums devoted exclusively (or at least primarily) to the origins and impact of pokey wires in all its many varieties. The Oklahoma Cowboy Museum boasts over 8,000 varieties of prickly steel yarn, while the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas, promises “everything you want to know about barbed wire and fencing tools.” There are several collections in and around DeKalb, Illinois, the birthplace of barbed wire, but it’s the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum which makes the grandest claims and boasts the most extensive curated exploration of this marvelous innovation.

It’s fencing. Made of wire. What’s the big deal?

Expansion, Technology, and Conflict

American history is largely a tale of expansion. Many of our best conflicts have resulted (at least in part) from our eternal need to expand and renovate. As “Schoolhouse Rock” waxed so rhapsodically:

Elbow room, elbow room, got to, got to get us some elbow room. It's the west or bust; in God we trust – there’s a new land out there... There were plenty of fights to win land rights, but the West was meant to be; it was our Manifest Destiny!

Prior to the Civil War, westward expansion was at least somewhat limited by resistance from northeastern businessmen (who didn’t want their cheap immigrant labor to have other options) and southern plantation owners (who didn’t want competition from new farmers). During the Civil War, the southern states lost a great deal of influence, what with having “left the Union” and started a war and all. Lincoln’s Republicans were able to push through the famed Homestead Act of 1862. This wasn’t the first offering of its sort, but it was arguably the most important. Almost anyone could get a chunk of land out west at minimal cost as long as they were willing to go live on it and improve it. After the war, Americans once again upped their expansion mojo and the country began (or rather, resumed) sprawling westward.

Barbed Wire FarmerIn the meantime, demand for beef was rising. Soldiers insisted on eating from time to time and all that meat has to come from somewhere. After the war, a prosperous and victorious North wanted steak for dinner. Creative cross-breeding eventually produced a fairly hearty steer which was nevertheless edible – the Texas Longhorn. Railroads connecting the west to markets in the northeast didn’t quite reach Texas, so the age of the great cattle drives was born. Despite its eternal popularity in TV and movie westerns, the era of “git along little doggie” was really only about two decades long – from the 1850s to mid-1870s. By the 1910s… nothing.

The culture of cattle ranching required easy access to grazing and water. In both law and custom, cowboys could drive their herds pretty much anywhere they liked as long as they used a little basic courtesy. This wasn’t just “how they did things” – it was an entrenched ethical and legal reality on par with any other “natural right.” Life, liberty, and the open range were God-given and self-evident.

The settlers who began showing up to partake of all those nifty government land offers had slightly different unalienable truths lodged in their hearts and minds. They’d been marinated since birth in the sacramental wine of private property rights and the obligation of every good American to defend those rights, preferably against savages but against cowboys as well if necessary. It didn’t take long for these disparate American ideals to begin chafing against one another in the most unpleasant ways.

Going On The Fence-ive

Farmers knew in the core of their being that they had every right to their 160 acres, wherever it happened to be; ranchers knew in the core of theirs that limiting others’ access to water or grazing was both tyrannical and tacky. Farming homesteaders needed better fences.

This was problematic, given the realities of flora on the Great Plains. There’s a reason it’s not called the “Great Forest,” the “Big Ol’ Woods,” or “Trees-a-Palooza.” Even when settlers could find wood, it’s windy on the Plains. Also, it rains sometimes. Or snows. Pretty much every season was brutal on wooden fences in one way or another. Some tried rocks, but the difficulty with that system is self-evident. Others build boundaries out of the same sod they used for their homes – but again with the rain. Plus, the creatures fences were primarily intended to keep out weren’t particularly intimidated by wooden posts or boards. Humans could kick them down or pull them up. Cattle just knocked them over and went about their business.

Barbed wire changed all of that. There are competing accounts of its origins, but the first versions were patented in 1867 and being mass produced less than a decade later. There were dozens (and eventually hundreds, then thousands) of varieties, but most came down to thin, sturdy steel wire with intermittent “barbs” – ridges, spikes, or other pointy metal shapes – firmly embedded along the wire. Barbed wire was relatively inexpensive and easy to put up. Wind had zero impact on the thin steel wires; rain and snow had even less. Animals, on the other hand, quickly learned not to test this new devil’s rope. The barbs were painful enough to discourage pushing through or knocking over this new anathema, but unlikely to do real damage to most livestock.

Barbed Wire TypesThis nasty little innovation shifted the balance of power in the west considerably. Pretty much anyone could easily stake out and claim any section of land they wished, whether they legally owned it or not. Sure, you could sneak in and cut the wires, but unlike wooden fences they could be repaired and replaced just as quickly. You could try to go over, under, or through, but the wire itself discouraged this by its very nature. Barbed wire wasn’t the only reason homesteaders and private property took over the west, but it was arguably the deciding factor. As to cattle drives, yes, the railroads finally reached Texas. There were also a few brutal winters in the 1880s which killed tons of livestock. While less dramatic, there’s no denying the impact of wave after wave of desperate settlers now armed with the ability to slice the frontier into private little homesteads defended by cheap, durable, pokey wire fence.

