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article number 174
article date 10-16-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Barbed Wire, an American Invention Changes Society in the West, 1874.
by Roger Burlingame
Flicker author David Kingham.

EDITORS NOTE: Reader patience is required. Our 1940 author sets the stage with a rich background on the West before talking about the effects of barbed wire and farmers encroaching on the “open range”.


An orderly overland march of “pioneers” would be expected to settle the country by degrees from east to west as it became accessible to transport and it is natural to think of that settlement as being pushed forever on until, finally, the coast was reached. Always ahead would be the advance guard—explorers not settlers, adventurers whose fluidity of temper kept them moving; men unwilling to stop, consolidate or establish centers until, at last, the ocean stopped them.

The advance guard would trace the trails, acquire an understanding of the country it crossed and in its footsteps would follow the settlers, stopping where the prospect pleased, establishing a home and waiting for the impedimenta of trade to catch up. Here is a methodical and orthodox procedure. It is not, however, what happened in America.

As we have seen, other factors intervened. A part of the pioneers moved by sea and found the west coast before more than a handful of overland adventurers had reached it. As ships improved, trade followed round the Horn and fur trade with Indians at one end and Chinese at the other, or barter between Yankees and Spaniards who had moved up overland, northwest from Mexico, while that league of nations known as the United States was in its infancy. When Ohio and Kentucky were still wilderness, scarcely known to white men, brisk business was going on in Oregon and California and the bases were laid for later possession.

Then, by the time occasional settlement had appeared on the upper Mississippi, when the new states of Iowa and Wisconsin were almost totally empty and Minnesota a mere agricultural dream, an object so bright appeared in California that the migrants jumped the interval and clippers raced to the coast with the paraphernalia of coastal settlement. So, for a time, the social map presented a curious appearance: California appeared prosperously organized, invasion of the rich prairies just across the Mississippi was under way, wedges from the West pushed by mining fever consequent upon California gold appeared in Nevada and the space between was blank. It remained so until the last quarter of the century.

There was another factor. West of the rich prairies, the nature of the country changed. From an area of adequate rainfall where soil was deep and rich or pastures of apparently infinite extent were lush with grass, the emigrants moved into what the physical geographers call the semiarid or sub-humid area later known as the Great Plains. Part of these was desert, capable of supporting only the most abstemious of desert plants, cactus, sage, mesquite; part was covered with coarse grass which supported the billions of bison which, as Homaday says, were as innumerable as the leaves in a forest.

The bison in turn supported a considerable population of the most violent and savage aborigines of the entire American continent. Their tribes ranged over the whole bison area and the white man from the first was an intuitively recognized enemy with whom there could be no compromise. They contributed the final factor which made the Great Plains a forbidding domain and it is scarcely surprising that the emigrants, heavily armed and nonetheless extremely frightened, hurried across it. Indeed, even when the railroads came, it was decided at once that capital must be provided to span this area completely and rapidly as no stopping place was conceivable in its midst.

A buffalo hunt on the plains, from an early print.

Had the emigrants struck this territory some three centuries earlier, there would have been little to fear from the Indians, for it was only from the mid-sixteenth century that they became formidable. It is believed that the great instrument of their power appeared on the scene about 1541. At that period, certain of the Spanish horses brought to America by Coronado and De Soto had run away, reverted to the wild state and produced large herds. The Indians captured them, broke them and finally re-domesticated them, and from this time their culture changed.. They presently developed such expertness in horsemanship that both their hunting and war powers grew to tremendous proportions. The horse, says Webb, did for the Indian as much as the railroad did for the white man.

White adventurers presently discovered also that only with the horse could the Great Plains be dominated. Reared on gentler rations, however, and knowing more advanced useful arts, they found little use for the bison, or buffalo as it was more familiarly called, which supplied not only food but clothing, shelter and weapons to the Indian. To the American, the slow stupid bovine existed primarily for his sport and its destruction proceeded with great rapidity as soon as the Plains were invaded and was completed after the arrival of the railroad.

