Devil’s Rope

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s a pretty famous novel about the old American West called, ‘Lonesome Dove,’ published in 1985, it won a Pulitzer Prize and was later made into a TV mini-series.

Katie Mingle:
It’s one of the best books ever written. I think.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
So in the book, a group of cowboys from Texas – cattlemen, as they were once called – drives a huge herd of cattle through the great open west, all the way from Texas up to Montana. It’s an epic adventure story. The writing is just gorgeous. Here’s a passage-

Excerpt from Lonesome Dove (read by W.F. Strong):
“As they rode north, they saw more buffalo, mostly small bunches of 20 or 30. The third day, north of the Yellowstone, they killed a crippled buffalo calf and dined on its liver. In the morning when they left, there were a number of buzzards and two or three prairie wolves hanging around waiting for them to leave the carcass. It was a beautiful morning, crisp for an hour or two and then sunny and warm. The country rolled on to the north as it had for thousands of miles, brown in the distance, the prairie grasses waving in the breeze.”

Roman Mars:
The book, which is fiction, takes place in the 1870s.

Katie Mingle:
And the reason we’re talking about it is that basically everything about that scene was about to become impossible. The whole premise of the book really was about to become impossible.

Roman Mars:
In just a few years, cattle drives would come to an end. The west would become populated with people in towns and railways and almost all of the buffalo would be gone.

Katie Mingle:
This change would come about incredibly quickly and a lot of it would be brought about by one very simple invention that would come to be known as “the devil’s rope.”

Roman Mars:
But let’s back up just a tad. In the mid-1800s, not many non-Native Americans had ever been west of the Mississippi. When Frederick Law Olmstead visited the West in the 1850s, he remarked that it was like a sea of grasses that moved in swells after a great storm.

Joanne Liu:
And they were so tall that in order to see where you are or to get your bearings, you had to stand on a horse’s back.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Joanne Liu.

Joanne Liu:
Hi, my name is Joanne Liu. I am a Texas-based writer and editor. You had to go far west, you had to go to the West Coast to Washington, Oregon, and California to see more settlers out there.

Roman Mars:
The middle of the country was divided into territories, and apart from Texas most of the land was owned by the federal government.

Joanne Liu:
On the maps up until I would say about 1850s, 1840s, they just labeled that whole region as ‘The Great American Desert.’

Roman Mars:
They later changed the maps to say ‘The Great American Plains,’ but still, the middle of the country was a vast unknown. It was sparsely populated mostly by Native Americans and by cattlemen who were supplying beef to the people on the East Coast.

Katie Mingle:
And then in the mid-1800s people in the east start thinking about manifest destiny and about settling the West.

Joanne Liu:
The American government wanted to settle the American West and they didn’t view cattlemen and Native Americans as suitable settlers of the West. What they wanted out there were people who would actually farm the land, put down their roots, improve the land with buildings and communities, and they looked to the yeoman farmer to do that.

Roman Mars:
Ye old yeoman farmer.

Katie Mingle:
So in 1862, President Lincoln signs the Homestead Act, which basically says if you move west and settle on a piece of land that we stole from other people, and farm it, and you do that for five years, the land is yours. 160 acres free for the taking.

Roman Mars:
And so, of course, the yeoman, you know, us common folk, started heading west. Free land, that can’t be hard. Right? Right? Guys?

Joanne Liu:
It seemed like a great idea. They really didn’t think about how difficult that would be for people going out there.

Katie Mingle:
No towns, no roads, no stores, no schools.

Joanne Liu:
And of course, no fencing material.

Roman Mars:
And it turns out fences were crucial to farmers, but that sea of grasses was not a sea of fencing materials. In other words, there weren’t many trees to use for lumber.

Joanne Liu:
Yeah, the settlers started going out there and what they found was that the land was fertile. It was great for farming, but there was cattle everywhere. And so when they started to plant their crops, the cattle would just simply wander onto their fields, trample and destroy all their efforts.

Roman Mars:
To keep cattle out of their crops, the farmers tried using these really thick and thorny Osage orange hedges for fencing. They worked pretty well, but they took five years to grow. And if you had to move the boundaries of your property, tough luck.

Katie Mingle:
Settlers also tried smooth wire fencing, but the cattle could just bust right through it. Everyone was getting really frustrated.

Joanne Liu:
A lot of settlers, they moved west and found that they had this problem on their hands and there was nothing they could do about it. And then they left.

