How ‘devil’s rope’ changed the world
Englishman John Bessemer’s patented and radical steel process in 1855 brought about the advent of cheap and plentiful fencing wire.
Further innovations around wire evolved from this time on. These innovations shape the concept of land we recognise even in New Zealand today. But these innovations were not only around the ability of wire to transform farming practices.
Perhaps more importantly, innovations around fence wire reinforced the ability to guarantee private property ownership. It also irrevocably changed the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. These impacts echoed around the colonial world, including here in New Zealand.
These innovations originated in the United States through a product promoted as being ‘‘lighter than air, stronger than whiskey and cheaper than dust’’.
John Warne ‘‘Bet a Million’’ Gates, a proverbial US entrepreneur, was behind this extravagant marketing claim. Gates was the first to realise the potential of barbed wire. Barbed wire, as we know it, hasn’t changed much since it was perfected by another American, Joseph Glidden.
Glidden’s process took two smooth strands of wire which were then woven together. The second wire acted to lock in the ‘‘barb’’. Earlier versions of barbed wire suffered from the barbs not being properly held or locked in place.
In 1876, Gates built a pen in San Antonio, Texas, constructed of this new barbed wire. He then took bets from onlookers about the chances of the ‘‘toughest and wildest longhorn cattle from all of Texas’’ (his claim), breaking free, through the seemingly flimsy fence.
There was even a mounted Mexican cowboy on hand to startle the cattle with Spanish curses and by brandishing fire brands. Even with this, the cattle wouldn’t break through the barbed wire.
Gates’ marketing and theatrics had worked. The sales of barbed wire took off and made him a fortune. Gates had timed his campaign perfectly. Around this time, large tracts of the American western territories were being opened to settlers.
Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act allowed any ‘‘honest citizen’’ (including women and freed slaves) to claim up to 160 acres of land in the western territories. But this depended on a homestead being built and the land worked for five years.
Fine in principle, but there were several hurdles to overcome to achieve this.
The American prairie had been the domain of the Native American peoples for centuries. They had adapted to the vast prairie by a nomadic existence bounded only careful social agreements - not fences.
Early European arrivals had also started to utilise the prairie for farming cattle. Their farming methods were also nomadic, with cowboys ranging across the endless plains, herding cattle wherever was deemed suitable. The cattle couldn’t be contained by fenced boundaries. The area involved was simply too huge and the resources to build fences were just not available.
The evolution of barbed wire made the Homestead Act achievable. For the first time in the formerly boundless west, people could lay claim to a boundary and establish a defined private property.
Traditional use and occupation of the prairie was about to be overturned. Before the Homestead Act, private land ownership wasn’t common as it simply wasn’t a feasible option for new settlers. The advent of fencing wire and the development of barbed wire coincided with the push for settlement.
Barbed wire made boundaries and containment (or exclusion) of stock possible. It also provoked bitter disagreement. Traditional open range cowboys had their livelihood threatened. Barbed wire was hated because it impeded the ability to free range cattle across vast areas. Fence cutting wars started, with shootouts and deaths resulting.
For the Native American tribes, homesteads and private property backed up by barbed wire, spelled disaster for their traditional way of life and concept of land use.
Fence wire - in all its forms - signified challenges to traditional concepts around land. It set the scene in colonial settlements for the embedding of private property ownership rights across landscapes.
Native Americans came up with a term for barbed wire, symbolic of the impact it had on their way of life - ‘devil’s rope’.