The American, being no longer in his hunting stage, found the cattle which had escaped from the Spanish country and had herded itself like the Spanish horses, more profitable. With his own horses, he was able to round up these herds in Texas and the border territories and drive them across the Great Plains to good hide and beef markets. This, then, was the first use to which Americans put this vast empty tract. In it grew up the great romance of the open range now so vital a part of American folklore. From the romance came the cowboy tradition, noble enough, perhaps, in its early stage but tenuous and dreary in its later ones.


The fact of the open range was short-lived enough. It was destroyed by new waves of immigration not only from the East but from Europe, by the railroad, by the agricultural impulse. But its death warrant was signed by the invention of a group of Illinois farmers and by the factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, which put the invention into quantity production. With this invention in the van, the giant, Industry, moved west another step, opened the Great Plains to the farmer’s use and led to that farmer’s further close relations with his Government—not the Government of his vague new state but the Federal center at Washington. The invention has since covered the world in a less happy form and many a pioneer’s grandson has cursed it with his dying words as his body was riddled under the cold glare of a star-shell in an alien no-man’s-land.


In Nuremberg, at some point in the last half of the fourteenth century, an artisan about whom no one appears to know anything except his single name Rudolf, discovered a new way of making wire. Before this, it had been hammered laboriously into shape from raw or forged metal. Rudolf made a rod, pointed the end, inserted the point in a hole in a metal plate, seized this point as it came through the hole with something resembling a pair of pincers, and pulled till all the metal in the rod had been drawn through the hole. The result was wire with a circular section. Three hundred years later the process found its way to England and thence it migrated to the American colonies. The principle use for wire in the New World was for “cards,” devices by which wool or cotton fiber was combed before being spun into yarn.

In 1666, Nathaniel Robinson in Lynn, Massachusetts, petitioned the General Court for aid in his “wyer” drawing and was refused. A year later our old friend Joseph Jenks, the first American inventor of any importance, induced the court at Lynn, “being informed that there are in this towne a sett of tools for wyer drawings, and that there be some in that place that are skillful in that employ,” to disburse forty shillings to encourage “those who shall make cards and pins of such wyer.”

Nurnberg wire drawer, sixteenth century Redrawn from a painting from Mendel Monastery Portrait Book, 1533.
Wire drawer and equipment, Germany, 1421 Redrawn from a painting from Mendel Monastery Portrait Book.
The last word in wire-drawing machines of 1760.
The detail of the machine. Corresponding letters show the important features of this elaborate machine.
Wire drawers at work, 1779 Redrawn from an engraving by Em. Eichel, Augsburg.

From that time, we hear little about wire. There were wire mills in Connecticut and Pennsylvania which seem to have been managed somewhat in the fashion of the old ropewalk and the wire stretched out as it was made. A mill in New York City was made 200 feet long for this purpose. In 1831, shortly after Joseph Henry had invented the electromagnetic telegraph and just before Samuel Morse had independently thought of it, the most important figure in American wire history established in Worcester the factory which was to revolutionize the industry.

Ichabod Washburn installed in that factory—then a textile works making wire on the side—new machinery of his own design. A vital part of it was the draw-block, a circular drum which did the work of drawing the wire through the plate and at the same time wound the completed wire upon itself. From then on his output was multiplied by ten, and in 1834 the factory was turned over to making wire and nothing else.

Henry Smith, a literary master who, we may well wish, had turned his fine talent further into history, draws a brief picture of this year, worthy of quoting. It was the stagecoach era and “at times of arrival and departure, from ten to twenty stages were to be seen in these streets [of Worcester] at once; those of the crack lines gleaming in gold and crimson, and canary yellow, with picked teams, and guided from the box by representatives of the old royal race of drivers.

During the year the stages carried 30,000 passengers between Worcester and Hartford. Industry seems to have boomed. Finished iron axles were made for the first time in America. The first gimlet-pointed screw appeared in that year. In Massachusetts, was established the first American cutlery works, the first rifled cannon was cast and rubber was first made into clothing (with disastrous results). In New York, was put into operation “the first machine for spinning rope yarn directly from the staple without hatcheling.” The total American output of wire for the year was 4500 tons.

