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The Thorny Fence


When settlers ventured onto the Great Plains, they often had to find new ways of doing things. One was fencing. Out east, or in Europe, fences had typically been made of rocks or wood, which were readily available, but out on the Great Plains, settlers found a land with few trees. Even stones were often rare.

Some pioneers tried digging ditches and piling up the earth to protect their crops. Others made stacks of brush. They used hobbles to confine horses and mules. But all of these methods were described as woefully inadequate. Thorn bushes could be planted, but even thorn bushes did not grow everywhere.

It was clear that a manmade solution was required, which led the introduction of wire fencing. The first wire fences were just a single strand. Livestock easily broke the wire by leaning against it. In 1868, Michael Kelly twisted two strands together and added a sharp barb. The barb discouraged animals from leaning against the fence. Other inventers worked to improve on the design. On this date in 1874, Joseph Glidden received a patent for a more effective barbed wire for inventing a method to lock the barbs in place. He also created a way to mass-produce the wire. Mass-production made Glidden’s barbed wire both cheap and easy to use. Over one hundred years later, his wire remains the most familiar style. The invention made him one of the wealthiest men in America.

Others sought to take advantage barbed wire’s sudden popularity. Eventually, there were over 570 patents for barbed wire. Glidden initiated a series of legal challenges to the other patents. After three years, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, but his patent had expired. Nonetheless, Glidden was still recognized as the Father of Barbed Wire.

Today we take barbed wire for granted. But without fencing, livestock grazed freely. Crops in unfenced fields were at the mercy of cattle, horses, and even wild grazing animals. This simple tool changed life on the Plains as dramatically as the six-shooter or the railroad.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Devil’s Rope Museum. "http://www.barbwiremuseum.com/history.htm" http://www.barbwiremuseum.com/history.htm Accessed 16 August, 2014.

Kansas Barbed Wire Museum. "http://www.rushcounty.org/BarbedWireMuseum/BWhistory.htm" http://www.rushcounty.org/BarbedWireMuseum/BWhistory.htm Accessed 16 August, 2014.

McCallum, Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum. The Wire That Fenced the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.