Katie Mingle:
Fencing became an issue of much discussion.

Joanne Liu:
There was talk about it everywhere you went.

Katie Mingle:
Among farmers of course, but also in newspapers, agricultural publications and in the US government.

Joanne Liu:
The US department of agriculture, I think it was the Land Office did a study in 1870, and they basically determined that it was not feasible to settle the West because there was no fencing. It was impossible.

Roman Mars:
Our destiny could not be manifested without solving the fencing problem.

Katie Mingle:
And the solution? Barbed wire. There were a lot of different patents filed for barbed wire like fences around this time, many of which attempted to replicate the deterrent properties of the thornbush.

Roman Mars:
Ultimately, the barbed wire design that prevailed was from a guy named Joseph Glidden. In 1873, Glidden was at a county fair in his hometown of DeKalb, Illinois, when he saw a fence that inspired him.

Katie Mingle:
It was like a strip of wood with nail-like spikes on it.

Joanne Liu:
The strip of wood was meant to be attached to a smooth wire fence. And he realized he could improve on that.

Katie Mingle:
Glidden went home and created what we now know as barbed wire. Sharp metal barbs twisted around a strand of smooth wire.

Joanne Liu:
And from then he intertwined a second smooth piece of wire so that the twisted barbs could not slide around.

Roman Mars:
Glidden went into business with a guy named Isaac Elwood, and they set about trying to get barbed wire into the hands of western settlers.

Katie Mingle:
But people were skeptical that barbed wire would work against the kind of cattle they were raising in the West at the time, the Texas Longhorn.

Joanne Liu:
Texas Longhorns wore the most unruly, belligerent cattle. And so the idea that this little piece of barbed wire could keep them out of anywhere was just laughable.

Katie Mingle:
So the story goes that Glidden and Elwood sent a fast-talking salesman and compulsive gambler known as John “Bet-a-Million” Gates, down to San Antonio to sell barbed wire. And Bet-a-Million Gates basically tells all the farmers and cowboys to gather up their most unruly cattle and stick them inside this barbed wire enclosure that he built in the town square.

Joanne Liu:
By the end of the day, there was a huge crowd.

Roman Mars:
They put the cattle in the enclosure and that got them all riled up.

Joanne Liu:
And the cattle just went crazy. They rushed up against the fence and immediately reared back because they met up with the barbed wire.

Katie Mingle:
Eventually, the cattle all just kind of meekly settled down.

Joanne Liu:
“Bet-a-Million Gates” started taking orders right then and there.

Katie Mingle:
Word spread and so did the barbed wire, all over the West. In 1874, when Glidden and Elwood first started, they produced 10,000 pounds of barbed wire.

Joanne Liu:
1876, which is the same year that Bet-a-Million Gates went to San Antonio, they were producing nearly 3 million pounds of barbed wire.

Roman Mars:
Before barbed wire hit the West, the cattleman had just been kind of watching and laughing as the yeoman farmers struggled with their fence shrubs.

Katie Mingle:
Remember, the West before the Homestead Act was in large part populated by cattlemen and the various Native American tribes. And though a lot has been made of the animosity between cowboys and Indians, they had this one kind of striking thing in common.

Roman Mars:
Neither really believed in fencing off the land and hanging no trespassing signs.

Katie Mingle:
The West of the American cowboy before the Homestead Act was governed by something called the “law of the open range.” Now I had always thought that the open range was a figure of speech. Like it just meant big open pastures. But no, it was like the way things were done.

Joanne Liu:
It was a big deal in the West, so it just became common practice that became an unwritten code of law. Cattle need to range far and wide to fatten up.

Katie Mingle:
And for cattle to get the grazing lands they needed, the land had to be open.

Roman Mars:
So you can probably guess who was about to ruin everything.

Katie Mingle:
Ye old yeoman farmer and their barbed wire fences.

Joanne Liu:
It was in direct contradiction of the law of the open range.

Katie Mingle:
Apart from that, people also thought that barbed wire was cruel.

Joanne Liu:
A lot of the cattle, they would be injured by the barbwire wire and their wounds would become infested with screwworm and they would die.

Roman Mars:
A whole side business of elixirs for wounded cattle sprung up. Briefly, people tried designing more humane barbed wire fences. They were made to be easier for the cattle to see and avoid, but they didn’t catch on.

