Life of a Ranch Wife

Barbed wire fence consists of several strands of wire stretched tight between two corner posts and held in place by wood posts and/or T-posts. (Photos by Lanna Mills)

By Lanna Mills

Whether it be to keep things out, keep things in, or most often both, fence is a staple for today’s rancher. However, this wasn’t always the case. Fences were few and far between at one point in time. Imagine for a moment how different things would be today if there were no fences—no dividing line, no way to restrict our livestock to a specific area. Fencing played a big part in ranching history. Though fencing has changed and there are now many different types of fences, the reasoning for it remains the same.

Barbed wire was first patented in the United States in 1876 by Lucien B. Smith of Ohio, naming him inventor. It greatly changed the way of ranching and was said to be what tamed the west. Ranchers were able to claim their land by erecting fences around its borders. Cattle were able to be contained to specific locations. Some did not like the idea, and it led to many conflicts and even deaths.

In the 1880s, the “Big Die Up” incident occurred when northerners tried to move cattle south to warmer locations but were blocked by fences. In the winter of 1885 some lost up to three quarters of their herd when they could not find a way around fences and were stuck in blizzard conditions. The “Fence Cutters War” arose when established cattlemen fenced large areas of land for their own use; therefore, settlers could not use the land. The settlers saw the land as “open range” and began to cut fences. Finally, in 1884, Texas passed a law making the cutting of fence a felony, ending the “Fence Cutters War.” Some states still have open range laws in place today.

The west is not the only part of history fence has played a role in. Fences have been used in war and by prisons.
With the changing of the times and modernization, fencing, too, has changed. However, barbed wire fence continues to be the main type of fence used by ranchers.

Learn more about the history and types of fences in the January issue of OKFR.