With his wire factory operating on his own new principles, Washburn established one of the two great wire dynasties of the United States. In 1834, there was little industrial use for wire in this country. Ten years later the words “What hath God wrought?” clicked from Washington to Baltimore, must have brought a thrill to Ichabod when he heard of them. By that time his new processes had driven out British competition and he was able to furnish the new telegraph with all the wire it needed. In three more decades wire was ready to remake the Great Plains.

We must go back now to that country and consider more extensively the various reasons why it remained for so long on the maps as “unorganized.”


It is a common exercise of the American, if not of the Anglo-Saxon, mentality to turn history into romance as rapidly as possible. In America, the background is brilliantly adapted to the transformation. Often it is a great convenience. Some of the less glorious incidents of our history have thus acquired a glamour. Our long tolerance of the bondage of a subject race which attracted, for years, the surprise of nations based on less democratic theory, has now been mellowed by dance and song and folklore; the shame we may once have felt is drowned in the Suwannee River.

So, too, the destruction of the race whose domain we invaded, not by quick, clean death but by a slow degenerative process, by liquor, disease and confinement, has been absorbed now by the vague romances of the cowboy and the ranger, the Great West, Manifest Destiny and the American Dream. Late debunkers of the Indian myth have led us to conclusions no less romantic in fact; the effort to expose our delinquency has postulated a nobility in the red man which is largely spurious. Indeed, when we come to the Plains, we find the inhabitants not only brutal but sadistic, not only dishonest but expert in the refinements of thievery. So, in these matters, we must try to find a middle way between the myths, remembering always that in the movement of a dominant race across the new land we have merely a repetition of many surges toward civilization, accelerated this time by a more rapidly advancing technology.

With romance coloring our American history, we keep meeting such grandiloquent phrases as the “cotton kingdom,” the “cattle kingdom,” the “industrial empire” and so on. The grandeur of these titles suggests our later wonder at the magnitude of the things accomplished, as if, indeed, we had lost our power of such achievement. Our concern here is with the cattle kingdom, its brief exuberant life and its death at the hands of agriculture and industry.


As far back as 1846, a herd of wild cattle which were competing in the southern grasslands with the buffalo, was rounded up and driven by Texas horsemen all the way to Ohio. In 1856 another was driven to Chicago. They were used then mostly for leather, for which the hard driving did not hurt them.

After the Civil War, however, the cattlemen went at the business more seriously for beef. By this time the cattle had increased to a point where between four and five million head were running more or less wild over Texas. Incidentally, immense new urban settlement in the East, extending wherever the railroads ran, had built up a large meat market which could no longer be locally supplied. Invention and industry at this very moment supplied an invaluable medium of transport in the refrigerator car, so the next step was to establish a convenient railhead to which the cowboys might drive their herds. With such a combination, cattlemen and promoters saw fabulous wealth ahead.

The first cattle railhead was at Sedalia, Missouri, but the cowboys had to fight a war against bandits to get there. So the brilliant promoter, Joseph Geating McCoy, an Illinois stock farmer who had left his farm knowing of the inadequacy of midland farms to cope with Eastern meat scarcity, and come west, established the celebrated Abilene as the first true “cow town.” McCoy did things on the grand scale. He was a typical American promoter of the expansive days who was never feased by a question of magnitude in operations. He bought the town site, built a hotel and stockyards and advertised the center. In 1867, the year of McCoy’s arrival, 35,000 head of cattle arrived. Immediately a flourishing town with all the paraphernalia of the “Wild West”, center, dance halls, saloons, gambling resorts and brothels came into being. In 1871, 700,000 head were driven there.

Joseph Geating McCoy.

Thus the Eastern demand for beef was met. But once the scarcity was overcome, Easterners began to criticize the quality of Southwestern meat. The sinewy wild cattle did not yield the cuts these people had known before the scarcity began. They did not compare with the succulent roasts and steaks that came from domesticated Northern cattle. So the demand fell off and the cowboys resorted to the long fattening periods in country farther north, in the richer grasslands of Colorado, Wyoming and even Montana. Thus the cattle kingdom spread and the Great Plains became the free domain of the cowboy from Canada to Mexico; for the first time this country was of use to white men.