Katie Mingle:
In any case, the cattlemen weren’t happy. If you’ve ever seen the musical ‘Oklahoma!’, and oh I have, you might remember this little ditty called ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.’

Clip from ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends’:
“I’d like to say a word for the farmer,
He comes out west and made a lot of changes
He comes out west and built a lot of fences,
And built ’em right across our cattle ranges!”

Katie Mingle:
The chorus of the song implores all territory folks to stick together.

Clip from ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends’:
“Territory folks should stick together,
Territory folks should all be pals.
Cowboys dance with farmer’s daughters,
Farmers dance with the ranchers’ gals!”

Katie Mingle:
But in reality, cowboys and farmers wouldn’t become friends for a while. The cattlemen resented the farmers as they put up more and more fences.

Joanne Liu:
And that’s what set off the Fence Cutting Wars.

Roman Mars:
The Fence Cutting Wars, they started around 1881.

Katie Mingle:
It began with cowboys cutting down illegal fences that people were putting up around land that they didn’t even have a rightful claim on.

Joanne Liu:
What happened was as this sort of momentum built, a lot of people start joining and a lot of outlaws and rustlers, and they started cutting illegal and legal fences and cattlemen followed suit. And it just erupted in chaos. It started in Texas and it spread northwards all the way up to Montana.

Roman Mars:
The cowboys cut fences at night with masks on. They even had fence cutting gangs with names like, The Owls, The Blue Devils and The Land League.

Katie Mingle:
This all went on for about four years. Most of the damage was in property value, but there are a few deaths on record. Eventually, the Texas State Government and the feds got involved and the fence cutting finally died down around 1885.

Roman Mars:
During the 1800s, the buffalo that roamed the American West died off in huge numbers, partly because settlers were killing them for their hides, but also because of fences.

Joanne Liu:
Buffalo needed large areas for their migration.

Katie Mingle:
And just like it did for the cattle, barbed wire impeded the buffalo’s access to grazing lands and water.

Roman Mars:
Before white people lived in the West, it’s estimated that 65 million buffalo lived there, but by the end of the 1800s-

Joanne Liu:
There were less than 1,000.

Katie Mingle:
By the time barbed wire hit the West, a lot of Native American tribes had already been forced onto reservations, but some were still relatively free, living a nomadic lifestyle that followed the migration of the buffalo. And so, of course, the Native cultures also lived by the law of the open range, even if they didn’t call it that.

Joanne Liu:
And once the barbed wire went up, for the Native Americans, their way of life was just obliterated.

Roman Mars:
Native Americans ultimately came to refer to the fencing as “the devil’s rope.”

Joanne Liu:
By the end of the century, the West was basically covered in the devil’s rope. The Fence Cutting Wars were over. The farmers had won. Even the Cowboys had come to accept and use barbed wire, and then barbed wire finds a whole new purpose.

Alan Krell:
Then it moves from an agricultural economy as it were to a very specific political-military economy.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Alan Krell.

Alan Krell:
Hi, my name is Alan Krell and I’m the author of ‘The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire.’

Katie Mingle:
Alan says that World War I is the first time barbed wire really becomes widely associated with being a tool of war.

Alan Krell:
So if you could imagine trench warfare had a remarkable intimacy to it. You had a line of trenches…

Roman Mars:
And then just a hundred yards away the enemy had their own line of trenches-

Alan Krell:
And the area in between, the so-called ‘no man’s land.’ And on either side of this no man’s land, there would be barbed wire fortifications.

Katie Mingle:
The barbed wire kept the enemy out of your trench, but soldiers got caught and sometimes died in it. There’s a British Army song from that time that captures this called, ‘The Old Barbed Wire.’

Clip from ‘The Old Barbed Wire’:
We’ve seen ’em, We’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
We’ve seen ’em, We’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.

Roman Mars:
Barbed wire shows up again in World War II with an extra sinister innovation.

Alan Krell:
Electrified barbed wire is a double horror.

Katie Mingle:
Electrified barbed wire was part of the architecture of the Holocaust. It was such a ubiquitous part of the scenery that in fact there was a term coined in the death camps of World War II for committing suicide by throwing oneself on the electric fence-

Alan Krell:
‘Embracing the wire.’ Remarkable. Embracing the wire.

Katie Mingle:
In the 1960s, you get barbed wires evil spawn: razor wire, also called ribbon wire. And of course now you see that stuff at prisons all over the world.

