The Fence That Tamed The West

The American Old West was an unruly place. People from all over the world were moving into unsettled parts of the country, building homes and establishing towns on open land. It was a period of mass exploration and risk-taking, and rampant with lawlessness and mass violence. The nation's reach was expanding, and many were venturing into uncharted territory for the first time in their lives. As a result, the Old West settlers had to come up with new ways to not only live, travel, and adapt, but also protect themselves, their loved ones, and their livelihoods.

Even though America was a dangerous and uncertain place in the 1800s, the period was also a time of extraordinary ingenuity and invention. It turns out that there was one invention made during the era that was created as the direct result of a problem that was plaguing farmers and settlers all over the country as well. That invention was none other than the humble barbed wire.

Some would argue — especially ranchers accustomed to open range grazing for their cattle — that the popularity of the fencing material spelled doom for a way of life that knew few if any borders or limitations. Some thought violence was the solution. Even so, the wire and its proponents won out.

A solution to a specific problem

When farmers and ranchers settled in the West, many struggled to not only fence off their farms and crops but also keep their livestock corralled within the borders of their property. Since the land of the West was so expansive and unsettled, many farmers were unable to use the wooden and stone fences common in England and other parts of the world to protect their crops and control their stock. The land was simply so large that building a time-consuming stone fence was unfeasible, and many farmers found that their cattle could simply push through the posts of wooden fences.

A video posted on YouTube from PBS' The Good Stuff (via Popular Mechanics) details why barbed wire was the perfect solution to this problem. Invented in DeKalb, Illinois, the wire was not only cheap and durable but was also easy to stretch across long distances. The sharp metal points kept cattle from pushing through it. Predictably, barbed wire became an incredibly common and sought-after material in the West, as farmers and ranchers all across the land began fencing off their land with the material.

Some tried to fight back against fencing those wide-open spaces, but ultimately failed. The material became so instrumental in the everyday lives of American settlers, that the Supreme Court passed a law making it a felony to cut other people's barbed wire fences.