How ‘devil’s rope’ changed the world

Marlborough Midweek - - FRONT PAGE - CHRIS WOOT­TON - DOC RANGER

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’.

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