Alan Krell:
Barbed wire is nasty. It’s menacing. It’s transparently terrible.

Katie Mingle:
As useful as the fencing may have been to farmers and to settling the West, Alan says that barbed wire has always been about control and possession and separation.

Alan Krell:
It keeps in, it keeps out.

Katie Mingle:
Except for once. There’s one instance where the stuff was actually used not to separate us, but to connect us.

Roman Mars:
Right around the same time that barbed wire was invented, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for an apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically. The telephone, basically.

Katie Mingle:
And as telephone companies went about stringing telephone wires in cities, they weren’t really interested in the rural market, but farmers wanted phones – needed them really – which meant they needed a network of wires that connected all the farms. I think you see where this is heading.

David Sicilia:
Some very clever people said, well, we have wires already. We have these barbed wire fences.

Katie Mingle:
That’s David Sicilia. He’s a professor of business and economic history at the University of Maryland.

David Sicilia:
It wouldn’t transmit a signal quite as clearly as say a nice insulated copper wire, but it worked.

Roman Mars:
A dozen or so farms might connect to one telephone network, so for about 25 bucks households could buy a kit that included everything they’d need to rig themselves up to the system.

David Sicilia:
Two dry batteries. A shure ring condenser. A magneto. A lightning arrestor, 10 feet of interior wire.

Katie Mingle:
Thousands of these rural, independent telephone collectives sprouted up all over the West and Midwest.

David Sicilia:
In 1907, there were 18,000 cooperatives connecting an estimated million and a half rural households.

Roman Mars:
Because of this, farmers ended up being the earliest adopters of telephone technology. In 1912-

David Sicilia:
There were more farm households with telephones than non-farm households.

Alan Krell:
It was a most unusual but most inventive way of using the so-called devil’s rope.

Roman Mars:
By the 1930s, the National Bell Telephone System had penetrated into the remote rural regions of the West and Midwest. Farmers no longer had to create their own telephone collectives.

Katie Mingle:
And barbed wire went back to doing what it does best, keeping us in, keeping us out.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to W.F. Strong for his reading of ‘Lonesome Dove’ and for Haley Howle for recording him.

Roman Mars:
One part of the barbed wire story that we didn’t explore is its wide representation in art and popular culture. Alan Krell’s book ‘The Devil’s Rope’ is a really great resource for this.

Alan Krell:
It does seem to me to have an aesthetic character, calligraphic character. If for one minute you can forget about all these other uses of barbed wire and just look at its shapes.

Roman Mars:
Joanne Liu, who you heard throughout the piece, wrote ‘Barbed Wire: The Fence That Changed the West.’ You can find links to both their books on our website.

  1. Auros

    It is possible that the tree depicted in your photo of Osage Orange is a real variety of orange (or at least citrus) that goes by that name, but it does not appear to be the plant called Osage Orange that was used for hedges, which is *not* a citrus. That one is also called hedge apple. Though its fruit doesn’t look much like an apple, either.

    http://www.gpnc.org/osage.htm

    http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/maclura/pomifera.htm

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maclura_pomifera

  2. James Wright

    Yet again another wonderful piece about a historical design that had more uses than I could have possibly imagined especially the part about running a telephone signal through the wire. keep up the wonderful work I’ve enjoyed your program from the very beginning.

  3. Sam

    I still remember a 9th grade science assignment where we had to choose the single more influential invention/development in technology. I chose wire and this gives me some vindication, as well as a wish this episode had been around back then. Thanks for a great piece!

  4. Quint Hall

    As a born Kansan, it is my duty to inform you that no buffalo exist (outside a zoo) in the United States. What you are calling ‘buffalo’ is the actually the American bison. The two species have no relation. It would be like mistaking a tomato for a vegetable.

    1. Katie Mingle (@katiemingle)

      Hi Quint, Yeah we struggled with what to call them — you’re right ‘bison’ is the correct term, but what we found is that ‘buffalo’ is also an acceptable, though more colloquial name, and since our main guest referred to them as ‘buffalo’ we decided to follow suit. Here’s what wikipedia says about the name.

      The term “buffalo” is sometimes considered to be a misnomer for this animal, and could be confused with two “true buffalo”, the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo. However, “bison” is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal, while “buffalo” originated with the French fur trappers who called these massive beasts bœufs, meaning ox or bullock—so both names, “bison” and “buffalo”, have a similar meaning. The name “buffalo” is listed in many dictionaries as an acceptable name for American buffalo or bison. In reference to this animal, the term “buffalo”, dates to 1625 in North American usage when the term was first recorded for the American mammal.[13] It thus has a much longer history than the term “bison”, which was first recorded in 1774.[citation needed] The American bison is very closely related to the wisent or European bison.