The cattle kingdom, then, was a valuable and necessary stage in the consolidation of the continent. For the moment, it filled the gap between East and West. It constituted the first experiment in the unorganized country. It began the extermination of the Plains Indian. But in a rapidly growing nation into which each year there flowed immigration on a scale unprecedented in recorded history; in a land where the collective impulse had, through the railroad, the telegraph, the printing press and industrial machinery, an acceleration which nothing could halt, and under a socio-political doctrine which declared every man the equal of every other, such an oligarchy as the cattle kingdom could be only a stage and a short one at that.

In 1862, the Homestead Law offered a square of land a quarter of a mile to the side out of the “public domain” free to any one who would cultivate it. From that moment, the “boys in blue” already cut off from normal home ties by the war began to dream through their battles of a new paradise at the war’s end. In 1865, they started by the tens of thousands on the long, long trail. At the same time, the advance guards of Swedes and Germans in Wisconsin pushed west, Minnesota was staked out and the advance guard stood at the edge of Dakota. Farther south, others followed the railroad across Nebraska. Steamboats racing up and down the Mississippi carried other hordes to convenient starting points on the west bank of the river. On all the trails, the trains of wagons became literally endless. Along the lines, many drivers, here and there, overcome by the beauty or richness of some square of free country, would pull out of the train and stop, but the train moved on. In the early seventies, it arrived at the frontiers of the cattle kingdom.

Henry Worrall Sketch of Abilene Kansas including rail depot and telegraph wire, 1874 from Joseph McCoy collection.

Now laying out a farm in more or less timbered country is one thing. Projecting it in treeless grasslands is another. The normal beginning for an agricultural settler was a fence. In New England, he built it of the stone he must dig out of his fields before he could plant. In other country, he built it of rails or boards from the trees he must cut before he could sow. But in the Great Plains, the very advantage of not having to dig out stone or cut trees carried with it the disadvantage of having no fence to delineate his farm. Living in an empty country or with neighbors who respected his rights, he might get along for a time without fences—branding his stock and letting them graze in a common pasture, though such a system, at best, appealed little to a thrifty European farmer. But when the roving herds of the cattle kingdom invaded his property, life became truly intolerable.

A few rich men fortunate enough to be near some line of transportation imported timber for fences at terrific cost. Others experimented with hedges. The only hedge material that would grow easily in most parts of the Plains area was the Osage-orange plant and for several years the sale and distribution of its seeds made a thriving business. Hedges, however, took time to grow. And all this time there was war between the cattlemen and the farmers as to who should pay the cost of fencing.

Should the cattle be fenced in or out? In, said the farmer; it was the duty of the cow owners to control them and keep them off private lands. Out, said the cattlemen; the Great Plains were their domain by right of primary occupation and the open range was their God-given privilege. Had they not laid out, with infinite pains and risk of their lives, the long trails to the railheads and the grazing grounds? But, on the other hand, had not the Government of the United States given land to the homesteaders on the express condition that they cultivate it?

And how, pray, could they cultivate it when their crops were trampled and their own peaceful stock was attacked or seduced away into the wild herds? So the war went on, with every one concerned (including the Government) becoming quite desperate until, suddenly, the whole problem was solved forever, in harmony with the normal pattern of our history, by invention and industry in the static centers.


In the early 1870’s, DeKalb, Illinois, was still a village, amid farms; industry had scarcely touched it. In it, at that period, lived two more or less prosperous farmers and a hardware dealer, each of whom had an ingenious flair for mechanics. The three being friends and having common interests, it was natural for them to go together one day to a country fair. There they came upon a curious exhibit. Strung along the smooth wires of an ordinary fence were wooden strips with sharp points sticking out from them. The three farmers examined the exhibit carefully; then each, separately, went home and thought about it.

