Saturday, August 25, 2018

The American Enclosure Movement

Female bluebird on barbed wire.

The Enclosure Movement in the U.K. had a profound impact on the land, farms, and people in that country, and set the stage not only for the mounted fox hunts, but also for the social strife that surrounds fox hunting in Great Britain to this day.

For a pictorial history of terriers and their relationship to the Encloser Movement, click here.

The U.S. also had an Enclosure Movement, which was no less dramatic.

Land enclosure in the eastern U.S. was accomplished with split rail fences and stone walls, but when settlers reached the vast open plains of the American west, there were no trees or field stones for fencing. The result was free range cattle and sheep.

The situation was hardly ideal. Cattle were easily rustled or lost, and many fell prey to wolves and cougars. Sheep were "meals on heals" for coyotes and were easily lost as well.

Another problem was that open grazing meant open competition between sheep and cattle, with sheep cutting the grass down too far for the cattle to forage (the U.S. had huge sheep spreads in the second half of the 19th Century).

Finally, there was the problem of what to do about tick fever. Cattle in the far south west, below Oklahoma, were immune to tick fever, but the northern herds were not, and the practice of driving livestock north to Kansas City, Montana and Wyoming brought the scourge of disease into once-clean herds.

Two things changed it all: the rapid demise of the American Buffalo, and the rapid rise of barbed wire.

The buffalo were shot out over an incredibly short period of time, with railroads bringing in marksmen to shoot and skin anything that moved. Vast mountains of skinned flesh and bones were left for feral Indian dogs to consume.

In fact, most of the "wolves" of the Plains were not wolves at all, but feral Indian dogs (they looked just like wolves, but with curved tails) abandoned by a people now being rapidly decimated by war and disease.

With the demise of the buffalo, came the importation of its smaller cousin, the beef cow.

With the cow came the cowboy, many of them ex-Civil War soldiers moving West for opportunity and fortune. This was the brief tenure of the "Wild Wild West," and the thing that brought it to a dragging halt was the rise of barbed wire.

In 1873, Joseph Glidden the 60-year old sheriff of DeKalb, Illinois, attended a county fair where he saw a demonstration of a wooden rail with sharp nails protruding from it hanging inside a smooth wire fence. The design was supposed to keep cattle and horses inside a small perimeter fence, and perhaps help keep dogs and other predatory creatures out.

Joseph Glidden, mutton chops and all.

Glidden was inspired by the board-and-nail device and the potential for cheap and movable fencing. He began to experimented with the idea, and eventually came up with the idea of using a jerry-rigged coffee bean grinder to make spiral points of wire which were then strung at intervals along a smooth wire, with another wire twisting around the first to hold the barbs in a fixed position.

Barbed wire was born.

Glidden applied for a patent, and it was granted, though the patent was later contested. The legal battle that ensued lasted three years, and went all the way to the Supreme Court. Before the smoke cleared, however, there were over 570 patented forms of barbed wire!

From the perspective of many small land owners in the West, barbed wire was a wonderful invention: it was relatively inexpensive, would not rot, was practically unaffected by grass fire, was strong and long-lasting, and was easily erected.

In very short order, thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing were strung -- so much that fence posts were a major export from both the East and West coasts.

Between 1875 and 1885, the national consumption of barbed wire jumped from 300 tons to 130,000 tons.

The arrival of barbed wire in the American West was of immense historical importance, for it ended the era of the Great American Commons of "free grazing". Now people could own land and keep others off it. Equally important, they could control access to water, and keep livestock out of crops, such as wheat and corn.

Barbed wire also meant that sheep and cattlemen could now improve the quality of their herds by stringing barbed wire to keep inferior bulls from mating with their cows.

Fencing disputes pitted cattlemen against farmers and sheep men, and free-grass cattle ranchers against fenced-range cattle raisers.

These conflicts became fierce during times of drought when access to water and grass (green or not) meant the difference between bankruptcy and fortune.

Cattlemen used to driving herds across vast distances to known water and feed pastures would simply cut fences when they found them, and in some areas open warfare broke out.

In the end, of course, common gazing died across most of the American West, just as it had in Great Britain beginning 100 years earlier.

But barbed wire did not stay in the West -- it became a global product stretched around farms, ranches, buildings, prisons, and borders the world over.

In the Eastern United States, where hedge rows are not layed, as they are in Great Britain, barbed wire proved as useful as it was in the West.

Hedges in the Eastern U.S. are little more than strips of uncut forest and secondary growth, often dominated by rapidly-growing weedy trees, such as black cherry, black locust, and black walnut. These trees shade thin tangles of poke berry and wild grape, multiflora rose, kudzu, and honeysuckle. The result is not substantial enough to keep livestock out of crops.

Prior to barbed wired, farmers had to construct stone walls or erect split rail or plank fencing. These kinds of fencing are expensive and enormously labor- and material-intensive, and they also require a lot of maintenance.

With the invention of barbed wire, however, a farmer could simply stretch wire from tree to tree or post to post. The savings, in time and money, was enormous. Maintenance was virtually eliminated, as galvanized wire does not rust, rot, burn, need paint, or fall apart from frost heaving.

The ease of fence construction after the invention of barbed wire meant that new fences lines were easily created. Large farms that had once been open fields were now cut and carved with posts and barbed wire. Along these fence lines weedy strips soon took hold. Over time, many of these weedy strips have been colonized by small trees, bushes and vines, and in many instances full hedgerows have developed, almost always attended by population of groundhogs, fox, raccoon and possum.

Truly, barbed wire is the "Devils' Rope," and yet it is also part of the story of working terriers in America, for barbed wire has created and protected much of the hedgerow habitat where so much of our quarry dens.

If you work terriers in the Eastern United States, you will eventually find your yourself crawling over and under barbed wire. The dogs themselves may occasionally get ripped running over it, and most folks eventually lose the bottom out of one seat of pants or another.

In the end, however, there is very little doubt that without barbed wire we would not have the quality of terrier work we have today.

And so next time we are in a jungle of thick hedge and the dog has just slipped into a hole under a jumble of broken down barbed wire fencing, let us remember that the fence is more than an obstruction -- it is construction that is vital to the habitat we hunt. Barbed wire is our friend.
      :: This is a repost from 2004.


Brian Phillips said...

One of the wonders of the Internet is our ability to find a wide range of information. While researching the topic of enclosure, I found this article. Thank you. It provided some useful information.

Brian Phillips

Daniel Gauss said...

Here's how accomplished sighthounds deal with barbed wire. Yes, they also do it at full gallop (most of the time)

Karen Carroll said...

Barbed wire is NOT the friend of falconers, raptors nor of the sage and prairie grouse out west. It has shredded more than one falconry bird, and is considered a major factor in sage and prairie grouse mortality. There is a program to 'flag' and mark the top strand of barbed and other wire fencing (aluminum drink cans work well) to help the grouse and birds see this danger when flying.

PBurns said...

I like the idea of flagging wire with cans -- save birds and dogs and deer too. I've spent some money sticking dogs back together after wire, and taken a few dead deer off wire too.

PBurns said...

That's some nice scooting there Dan! As you know, a learned behavior, and not taught with cheese!

Rick said...

On a daily basis, I drive through Alamo Plaza, right in front of the Alamo, because I live and work in the area of downtown San Antonio. 40 years after the battle that we've all heard about, there was a demonstration of barbed wire that also helped change history. Read about it here: