The Fence Cutter Wars were an era in the settlement of the American West. Formerly, the people of Old World ancestry living in the area had been cattle ranchers from Hispanic, Scottish, and even African herding traditions, all of whom believed in letting the cattle run loose, their owners identifiable by the brands marked on them. The cows were rounded up when it was time to drive them to market, and the drive down such routes as the Chisholm Trail to towns such as Abilene where they could be loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to slaughterhouses in Chicago or farther east allowed ranchers to earn the most money for their livestock. The major drives started in the late 1860s.

Barbed wire was first invented in 1868; but was not much seen in cattle ranching parts of the Southwest for a long time, both because it was a Northern invention and Texas, the biggest ranching area, was a former Confederate state, and because the cattle were usually allowed to roam. Its first use by ranchers was to keep other ranchers' cattle out of overgrazed areas. Problems arose during blizzards in 1885 and 1886, when the cattle tried to head south away from the winds and ran up against these fences. The piles of dead cows against the fences proved their impassability and gave barbed wire the nickname "The Devil's Rope."

Farmers started to move out West, and it was a lot cheaper to fence in a small farm than a huge ranch; barbed wire became a practical way for farmers to protect their land and crops from grazing cattle. Large ranchers were concerned that their routes for cattle drives would be blocked by fenced-off farms, and the loss of free-range grazing would make it harder to keep their cattle fed, plus the risks of damage to cattle who ran up against fences during storms or prairie fires. So the ranchers often arranged for their employees to go out and cut the wire fences. Herds of cattle were driven over fields to trample the crops; farmers who tried to stop it were shot or their houses burned. The ranchers also used the barbed wire themselves to keep out settlers by fencing off land that wasn't legally theirs. Farmers and small livestock ranchers complained about being fenced off from water sources. So fence cutting was sometimes done by both sides, and also by cattle rustlers taking advantage of the unsettled situation. The Johnson County War on which the movie Heaven's Gate is based is the most famous example of the large rancher/small farmer conflicts.

Both the large cattle ranchers and the barbed wire manufacturers lobbied local, state, and federal governments for their side of the issue, and local authorities often ignored the fence cutting that went on. By the 1890s, though, fenced-in pastures had won by sheer volume; fence cutting was made illegal in most locations and President Grover Cleveland ordered the prosecution of illegal fencing in of public land. The cowboy era of the Old West was ended.

Sources:
Carlson, Laurie Wynn. Cattle: An Informal Social History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG99/cook/barb1.htm
http://www.old-west-images.com/the_devil's_rope.htm
http://www.barbwiremuseum.com/barbedwirehistory.htm

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