Western Article
Devil's Rope
Scott Gese

Western Article

The fabric of our western landscape is now woven together with the tight drawn strand of barbed wire. It has infiltrated our lands like nothing else and has changed our way of life forever.

I find it interesting how a simple piece of wire has had such a major impact on the lives of so many people in so short a time. Since the day Joseph Glidden’s simple invention was first patented in 1873, Barbed wire has been loved and hated by people on both sides of this particular fence. 

Glidden may not have known it at the time, but his was indeed a history changing invention. At the time, some men praised the new wire for what it could do. Others cursed it for what it did. The wire made some men very rich while others shed their blood and died because of it.

A Little History

Before barbed wire, the plains were wide open and unencumbered by fences. There was no effective way to contain livestock. Lumber for fencing was all but non-existent out on the prairie. Shrubbery took too long to grow and wasn't practical to be of much use.

Cattle ranchers from southern states drove large herds across open country heading for predetermined rail heads up north. From there they were shipped off to slaughterhouses back East. There was good money to be made driving cattle to northern markets and for a time, thousands were driven along popular cattle trails.

Not long after its arrival an ill wind began to blow across the open plains. Dramatic and permanent changes were beginning to take shape as barbed wire began to snake its way across the landscape.

Devil's Rope was a love hate relationship from the very beginning

Native Americans called the new wire “Devil’s Rope”. It was a hindrance to their nomadic lifestyle. Free-range grazers weren't happy either. They were being squeezed onto an ever-dwindling supply of public lands.  These lands were becoming overgrazed and virtually useless.

The wire effectively put an end to large-scale, open-range cattle operations. Trail Drivers grew ever more concerned over the wire. They rightfully believed this new barrier would block their herds from reaching northern markets, which eventually it did.

As an ever-increasing number of landowners erected fences to protect their crops and livestock. Those opposed to the loss of their independence took matters into their own hands and began to cut the wire that blocked their accustomed way of life. The so-called Fence Cutter Wars quickly became bloody and violent.

New laws were passed making it a felony to cut a wire fence. It proved to be an effective deterrent toward ending the violence.

As the dust cleared and the Fence Cutting Wars slowly came to an end, it was evident that the open range was a thing of the past. For many, the old way of life would never be the same. The barbed wire fence was here to stay.

A simple piece of wire effectively harnessed a nation and changed the course of history.