  5. justjaniceo

    fascinating article! and very cool to learn something new in the “comments” section, rather than the customary degeneration into off-topic pettiness that abounds online. thanks so much for commenting and for the valuable explanatory response. my first time looking around here, and I plan to continue following :-)

    1. Kevin From DeKalb

      This is true. I came here to leave just this comment. In Illinois we don’t drop the L like they do with the county in Georgia

  6. Tim

    Barbed wire fencing was being used to transmit communications between left-wing guerrilla fighters in the El Salvador civil war as recently as the early 1990s. They also used this method for their revolutionary radio station ‘Radio Venceremos’ (‘We Shall Overcome’ Radio).

  7. This was a great podcast! We listened to it while driving through West Texas and Eastern New Mexico–perfect landscape for this story. I wrote it about and linked to your podcast.

  8. Erik

    Really good episode. The turn at the end about how the fencing network was used for early telecommunications was something I had never heard before. And coming as it did at that point in the story, it actually kind of made me tear up a little bit.

  9. Steve

    Good to hear the story of barbed wire as a Huskie (alum from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL). You can still find Anne Glidden Road and the Ellwood House there among other barbed wire related things. Thanks for the great piece!

  10. Jeff

    Loved the episode! One note: you set the scene perfectly with the evocative narration from Lonesome Dove, but I don’t remember hearing the name of the author, Larry McMurtry! Seems like he deserves a shout-out.

  11. I never liked barbed wire much but the day an overgrown stretch of it ripped all the skin off my beloved horse’s hind leg I was ready to outlaw the stuff. The horse eventually recovered after many many stitches and a lot of rest but I’m not sure I did. I will always remember that day as one of my more traumatic teenage episodes.

    1. Shannon R Gerdel

      I’d forgotten about the day that it almost cut my cousins life short. She was riding a snow machine, and rode into a section of Barbed wire. It looked like she’d gone through a harvester. She’s survived, and shows no scars, Praise the Lord, but it sure was frightening ar the time.

  12. t post

    Folks: Nice article If those who believe that the buffalo were in any way deterred by the rustic salvaged branch-type post scuffed into the ground with bob wire stapled or wired onto the post, a visit to the west is needed. Ask any rancher today what elk herds do to fencing. The buffalo has a way tougher hide than elk as well as the body mass[impact effect] in their herd behavior vs the elk herds which decimate many yards of fence line at will even with modern fence. Fencing can be built to contain them today, but not back in the day for the hard scrabble farmers of that era…….

  13. Bob

    Fantastic episode – the usual excellent 99pi stew of people, things and places.

    Please ignore if this is old news to people, but I thought I should clear up Ye as in “Ye Old…”

    It was originally (1500s etc.) “The Old…” using a single character for the “Th” called thorn. It looks confusingly like a Y – I have seen versions where it has a straight vertical line, with another shorter line going up at about 30 degrees from half way up the longer line. Even though it looked like an asymmetric Y it was pronounced “th”.

    More confusingly, around the same time, “ye” was used as a form of “you”. As in the King James Bible from 1611 such as Matthew 7:16 – “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

    Given the presence (at least in places like the old UK village where I work) of buildings like The Old Carpenter’s Shop, The Old Schoolroom etc. which are now homes, and pubs like The Farmers’ Arms, I look forward to people in the future living in The Old Data Centre and drinking in The Programmers’ Arms.

    (Sorry this is much later than the episode; I am 2/3 of the way through catching up with old episodes!)

  14. GregH

    “During the 1800s, the buffalo that roamed the American West died off in huge numbers, in part because settlers were killing them for their hides, but also because barbed wire impeded the buffalo’s access to grazing lands and water.”

    The buffalo didn’t just “die off”, they were actively hunted to extinction by domestic and commercial hunters, and by the military. If it’s important to talk about how barbed wire changed the West, it’s equally important to be honest about the other events of the time.

    Also, I’m not sure barbed wire had that much effect on bison herds: “This agility and speed, combined with their great size and weight, makes bison herds difficult to confine, as they can easily escape or destroy most fencing systems, including most razor wire.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_bison)

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