Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

Barbed wire brought major changes to the Old West


One of the simplest inventions of the 19th century, barbed wire (aka “barbwire,” “barbedwire” and even “bobwire”) wrought major changes in the nature and entire culture of the Old West. From playing a significant role in the nature of farming and ranching in the mid- to late-1800s to shaping the look of the entire Western part of the U.S. — particularly the Plains — these bits of barb twisted securely into strands of fencing wire cannot be overestimated.

Barbed wire made it possible to restrict travel across previously open range land. It shaped the location and development of communities throughout the Plains and the West, allowing or limiting access to vital
pasture land and water resources. It led to secure fields where crops could be planted and protected from some wildlife and from cattle herds.


Barbed wire allowed farmers and ranchers alike to “mark” their territory. Land surveying and ownership that relied on natural boundaries in earlier years could now be marked off precisely with barbed wire fencing. This permitted farmers to stake out fields for their crops, and it allowed ranchers to know exactly where they could graze livestock.

These uses of barbed wire led to serious conflicts in some cases and in some areas. In the late 1800s, there were range wars fought throughout the West, notably in Texas, Wyoming, and New Mexico, that were escalated by the presence and use of barbed wire. Lives were lost; property and livestock destroyed. Ultimately, however, the “wars” were settled and ultimately barbed wire fences “ruled” the land. It has been called by some the single most important technology in the “winning of the West.”

(I highly recommend an Internet website with excellent, detailed information about the development and role of barbed wire in the history and culture of the Old West: “The Rise of Barbed Wire and Its Transformation of the American Frontier.”)