I’m going to leave old Texas now.
They’ve got no use for the longhorn cow.
They’ve plowed and fenced my cattle range,
And the people there are all so strange.
—from "The Cowman's Lament"(Texas folksong, origin obscure)
|The Fall of the Cowboy, Frederic Remington, 1895 (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)|
Between 1866 and 1890, cowboys drove an estimated twelve million longhorns and one million horses north. A crew of twelve to twenty men could push a herd of 2,000 to 3,000 beeves about ten to fifteen miles a day, reaching Kansas railheads in three to four months.
|(Photo by Darius Norvilas. Used with permission.)|
Fence-cutting began almost as soon as the first of the wire went up. Small confrontations over “the Devil’s rope” happened frequently, with wire-nipping taking place in more than half of Texas counties.
In 1883, the conflict turned deadly. Instead of merely cutting fences that got in the way during trail drives, bands of armed cowboy vigilantes calling themselves names like Owls, Javelinas, and Blue Devils destroyed fences simply because the fences existed. Fence-cutting raids usually occurred at night, and often the vigilantes left messages warning the fence’s owner not to rebuild. Some went so far as to leave coffins nailed to fenceposts or on ranchers’ porches. During one sortie, vigilantes cut nineteen miles of fence, piled the wire on a stack of cedar posts, and lit a $6,000 bonfire.
The bloodiest period of the Fence-Cutter War lasted for only about a year, but in that period damages from fence-cutting and range fires totaled an estimated $20 million — $1 million in Brown County alone.
Although politicians stayed well away from the hot-button issue for about a decade, in early 1884 the Texas legislature declared fence-cutting a felony punishable by a prison term of one to five years. The following year, the U.S. Congress outlawed stringing fence across public land. Together, the new laws ended the worst of the clashes, although the occasional fracas broke out in the far western portion of Texas into the early part of the 20th Century.
|Texas Ranger Ira Aten, courtesy|
University of North Texas Libraries'
The Portal to Texas History
In 1888, a brief resurgence of fence-cutting violence erupted in Navarro County, prompting famed Texas Ranger Ira Aten to place dynamite charges at intervals along one fence line. Aten’s method was a mite too extreme for the Texas Adjutant General, who ordered the dynamite removed. The mere rumor of the explosive’s presence brought fence-cutting to a rapid halt in the area, though.
In my novel Prodigal Gun, a barbed-wire fence touches off a war in the Texas Hill Country, bringing an infamous gunman home to Texas for the first time since he left to fight for the Confederacy sixteen years earlier. Prodigal Gun is one of four full-length novels that compose A Cowboy's Touch, a boxed set of spicy stories about loves as big as Texas. Livia J. Washburn, Cheryl Pierson, and Kit Prate also contributed. The set is 99 cents at Amazon or FREE for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.