Earth Notes - The Devil's Rope

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: The Devil's Rope

In 1874 an Illinois farmer named J.F. Glidden patented the invention of barbed wire after a prolonged legal battle with two rivals.

He wasn't the first to suggest the idea, but Glidden's design succeeded well. It not only twisted sharpened pieces of beveled iron on a wire, but also rolled a second wire around the first for extra strength and durability.

The development of barbed wire came at a significant juncture, when Anglo settlers needed a cheap and practical way to fence off homesteaded land across the largely treeless West.

Barbed wire is efficient in the West's climatic extremes. It resists heat and can be easily torsioned to eliminate slacking and stretching. It's relatively lightweight, and easy to transport. In addition, it's fairly cheap. As a result, it remains a vital tool for ranchers and other landowners and managers.

But the history of barbed wire has a darker side. It excluded Native Americans from traditional lands and disrupted nomadic lifestyles. It also fenced formerly roaming wildlife in or out of important habitats.

In its early days barbed wire enraged so many cattlemen operating on the Great Plains that in the 1870s fence-cutting wars developed in Texas and spread to several other states. When fence cutting was finally outlawed, it spelled the end of the wide-open range.

To many people, that signaled the moment when the Old West was transformed from reality into myth. Maybe that's why barbed wire still carries the nickname old-time cowboys gave it: "the devil's rope."

-Diane Hope