The History of Barbed Wire Fencing

Twists, turns and barbs: Barbed iron wire kept crops and loose livestock safe.

Making barbed wire

One of the first forms of barbed wire was smooth iron wire with sheet metal barbs attached at intervals by hand.

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Down through the ages, containment of herds and flocks of domestic stock away from growing crops was always a major problem for farmers and stockmen. As long as native raw materials such as timber, brush or stone were at hand, walls and fences could be constructed to keep the crops safe. We have it easy today, with barbed wire fencing readily available. In areas where materials were not present, other means were devised. Never was the problem greater than in New Spain (today's Mexico), when cattle, horses, mules, swine, goats, sheep and domestic fowl were introduced. This 'newly discovered' world, with its semi-arid climate, offered few materials for fencing. 

In order for food crops to be grown, the Old World practice of 'transhumance' — periodic removal of domestic animals and flocks during the crop-growing season — was revived by the settlers.

Almost all settlements were located along the waterways of the country and almost all crops were grown adjacent to the settlements. Practicing transhumance meant that just before spring planting time, all loose livestock and large poultry were gathered in a roundup. Owners identified their animals and applied the proper brands.

All grass-eating animals such as cattle, horses and mules were driven to the plains to graze. Goats, sheep and burros were taken to the brushy hills. Swine and turkeys were driven to the low-lying swampy areas. Old men and young boys herded the stock until after fall harvest time, when all returned to the settlements for the winter.

After 1800, iron products such as smooth wire became available in the eastern United States. Settlers built fences from the wire to contain livestock. These fences were effective until the animals learned to wiggle through without injury.

After that, several attempts were made to arm the smooth wires with points to discourage animal passage. Two such attempts resulted in patents being issued to Lucien B. Smith and William D. Hunt in 1867. Both men's designs proved impractical for automated manufacture, and financial difficulties discouraged further development of either patent.

In 1868, Michael Kelly of New York patented both a single- and a double-strand fencing wire with sheet metal barbs attached at intervals. The design was effective in deterring livestock and became popular with landowners. However, the manufacturing equipment of the time was crude and hand-operated, resulting in minimal quantities offered for sale.

Other designs were invented during the early 1870s, mostly by inventors living in the DeKalb, Ill., area. If produced, these designs were manufactured in small quantities.

Barbed wire as we know it today was invented by Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, who was issued Patent #157,124 on Nov. 24, 1874.

Using a machine fashioned from a kitchen coffee mill, Glidden made barbs, which he then slipped onto a smooth wire. After properly spacing the barbs, he mashed them slightly to hold their position. A grindstone-cranking device was then used to twist another smooth wire around the first wire, thus doubling the strength plus holding the barbs in place. This design was easily adapted for automated manufacture, making it more economical in cost.

Quickly, others patented similar designs, starting a series of legal suits filed by both inventors and manufacturers. After lengthy litigation, the U.S. Patent Office found Glidden the original patentee of barbed wire. In today's history, he is known as the 'Father of Barbed Wire.'

Aside from Kelly and Glidden, other notable barbed iron wire inventors were Jacob Haish, I.L. Ellwood, George C. Baker and Jacob Brinkerhoff. The Washburn & Moen Mfg. Co. had a great part in barbed wire development, and John W. 'Bet-a-Million' Gates — who finally defeated the last vestiges of anti-wire sentiment with sheer showmanship and moxie — eventually became a millionaire as head of the American Steel & Wire Co.

Accepting the Devil's rope

To say that Gates broke through the resistance to wire's acceptance is to say much. Acceptance in the Old West did not come easy, as barbed wire was not just a tool to be used by the owner. Its presence sometimes meant the end of an era, and a complete reversal of lifestyle and duty.

Many pieces of collectible wire may have been both witness and cause of arguments between neighbors, friends and even relatives. Fights that resulted in injuries, and sometimes even deaths, were common between the barbed wire factions of the era.

