In Back to the Future III, a lovelorn Doc Brown, stranded in 1885, is consoled by a traveling barbed wire salesman. It’s a period accurate detail: barbed wire was patented in 1874, and spread across the american west over the next decade. There’s even a plaque marking the spot of the first barbed wire fence in Texas.
The inventor of barbed wire is commonly held to be Joseph Glidden, whose patent was approved in 1874. The story goes that Glidden and two friends visited a county fair in De Kalb, Illinois, where an exhibitor demonstrated a new technique in bovine control: strapping a board with nails to a cow’s head. The nails did nothing under normal circumstances, but if the cow tried to push past an enclosure, they would dig in. Glidden and his colleagues looked at the contraption, then at each other, and said “why don’t we just make the fence that way?” Decades later, Glidden’s descendant would be the first to ask “why not make the whole plane out of the black box?”
The three went off to work on the problem, and Glidden came up with the winning idea. With his wife’s help, he retrofitted a coffee mill to produce iron barbs, which they then secured between two strands of twisted wire. Glidden and one of his colleagues paired up to begin selling the wire. The third man, Jacob Haish, patented about a dozen other variations in barb shape—barb shape serving as perhaps the primary distinguishing feature between brands and types of barbed wire—and engaged in a near two-decade legal wrangle over rights to the invention; the supreme court eventually ruled in Glidden’s favor. During the court battle, Haish would advertise his S-barbs with “Sold on the merits, not through the influence of threatened lawsuits.”
That’s the how of barbed wire. What about the why? Here’s one reason: in the west, there was no wood for building fences. Given the prohibitive cost of importing it, the best alternative was to cultivate thorny Osage orange shrubs as a living fence, which was impractical because they take years to grow. But a wood shortage is just a proximate explanation. The historian Reviel Netz offers a more fundamental observation about the confluence of events that led to the adoption of barbed wire: “the basic structure of the history of the great plains was the evolution of methods for killing bovines.”
Thousands of years ago, native americans hunted buffalo by banding together and driving the beasts off a cliff. With the introduction of rifles and horses, buffalo could be hunted by lone individuals. With white people came capitalism, making buffalo hunting lucrative. Native people were displaced, buffalo were hunted almost to extinction, and wild cattle flourished in their place. Industrialized meatpacking required cattle to be herded en masse to railcars for slaughter; now the bovines were no longer even killed in the west. Railroad and barbed wire both transformed space: one symbolizing mobility and connection, the other control and restriction.
PART TWO: JAPERY
Barbed wire was not immediately received as a panacea. Eastern states banned it altogether, citing injury to horses and passersby. Western cattlemen were hostile to “another Yankee scheme,” believing thin wire could never contain wild bovines. Even if it could, the entire idea of fencing was antithetical to the hypothetical law of the open range, and cattle scratched by barbs would be susceptible to disease (one ad, with overeager attention to detail, claimed “NO LOSS OF CATTLE” from putrefying sores, in which flies deposit their eggs”).
To catch on, barbed wire required a salesman. A huckster. A bumptious, flim-flamming, bamboozling brazenfaced braggadocio. Enter John Warne Gates, born 1855, who would be called during his life “a God-damned freebooter”, a “barbaric wrecker”, “a clown, a faker, a buffoon” and that’s just what was said on the record. J.P. Morgan uncorked the most savage insult a billionaire tycoon could conceive: “The man cannot be entrusted with property.” Later in life, Gates’s unquenchable yen for gambling and/or fleeting hits of dopamine was reflected in his nickname “Bet-A-Million”, and also by his bets with friends about which raindrop would reach the bottom of the window first, or which sugar cube would attract the most flies. His was a level of degenerate gambling usually reserved for Michael Jordan or the private high-roller baccarat lounge at the Sands.
In 1876, Gates—then a “bulky farm yokel” of 21 and yet to sport the massive walrus mustache handed out in Gilded Age tycoon starter packs—was sent from Illinois to San Antonio to sell barbed wire. At the time, San Antonio was a semi-lawless frontier town where Gates’s love of poker, faro, and murdering vagrants to feast on their dopamine-rich medial forebrain bundles could be requited (there’s no evidence for the last thing, but it can’t be ruled out). It was one of the first places in the country you could buy chili, but no one was buying barbed wire.
One night, he watched the traveling patent medicine show of Doctor J.L. Lighthall, who rolled into the city square on a gilded chariot and began hawking his wares (“usually made of skunk grease, wild onions, and rattlesnake oil”). The assorted tinctures, tonics, and nostrums included Pulvermacher’s Electric Bands (“guaranteed to bring vigor to the most flaccid”), Syrup of Hypophosphites (contains strychnine, treats childhood wasting diseases), and Radway’s Sarsaparillion Resolvent (“the great blood purifier…the one and only cure for scrofula, be it in the lungs, be it in the stomach, skin or bones, be it in the flesh or nerves! …Corrupting the solids and vitiating the fluids, poisoning the blood and rotting the machinery of life.”). Gates watched the snake oil salesman make a mint, absentmindedly scratching at a scrofulitic lesion on his upper arm. Then he stroked his growing mustache and thought “Hmm…”
He planned a demonstration to abolish all doubts about the effectiveness of barbed wire. More than 50 of the toughest and wildest steer in Texas were enclosed in the town plaza, and Gates solicited bets on whether the wire would hold them. Calling the fence “lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, and cheaper than dirt,” Gates had a cowhand spook the steer, who stampeded. The fence held up. Annual production of barbed wire sextupled in the year after the demonstration, and doubled again the year after that. (By the way: all of this information comes from an extremely dubious but hysterically funny 1948 biography of Gates; there’s a decent chance the show never even happened; if it did, there’s an even better chance that Gates imported the most docile steer he could find. I cannot recommend enough taking a skim through that bio).
