Thursday, November 12, 2015

This Means War: the Devil’s Rope Comes to Texas

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)
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Texas saw a massive influx of former Confederates dispossessed by the Civil War and seeking a place to start over. Texas seemed like a good spot: The state offered plenty of open range and brimmed with feral cattle called longhorns. Many a man with nothing more than guts and grit built a fortune and a legacy by shagging longhorns from deep scrub and driving the tough, stubborn, nasty-tempered critters north to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. Others pushed herds to Montana and Wyoming to begin new lives where the West was even wilder.

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.)
The development of barbed wire in the mid-1870s — along with an incursion of sheepmen and farmers — put a crimp in the cattle drives by crisscrossing Texas’s wide-open spaces with miles and miles and miles of fence. To protect themselves and their herds from the yahoos who would use Texas range for something besides Texas cattle, wealthy ranchers strung wire around the land they owned or leased, often extending their fences across public land, as well. What once had been open range across which cowboys drove enormous herds of steak on the hoof became parceled off, causing no end of frustration and unfriendly behavior.

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.

In response, cattlemen hired armed men to guard their wire…with predictable results. Clashes became more violent, more frequent, and bloodier. In 1883 alone, at least three men were killed in Brown County, a hotspot of fence-cutting activity, during what came to be known as the Texas Fence-Cutter War.

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
The Texas Rangers were assigned to stop several fence-cutting outbreaks, and being the Texas Rangers, they proved remarkably effective…with one notable exception. In February 1885, Texas Ranger Ben Warren was shot and killed outside Sweetwater, Texas, while trying to serve a warrant for three suspected fence-cutters. Two of the three were convicted of Warren’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.

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.

I'll gift a copy of A Cowboy's Touch to one of today's commenters who answers this question: In post-Civil-War Texas, would you have been for or against fencing?


  1. Great info, Kathleen! Thanks. Somehow barbed wire seems so mean, and across open range, really bad. I remember reading about the horrific blizzards of the 1880's and how thousands of cows were just piled up against the fences, trying to find safety. Sob. Good post. xo

  2. Oh, duh. I forgot to answer the question. I think I'd be against it. First off, it hurts. Second, apparently a massive cause for violence back then.

  3. I think I would have been against it too. Great post thank you.

  4. Yes, ma'am, you have told it like it was. I loved the movie Open Range with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall...bloody, violent, all Texas.
    There are two sides to every story, and to this day I don't know which side I'd choose. If I have an enormous ranch and didn't want others to encroach on it, I'd build a barbed wire fence. Yes, I know I'm probably in the minority, but I believe in protecting what is mine. Thanks for the reminder of the violent range wars back then.
    As an aside, there was an enormous ranch, I think, in North Dakota. To keep their property safe, they brought herds down to the High Plains of Texas where there were no barbed wire fences..yeah, come on down and use our land. But in that huge area, the State of Texas opened the area to settlers and called it The Last Free Land in Texas. But when they all got out there, they had to deal with this N. Dakota (or wherever) cattle company who thought they owned the land. Those settlers quickly turned to growing cotton on what was once cattle ranges.
    Excuse the errors I might have about this, but it's close to being correct.

  5. The wide open spaces certainly began disappearing with more and more people buying land and making it privately owned. You would've thought settlers and cowboys would have seen this coming. Conflict was inevitable--and so was fencing. People just don't seem to take to change very well...and Texans can be a mighty stubborn lot.
    So many different kinds of barbed wire. It certainly was a creative solution to large areas that needed fencing.
    I really enjoyed your article, Kathleen, as always.

  6. Thank you for that very informative article and I would be for the fencing. Erecting those barb wire fences kept out a herd of cattle coming through and kept in what belonged as well protected the grass for the owner's herd. I think it was the dispute over property boundaries and not having clear lines of public lands open to grazing that brought on the fence wars. Land ownership was constantly fluctuating during the settlement era. Of course, unethical men which I think numbered a few would forge on ahead no matter what for what they believed was best for their stock. The law and the Rangers as you showed came to the rescue on the part of law-abiding settlers. Thank you.


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