Devil’s Rope: The Story of Barbed Wire

Barbed wire has a uniquely American history.

Farmer putting up barbed wire fence.
Cutting edge: Putting up barbed wire on the Milton farm at El Indio, Texas. (Library of Congress)

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Central to the concept of owning land is the right to tell others to get off it. One who acquires land gets to enjoy the right of possession, the right of control, the right of enjoyment, the right of disposition — and, most relevant here, the right of exclusion. A landowner may exclude others, may forbid others to stray onto his property, and has a right in law to demand that enforcement officers compel the person who does so — who trespasses — to leave.

Warning signs themselves do not keep people off another’s land. The American invention that is most traditionally placed to deter intruders from trespassing — and one which has spread worldwide since its invention in the mid-19th century — is barbed wire, the devil’s rope.

The idea behind the invention that has at least half a dozen claimants to being its originator is simple: “two wires, twisted together, with a short transverse wire, coiled or bent at its central portion about one of the wire strands of the twist, with its free ends projecting in opposite directions, the other wire strand serving to bind the spur-wire firmly to its place, and in position, with its spur ends perpendicular to the direction of the fence-wire, lateral movement, as well as vibration, being prevented.”

The man who, with this elegantly incomprehensible description, lays the principal credible claim to the first patent for it in late 1874 was the son of English immigrants to the United States and named Joseph Glidden. His early demonstration of the usefulness of his creation had one unanticipated consequence: It helped in no small measure to bring about a signal change to the American diet, almost overnight.

The first purpose of the wire was to keep animals in, not to keep people out.

The change derives from the simple fact that the first purpose of the wire was to keep animals in, not to keep people out. And to display how easy this was, Glidden built himself an enormous ranch on the near grassless plains of the west Texas panhandle and housed there the near unimaginable number of 20,000 head of cattle. He was able to corral these animals in such numbers and at such relatively low cost by ringing the entire ranch with his newly made wire — some 120 miles of it, at a cost of some $39,000, far less than a conventional wooden fence, and far less cumbersome.

Having so many cattle pinioned in one place, conveniently close to a railway line that led ultimately to the stockyards in Chicago, played into the great “beef bonanza” that was just then gripping the nation. Beef became all of a sudden both cheap and available, with the result that almost overnight it would replace pork as the preferred national dinnertime dish. Corralling cattle in such numbers became, from the producers’ standpoint, economically most advantageous — leading to the invention of that current abomination of the Midwestern agricultural scene, the feedlot. Given the known cardiac health disbenefits of today’s massive beef consumption — leaving to the side the effects of so unnecessarily large a cattle population on climate change — one might fairly say that Glidden’s invention of barbed wire led, in time, to the currently high American incidence of heart attack.

Once Glidden’s famous patent, number 157124, had been approved, and with the appeal of his well-­publicized panhandle demonstration, so it seemed that every farmer west of the Mississippi was determined to string this newfangled barbed wire along his property lines. The railroads followed suit: Not wanting to have livestock, or more especially heavy and ­locomotive-disrupting bison, wandering dangerously onto their tracks, they also purchased thousands of tons of the wire to spool out alongside their rights-of-way.

After that, for the barbed-wire industry, it was off to the races — with the result that the devil’s rope, which over the decades would come in many weights and strengths, with many different designs of barb, leading to today’s viciously displeasing sibling razor wire, became the world’s default barrier to unwanted movement. It kept prisoners in; it kept rabbits (in Australia) out. It helped keep North Koreans from venturing southward, or Pakistanis from attempting sojourns eastward. Coils of it kept Great War soldiers safe in their trenches. And all types of it are on display in museums and at conventions of the various state wire collectors’ associations — most notably in California, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska — where it is seen as powerfully emblematic of American pioneering and expansion — also being a vivid and potentially painful reminder that to trespass is a most foolhardy endeavor.


The rules to protect private property against trespass vary state by state

In all American states, trespass is seen as a serious violation of personal space, and the trespasser’s failure to leave when asked or told to is an offense. It is a law most robustly enforced, and in some particular states — Florida, Louisiana, and Texas — most demonstrably so. It is from states like these that one hears lurid tales of landowners opening fire on uninvited sojourners, even though the law specifically forbids the shooting of a trespasser unless he is brandishing a weapon and threatening the life of the owner. Warning signs declaring “Trespassers Will Be Shot” are to be seen on all sides in states like these, and though the signs are permissible as a deterrent, they are not to be regarded as a warning of any impending fusillade.