A few months later, Gates was stiffed by his boss. As it turns out, the sole motivating factor in Gates’s life besides greed was revenge, so he loudly quit his job and started his own barbed wire company in St. Louis. Selling barbed wire legally required hefty license fees, but with the patent litigation ongoing, enforcement was lax and sporadic, and so-called “moonshiners” made good money by selling illicit wire. Gates moonshined his way to a fortune, riding a wave of flagrant illegality and hyper-proficient scoundrelry.
Take, for example, the ferry incident. When he received word that process servers were coming to shut down his factory, Gates hired ferryboats and floated his machinery across the river to Illinois (and then back again when threatened by legal action there), producing illegal wire all the while. Later, when his plant burned down, he convinced a local iron magnate to merge with his company, without ever revealing the totally-not-suspicious burned-downedness of his own factory. Somehow the deal still went through.
The 1892 Supreme Court ruling in favor of the original barbed wire patent holder (Glidden) should theoretically have put the moonshiners to rest. But by this time, the Gates moonshine syndicate wielded enough power and market share to force a merger, creating the WIRE AND NAIL TRUST and reifying Gates’s revenge on his erstwhile boss.
Years later, having acquired new fortunes in oil and steel, Gates was spurned by J.P. Morgan, which gave him a new target on which to seek retribution. Stock malfeasance, insider-ish trading, market manipulation, and outright fraud abounded as Gates attempted to kneecap the man he called “Old Livernose” (as the Chicago Daily News put it, “There is no place where clever chicanery, strabismic strategy, and bold knavery are accepted with such good-natured indifference as on the American stock exchanges”). Through his quasi-legal subterfuge, Gates managed to acquire a majority stake in one of Morgan’s railroads; an irate Morgan had to buy it back at exorbitant prices to avoid a market panic. It’s really the classic story where you’re rooting for both people…to fall into an elevator shaft.
Gates died in 1911; the best (if most unintentional) eulogy came from a Chicago op-ed: “John W. Gates will be a long time in coming around to the Carnegie belief in the disgrace of dying rich.”
PART III: CUTTING
By 1880, more than 50,000 miles of barbed wire was, both literally and metaphorically, dividing the west. Despite its ubiquity, it was seen as an “institution of infamy” by many. On the one side were the people who owned some cattle and a little bit of land, the homesteaders who relied on shared public grazing lands for their livestock. On the other were the cattle barons. Driven by greed and land lust, the tycoons fenced in huge swaths of land, including public watering holes, grazing lands, and roads. People who were not massively wealthy were, understandably, infuriated.
Extreme weather exacerbated the tension. The summers of 1883 and 1884 were wracked by drought, and thousands of cattle died because public watering holes had been fenced off. Cattle heading south to avoid cold weather during a particularly severe 1885 winter storm were met with a fence preventing further migration; thousands froze to death in “the big die-up.” Economic losses and the violation of the communitarian open-range ethos spurred collective action: fence-cutting.
Groups of fence-cutters—calling themselves Javelinas, Blue Devils, or (really) Knights of the Knippers—roamed the land, clipping fences wherever they could. Fence owners deployed private militias—the “mounted Cassocks of the cattle barons”—to patrol for and shoot at fence-cutters. Mayhem, in the form of snipped wires, escalated; Texas rangers were called in to quell the insurrection and/or protect the interests of capital, depending on your point of view. It was class warfare: the Galveston News described it as a consequence of the “dangerous policy of selling off the public domain and allowing the creation of principalities and baronates among a few capitalists.”
Thousands of miles of fence were cut, and the violence “reached the proportions of open warfare.” Another witness who clearly never saw the ladder match at Wrestlemania X said the fence-cutting war “brought with it a reign of lawlessness and terror such as has no parallel.” In Brown County, the fence cutters took over the opera house, forcing the fence owners to barricade themselves in the courthouse (the resolution of this standoff is lost to the sands of time). The carrying of wire cutters was nearly made illegal.
And yet within two years, the practice was mostly extinct. Texas passed a law against fence cutting in 1884, and worked out a compromise solution making it illegal to fence across roads or public areas, defusing most of the tension without actually solving the underlying problem. But fence-cutting remained a cultural touchstone: the first western novel, published in 1899, was called The Wire-Cutters. There will always be fence cutters.
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