The Homestead Act of 1862 kicked off the expansion of the American West. President Abraham Lincoln signed the law in to place, which provided western settlers 160 acres of land- for a small price and the agreement of living on the land for 5 continuous years before receiving ownership of the land. Hundreds of thousands of people moved west to take advantage of one of the largest stimulus programs that the US has ever provided.

As settlers and ranchers made their way out to the plains, they soon found that they needed a way to protect their land from encroaching neighbors. Traditional walls or fences were made from materials such as wood, stone, or brick. The plains did not provide enough resources for these fences to be feasible. Something new needed to be figured out if landowners were to protect their property and cattle owners were to contain their animals.

19th Century

Before 1865, there were a few new fence ideas proposed, but it wasn’t until 1873 when four innovative men got together to improve fencing ideas. Joseph Glidden, a farmer, was the first to form an idea for a successful and sturdy barbed wire fence, names “The Wooden Strip With Metallic Points”- a wooden block with spiked wires, developed to prevent cows from leaning against the fence.

Another of the four, Jacob Haish, applied for a patent on his own type of wire, the S wire, which he called “The Winner”. Glidden was joined by Isaac L. Ellwood and the two founded The Barb Fence Company.

Barbed wire fence began to be promoted in Texas, but consumers were hesitant. They were concerned that the wire would hard their livestock. After some live demonstrations in San Antonio, barbed wire began to take off. Between 1873 and 1899, up to 150 companies at a single time were manufacturing barbed wire fence. The fence was praised and seen as a great option for the west as “it takes no room, exhausts no soil, shades no vegetation, is proof against high winds, makes no snowdrifts, and is both durable and cheap.”

The mass fencing off of lands began to start range wars between farmers and the open range ranchers. The US government settles these disputes primarily in favor of the farmers. Heavy penalties were put in place for cutting a barbed-wire fence. It became clear that the barbed wire fence could do the job of ranchers, and within 2 years, most of the open range was fenced in and under private ownership, resulting in the death of the American cowboy.

20th Century & Beyond

The barbed fence may have been efficient at discouraging cattle to escape, but it was not the best at keeping humans out. Razor wire began to be utilized to keep people off of private properties or keep them in areas like prisons.

Barbed wire maintained its growth at the turn of the 20th century, and then was used heavily in World War I and World War II.

Today, there are many different fence options- both agricultural and residential. Many livestock owners find themselves using ranch-rail or high tensile wire when fencing in livestock.

There has been a push to move away from using a barbed wire fence, as it has been found to cause many cases of wildlife entanglement. Livestock may also suffer severe injuries due to the barbs. In 2010, Norway banned the installation of  new barbed wire fence when used to limit the migration of animals.