Thursday, June 25, 2009

Homesteaders' fences: Barb Wire & Osage Oranges

With no trees for fences and no stones to build walls, the homesteaders needed more practical ways to contain their livestock and fence their property. Some planted hedgerows, stock-proof living walls of thorny trees and bushes, such as the

Osage orange hedgerow planted by Daniel Freeman in the early 1870’s, which demarcates Homestead National Monument of America’s southern boundary.

However, prior to 1874, most homesteaders simply allowed their cattle and sheep to freely graze on the open prairie, sharing pasture and water resources with other settlers. These were the days of the “open range,” when cowboys drove cattle long distances to eastern markets, when nomadic Plains Indian tribes followed the vast buffalo herds, and when thousands of pioneers bound for the far western territories set out on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails.

Many historians believe, according to the Devil’s Rope Museum website, one of the defining moments in the history of the West came when a small bunch of wild longhorn steers stopped and backed away from eight slender strands of twisted wire equipped with sharp barbs. This event happened in 1876 when John W. ("Bet-a-Million") Gates erected an enclosure on the Plaza in San Antonio, Texas to demonstrate to gathered ranchers, that newly-invented barbed wire could securely contain wild livestock. From that moment on, the West would never be the same again.

Visitors to Homestead National Monument of America can visit the barb wire display at the Heritage Center. Request your free copy of the brochure Fencing the Great Plains: The History of Barbed Wire by emailing

Collage is compliments of Devil's Rope Museum. Barb wire is so named because when livestock encountered barbed wire for the first time, it was usually a painful experience. The injuries provided sufficient reason for the public to protest its use. Religious groups called it "the work of the devil," or "The Devil's Rope" and demanded removal.

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