Where I live in Massachusetts, there is a great deal of seasonal hunting — for deer, mainly, though black bear on occasion, and with a variety of weapons, including crossbows, black-powder muskets, and rifles, each of which is assigned a specific week in every autumn. Signs at the town limits note that hunters must have, and must carry at all times, written permission from the landowner to pursue their bloodthirsty calling, and during the affected weeks nonhunters are advised to stay indoors and to suit up their larger pets in reflective orange coats, so that they are not mistaken for deer. In addition, though, the owner must festoon his land’s perimeter with orange signs, stapled to a tree every hundred feet or so, with a wordy insistence under the warning word “POSTED,” that there be “No Trespassing,” followed by a list of specific activities — hunting most obviously — that shall not be pursued.

In Texas, studded as it is with ranches, especially in the western ranges, regulations for the landowner who is concerned with trespassers are strict, detailed, and much enforced. For instance, under Title 7, Chapter 30, of the state’s penal code, which defines criminal trespass as “a person entering or remaining on or in property … without effective consent,” there are special rules for how such a warning might be presented in unfenced properties. The caution can be indicated by signs or paint marks at specified heights and intervals so that they can be clearly seen.

One hears lurid tales of landowners opening fire on uninvited sojourners, even though the law specifically forbids the shooting of a trespasser unless he is brandishing a weapon.

In Massachusetts, it is common for ancient boundary trees to have grown so much since signs were placed on them by former owners that they have folded themselves around the old metal plaques that once read NO TRESPASSING but which now are wizened, their lettering conflated to read NOG or NOSING — which a good lawyer would probably argue renders the boundary invalid, letting any poacher off scot-free.

From the book Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World by Simon Winchester. Copyright ©2021 by Simon Winchester. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This article is featured in the May/June 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Cutting edge: Putting up barbed wire on the Milton farm at El Indio, Texas. (Library of Congress)

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  1. Fascinating piece about a little regarded invention that changed the world.

    Tragic that the enjoyment of reading it is marred by politically correct statements which are unsupported scientifically and offensive to many.

  2. A landowner may exclude others, may forbid others to stray onto his property, and has a right in law to compel the person who does so — who trespasses — to leave.

    Fixed it for you

  3. My SEP subscription expired several years ago and I didn’t renew. Recently I subscribed again and now I think I’ve wasted my money. I read for pleasure — not for more of the PC crap and unproven “facts” bandied about the media incessantly. SEP used to be the epitome for pleasureful and factual reading. Now, it’s just another leftist rag. What a revoltin’ development this is! Excuse me, I need to go to the kitchen — my double cheese burger with bacon is ready.

  4. Others have said it, but I concur that I’m sick and tired of the political correctness which has been creeping into these articles lately. You sadsacks must think we’re fools, and won’t notice.

    Why would you do such a stupid, self defeating thing if not for a fear of your own shadow sort of nervousness that the tastemakers will declare The Saturday Evening Post hopelessly unWoke?

    Guess what? They don’t take you seriously at all because they think you represent a hopelessly retrograde demographic, and you know something? They’re right. But that demographic despises what the cultural Left is doing to this country, and a counter to it is well underway. Leave it to SEP editors to be looking so frantically around for ways to curry favor with the American Maoists that they wouldn’t have noticed it.

    Cowardice tends to make people dumb. The high cholesterol in the diet equation with heart disease is cutting edge science circa 1960. There is a massive amount of evidence in the scientific literature that there is actual correlation not between animal fat and heart disease but between sugar consumption and heart disease.

    What a loser of an article. Now, I suppose I’ll glance at just why Rick Santorum, an ardent Catholic and family man, is actually such a malefic figure.

    Keep it up, Saturday Evening Post. Start thinking about the music you want played at the magazine’s funeral.

  5. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I too wondered if I should continue with my subscription, liberal opinions keep creeping into the articles.

  6. I enjoyed the article until the linking of cattle to climate change, that is simply not factual but merely opinion and far fetched theory. Stop spreading climate change propaganda.

  7. Stating barbed wire led to an increase in heart attacks is scientifically irresponsible.
    Where are the statistics correlating the two.
    Please leave your emotions at home.

  8. Let’s ruin a perfectly good article about the history of an invention to once again preach about climate change.

    Feedlots are an abomination, unnecessarily large cattle herds? In who’s opinion.

    Give us the facts and keep your unwanted and and unsolicited holier than thou opinions to yourself. Use more nouns and verbs, fewer adjectives and adverbs.

    Articles like this make me wonder if I should continue subscribing to TSEP.


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