How Barbed Wire Changed the American West

By | July 6, 2018

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Barbed wire on May 23, 2018 (Photo by Wassilios Aswestopoulos/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nothing did more to change the way cattle ranching was done on America’s western frontier than the introduction of barbed wire. In fact, historians point to this single, humble invention as the catalyst that revolutionized beef agriculture and killed off the open range cowboy lifestyle. How could a thin piece of wire do all that? 

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There Were Little Fencing Options Prior to Barbed Wire

Most ranchers in the old west chose not to fence in their herds of cattle. Fencing was simply too costly. The only real option was wooden fencing, but wood was scarce on the American plains so it had to be brought in on railcars. It was also labor intensive to erect and was easily damaged by a herd of stampeding cows. Other wire fencing was occasionally used but it was ineffective at keeping the cattle in. A single cow could walk through the wire, breaking it. Ranchers gave up on fencing in their cattle and allowed them to free range.