These gentlemen were Joseph Farwell Glidden, Isaac L. Ellwood and Jacob Haish. The fair seems to have taken place in the summer of 1873, a few months after Henry M. Rose had received a patent for his strips and points. Before the end of the year, both Glidden and Haish had independently applied for patents for barbed wire which dispensed with the strips. In 1874, patents were granted both of them. Ellwood then bought a half-interest in his friend Glidden’s patent for $130 and together they converted an old coffee-grinder into a machine for making fences. Privately, at the same time, and probably in ignorance of the activity of the others, Haish began the manufacture of barbed wire according to his own somewhat different design. They all seem to have sold all they could make.

Joseph Glidden.

By this time, the town of Worcester in Massachusetts had become a thriving industrial city. The little factory of Ichabod Washburn had undergone enormous expansion under the demands of the telegraph and other electrical inventions. Ichabod had taken a partner and the Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company was now administered by Washburn’s son, Charles Grenfill Washburn, one of the most enterprising industrialists of the era.

In 1875, Charles Washburn began to notice with some surprise the large orders for iron wire which kept coming in from DeKalb. By the spring of 1876, he became so surprised that he went to DeKalb to find out about it. His first meeting was with Haish, whom he offered $200,000 for his patent and factory. Haish refused, believing apparently that a Yankee’s first offer could always be raised. He afterward said that if Washburn had gone about the business in an orthodox manner, he, Haish, would have accepted $25,000. Washburn, however, closed the interview and went to Glidden. He bought Glidden’s remaining half-interest for $6o,ooo plus a royalty of a quarter of a cent per pound on wire which might subsequently be sold by Washburn and Moen for fifteen cents a pound or over. He arranged that Ellwood should continue his factory for the making of Glidden wire in DeKalb under the condition that Ellwood should sell it only in the West.

As almost always happens in the history of invention, it turned out that several patents for barbed or spurred wire had been granted before Glidden’s: notably those of Lucien B. Smith in 1867, William D. Hunt in 1867 and Michael Kelly in 1868. There was the usual litigation and a fight between Haish and the Glidden interests which was long and tedious. It had little effect upon the result in the Great Plains and the fact that the wire was made by two or more competing companies probably helped in its distribution. The production figures bear simple testimony to the quick spread of the new fencing. In 1874, five tons were produced in the United States. In a quarter century the annual tonnage grew to about two hundred and fifty thousand.

Facsimile of a letter from Herbert L. gary, superintendent of the Glidden plant at De Kaib, to his son in reply to a request for a statement relating to the use by Jos. F. Glidden in 1874 of a hand coffee mill to form barbs for his barb-wire fencing Courtesy of The American Steel Company.

Barbed wire, as it was made after 1876, was of Bessemer or open-hearth steel, a much better material than iron, being more homogeneous, stronger and more durable. Indeed, it is doubtful if iron barbed wire would ever have proved a success. But the Washburn works were ready for Glidden’s invention when it came. In 1871 they had installed the steel wire-rod-rolling mill which was the basis of all modern steel wire making. Rapid automatic machinery for twisting the wire and attaching the barbs was presently introduced as well as painting and galvanizing processes. The details of these operations presented no great mechanical difficulties and mass production began at once. We are hardly concerned here with such details.

There was some opposition to the use of the wire in the first years of its production. Cowboys complained that it injured horses and cattle; that these injuries were often fatal. The poor beasts would run headlong into it without seeing it. After a few experiences, horses and cows refused to pass between any two posts lest invisible wire be strung there. To the harassed cattlemen it seems that the animals could never learn to understand its menace. The animals learned quickly enough. The true menace of barbed wire was not to a hide here and there but to the whole existence of the open range and the “kingdom” which lived upon it.

With cheap fences to protect them, the farmers reached farther and farther into the Great Plains. They staked their homestead claims directly across the old cattle trails. Finally, the cattlemen themselves found it profitable to fence in their stock and the wild herds grew tame and produced, in consequence, better meat. The multiplication of the railroads with abundant refrigerator cars made the long drives unnecessary. So the picturesque era closed and though some of us may shed a sentimental tear while listening to some lone ranger croon about his “little dogies” into the microphone, no one can seriously regret the translation of the open range with all its wild outlawry into peaceful and productive farms.