Most Southern stockmen first became aware of barbed wire when it was encountered on a trail drive. Others were introduced to the prickly barrier when settlers began to fence their crops. The effectiveness of the newfangled invention was never in question. The idea of accepting it became a matter of changing attitudes.

Settlers felt ranchers should keep their livestock away from the growing crops. Ranchers felt settlers should be responsible for their crops' well being. When unwary stock was injured by the barbs, the cry arose, "It's the work of the Devil. Do away with the barbed wire fences."

Barbed wire was given the name 'Devil's rope' in spite of the fact animals seldom touched it a second time.

In addition, ranchers were concerned fences would force them to use the railroads more, rather than driving cattle overland, which would mean higher shipping costs. And trail drivers foresaw the end of their means of making a living. Cowboys hated the wire because it curbed their freedom, and they knew the construction, upkeep and repair of the fences eventually would be added to their duties.

Anyone owning land outright would be forced to fence his or her boundaries for protection, and all who used 'free-graze' lands would have to purchase or lease the acreage in order to continue.

The 'Fence Cutter Wars' broke out anywhere farming areas adjoined ranching areas, affecting the entire Great Plains, and confrontations became so violent, state legislatures made it a felony to cut wire fences. This drastic action finally broke the back of the 'no wire' faction.

Barbed wire historians state the biggest factor in the 'coming together of farmers and ranchers' was the introduction of forage crops on ranches for feeding livestock and the addition of livestock to farming operations. These efforts brought a better understanding to both sides of their mutual problems.

The trail driver and the free-graze rancher faded into the past. The old-time riding cowboy became resigned to building and repairing fences in order to hold his job. Adjoining landowners began to work together to erect mutual boundaries for economic benefit, and state and county regulations soon required sufficient gates installed to accommodate travelers.

Although barbed wire struck at the heart and soul of old timers who loved their independence and freedom, the barriers did gave them much better control over their land and livestock.

And the new, well-marked boundaries gave owners a pride of ownership never before understood in such a visual way. When landowners began to boast that a strong, well-built barbed wire fence was the best sign of a prosperous enterprise, the Devil's rope was here to stay.

Collecting barbed wire

By 1876, approximately 75 patents had been issued for barbed wire designs, and more than 450 patents were in force in 1900. Today, approximately 700 patents have been found, many buried deep within barbed wire machine patents. And amazingly, more than 2,000 different barbed wire designs are being collected by hobbyists.

To explain these numbers, like other collectibles, if a barbed wire specimen is enough different in appearance to easily see, it is usually defined as another design. Hardcore identification experts claim many of these differences are caused by deterioration, defects caused by manufacturing machine wear or inferior quality materials used in original production.

Slight variations from the original patent design also occurred when unlicensed manufacturers made bootleg products without legal permission or when inventors patented many variations similar to the original in an attempt to protect that patent. One inventor, for example, filed 11 similar-looking patents for this very reason. Usually, only the original patent was ever manufactured in quantity. Last, many wire specimens collected are un-patented, 'smith-made' wires turned out by small blacksmith shops or small companies. Both unique and rare specimens and copies of wire design appear in this group.

Most barbed wire collectors watch for other memorabilia, such as barbed wire tools, advertising pieces, stamps, signs and medicine containers.

More than 2,000 barbed wire tools were patented before 1935, not counting the hundreds of smith-made tools invented by home users.

The hobby of barbed wire collecting is alive and well in spite of the deaths of many old-time collectors. Two specialty museums exist, the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, and the largest, the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Several new books on barbed wire history, identification of wire and related memorabilia also have been published recently, and in 2001, 12 wire shows were conducted in various locations in the Midwest. A great Web site, barbwiremuseum.com, has been designed to acquaint students, teachers and historians with the history of barbed wire.

Perhaps the fact that barbed wire is an all-American invention, developed in America, and involved in the early history of our nation, contributes to the popularity of its acquisition. FC 

Delbert Trew is supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum, a free-lance writer and retired rancher who lives in Alanreed, Texas.