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.
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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