Barbed wire did not do the whole job. But it made possible the first advance of true settlers into the Great Plains. As they penetrated into the arid areas, new inventions for irrigation, water supply and “dry farming” must come to their aid. Unhappily, along with excessive plowing, destruction of grass and reckless up-river deforestation came the soil erosion and flood destruction from which the descendants of these farmers are suffering today.

By 1890 the last frontier had vanished, the Indians had been beaten and herded into their unhappy reservations and the “unorganized” territory had been carved into states. From here on western settlement would decrease, the backwash would begin and the search for new industrial frontiers to replace the succession of geographical ones would lead the urban trend.


Barbed wire spread not only in the West. Soon it was replacing the old worn fences in the East. It was far more satisfactory. It did not cause the drifting of snow as the wooden fences had done. It adjusted itself by a mere twisting or untwisting to extremes of heat and cold. It did not obstruct the view. It helped conserve timber. Best of all, it was cheap and required little labor.

Glidden barbed wire patent drawing.

In 1914, the warring nations of Europe, searching about for new terrors, seized upon this peaceful American invention and tangled millions of miles of it between the trenches. Its presence there brought about a whole new set of military tactics, wire cutters and long artillery preparation—the fire being directed at the entanglements—must operate before every raid or advance. What its future will be in this province we must leave to the military experts.

We have dwelt especially on barbed wire because it was an American invention which seemed to have social effects of far-reaching importance. Other uses of wire involve inventions not uniquely American, although in the production of wire for most purposes the United States is still in the lead. The main other uses have been for a multitude of electrical equipment and for telegraphy, telephony and steel cable. Fine wire for scientific and surgical use has been made in America to one four-thousandth of an inch in diameter.

The wire-rope or steel-cable industry was built in this country by a single American family. It began in the Alleghenies when John August Roebling, a wire manufacturer from Germany, made wire rope in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, for the cumbersome Portage Railway of the 1830’s. This “railway” was a series of inclined planes built to draw canal boats, across the mountain ridges.

Roebling, in 1840, made a rope of iron wire to replace the hemp rope then in use. In 1848, he established his celebrated plant in Trenton. The railroads by this time had signed the death warrant of Allegheny portage, but Roebling found an endless market for his product in shipyards. Having an engineer’s training he presently became interested in the suspension of bridges by iron cable; he built the first railroad suspension bridge at Niagara Falls and died while planning the famous Brooklyn Bridge over the East River from New York. Like Washburn he founded a true industrial dynasty; the company he established in Trenton, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, “has developed without a break from the little ropewalk in Saxonburg and at no time has it been out of the control of the family—sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of the founder.” The big Trenton plant makes almost every variety of wire today.

We associate wire rope with lifting and the suspension of great weights, the towing of vessels or cars—with rough physical jobs in commerce or industry. With its aid glowing ingots weighing several tons are carried through the steel mills, or giant steel cranes do their effective jobs of loading and unloading vessels, or derricks swing steel beams into position to consolidate the structure of a building.

We are less inclined to consider this rope as a medium of delicate scientific experiment. Yet in 1938 a tapered steel rope seven miles long was constructed at the geophysical laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington for the purpose of scooping up samples of the ocean’s bottom. Doctor Charles Snowden Piggott has discovered through the use of this immense length of wire rope that a greater quantity of radium seems to lie in the red clay of certain portions of the bottom than can be found in any rocks on land. But this is only one of the possibilities that such experiment with wire may reveal. The exploration of ocean bottoms is a significant effort of experimental science.

When Joseph Henry invented the insulation of wire in 1828, he introduced a new technology in electricity. With this protection wire could be made into the coils on which electromagnets depend for their power. With insulated wire he built his “intensity coils” on which electromagnetic communications depend to overcome the obstacle of distance. In 1831, Michael Faraday in England carried Henry’s induction theories a step farther and established the principles by which a series of inventors would use insulated wire for mechanically generated electricity and, finally, by a simple reversal of the dynamo, perfect the electric motor.

Neither the dynamo nor the motor was a strictly American invention but Americans have contributed so much to their development, and the social effects of them in America are so wide, that they must take their place in this record of the consolidation of power.

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