The History of Barbed Wire Fencing

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

| January 2002

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.