How Do I Remember This?

If you’ve endured any version of Oklahoma!, you probably remember the hootenanny in which the ensemble sings that “the farmer and the cowman should be frieeeends!” (If not, you can YouTube it right now. I’ll wait.) Imagine this particular number concluding with the “farmer” contingency busting out a large role of barbed wire (with wooden posts already attached every few feet) and wrapping up the cowmen en massse, who then remain cut off from the festivities until they die. (The rest of the ensemble, of course, continues singing “territory folks should stick together; territory folks should all be pals!”, seemingly oblivious to the plight of the filthy, outdated cowpokes rapidly losing both relevance and consciousness just off stage.)

What You’re Most Likely To Be Asked

It’s unlikely you’ll be asked about barbed wire specifically, or at least not in isolation. Typically it comes up in prompts or multiple choice questions asking about factors that led to or assisted with the settling if the West in the latter half of the 19th century. It goes nicely with “expanding railroads,” the aforementioned Homestead Act (1862), and all the usual “opportunity and fresh start” stuff. (If you’re doing short answers or essays, you should probably reference U.S. pacification (i.e., death or imprisonment) of the remaining native population as well.)

Indiana U.S. History Standards, for example, wants students to “examine the political, economic, social, and cultural development of the United States during the period from1870 to 1900” and “{a}nalyze the factors associated with the development of the West and how these factors affected the lives of those who settled there…”

Kansas is less specific, filtering their entire History, Government, and Social Studies curriculum through five rather provocative overarching standards instead. Number #5 proffers that “{r}elationships among people, places, ideas, and environments are dynamic. People, places, ideas, and environments experience change, activity, progress, or regression. All relationships are in a constant state of adjustment. These adjustments may also result in additional change, activity, progress, or regression… The interaction of a single relationship between individuals, communities, and/or their environment impacts to some degree all other relationships. Dynamic relationships involve circumstances which often create shifts in priorities, leading to tension and adjustments toward progress.” Honestly, it practically begs for a curriculum built around barbed wire.

APSUH wants students to be familiar with “{t}echnological advances, large-scale production methods, and the opening of new markets encouraged the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States” (KC-6.1).  Obviously, this is primarily concerned with the Second Industrial Revolution, but that makes it all the cooler when you can work in something relevant from a bit further west to supplement the essentials. Besides, nestled under this is KC 6.2: “The migrations that accompanied industrialization transformed both urban and rural areas of the United States and caused dramatic social and cultural change… Larger numbers of migrants moved to the West in search of land and economic opportunity, frequently provoking competition and violent conflict.”

In short, barbed wire is an excellent specific detail to work into almost any short essay related to westward expansion after the war, particularly if the prompt involves the conflict between homesteaders and the Plains Indians or between homesteaders (largely farmers) and cattlemen. It’s also a powerful example of technology changing how and where people live, impacting the environment as well as the economy – literally reshaping everything else that was possible (or not) wherever it was utilized.

Bonus Points: How To Sound Like You Know More Than You Do

Smart StudentThere’s no substitute for actual historical details and legitimate reasoning, but sometimes we want to dangle something a bit more profound out there and hope it catches the teacher’s imagination. The trick is not to push it further than you can back up with actual thought and substance – let them be thrilled at the potential you’re showing, not dismayed by your grandiose nonsense.

Barbed wire makes a wonderful metaphor for the clash between raw capitalism (as represented by private property – albeit ironically, given the level of government facilitation involved) and society as a collective body. This can be explored through the conflicts between (mostly) white settlers and the Native American populations they displaced OR via the dissonance between homesteaders (icons of the American Dream) and cowboys (equally powerful representations of American ideals). If you want to sound particularly thoughtful, acknowledge the inherent complexities in either conflict as suggested by the nature of the fence itself. Barbed wire need not be fatal. It discourages and antagonizes; it doesn’t dismember or destroy. Only when you run into it full speed – or insist on challenging it repeatedly – is it truly destructive. That kind of thing.

The other ripe, faux-profound approach is to discuss barbed wire as representative of the larger impact of many varieties of technological progress. You can resist the change, fight against it, etc., but just as the winds and rains pass right on through without obvious impact, technological change does what it’s going to do, with or without our cooperation. We can seize it and utilize it to our own ends or let it pass us by… but pushing back against it usually just leaves us cut up and wincing a bit from the results.

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