Last week we talked a bit about how cattle got to the West, and how they were maintained and then driven to railheads and eventually on to market (the part we don’t like to think about when we’re enjoying a juicy burger). Obviously, letting cattle graze freely over vast tracts of public land couldn’t last forever. So what changed things and how?
The quick and dirty answer to what changed things is “barbed wire.” But of course, it’s not as simple as that. It is, however, pretty amazing that one little invention could change the course of history and cause a lot of trouble, adding to the reasons it was called the Wild West.
Let’s start with those cattle. The West began to be settled in the 1840s and 50s. During that time, you had an incredibly large amount of land inhabited by an incredibly small amount of people. Neighbors were not something you had to worry about. As the cattle industry began in places like Wyoming, where my Brides of Paradise Ranch series is set, there was more than enough forage and water sources for everyone to let their cattle roam free across the land.
(Of course, this is all from the perspective of white settlers. It was an entirely different story for the Native American tribes who were systematically having their homeland taken from them, but that’s a post for another day.)
All that began to change as more and more people moved West to settle. The most serious problems and resulting conflicts developed when small ranches and individual settlers attempted to put down roots next to the huge ranches run by men of wealth and influence. Simply put, once the West reached the tipping point of number of settlers, all that vast open land and all those easy water sources couldn’t supply everyone who wanted to use them.
The result was that, by the mid-1880s, large ranchers were doing everything they could to drive the smaller ranchers out of business. That included hiring thugs to attack, and in some cases, lynch competing outfits. The Range Wars of the Old West have gone down in legend—sometimes exaggerated, but sometimes not. They were competition taken to the extreme.
And one quiet player in the conflict that led to these wars had to do with the invention and implementation of barbed wire fences. Because as soon as barbed wire was invented in the 1870s, it became less expensive to fence in vast tracts of grazing land and accompanying water sources so that a rancher could keep their herd separate from their neighbors’. Only, the problem was that a great deal of the land that was being fenced in was public land.
Back in the earlier days of the West (up to around the 1870s), various Homesteader Acts meant that if you went West and claimed property and made improvements, it was yours. As that land disappeared, however, ownership of the land wasn’t so cut and dry. So when ranchers began building barbed wire fences to enclose their herds, as often as not, they’d fence in land that they didn’t technically own, regardless of whether other livestock needed to use it, the post office needed to get through, or other official institutions had claim to it. And especially regardless of whether a smaller rancher or independent farmer happened to have built their homestead on that land.
Add to that already volatile mix the fact that, in Wyoming at least, an organization of the wealthiest and most powerful ranchers, the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association (which I mention in His Perfect Bride that Howard Haskell and Rex Bonneville both belong to, although Rex is more involved with them) had so much power that they basically controlled the government of Wyoming. A lot of nasty things went down while officials turned a blind eye. None of it was exactly fair.
Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the range wars that gave the West it’s adjective of Wild.
(images are public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons)