Life in the Old West

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Railroads brought people, but fences settled Great Plains region

While the onward march of the railroads is generally credited with bringing people to the Great Plains, it was only the technology of fencing that made serious settlement of the region possible. According to writer Richard O’Connor in his fascinating history of railroad expansion, “Iron Wheels and Broken Men,” railroads could have been built across and through the Plains as early as the 1850s and filled the region with people — but the development of effective fencing to make the region work for serious farming and settlement of the lands didn’t come along until the 1870s.

Why was this true? What was so important about fences and fencing? The answer sounds like something from an overused Western movie plot that pits ranchers against settlers, or cattlemen against homesteaders might be the proper cliche. Cliche or not, there really was a serious issue about homesteaders coming west on the railroad to buy land, only to find they had to put out a great deal of money on fencing purely because neighboring cattlemen wanted unrestrained grazing — and wooden rail fencing was hard to come by on the largely treeless expanses of grasslands.

In his book, O’Connor quotes extensively from an 1871 U.S. Department of Agriculture report that spoke about these expenses and financial problems a group of homesteaders seeking to settle and farm the land might face when they undertook to settle in the Great Plains.

That U.S.D.A. report regarding Plains settlement acknowledged that a homesteader could go west and buy a farm for about $20 in land-office fees, but that he might easily have to spend at least another $1,000 pooled with the money of others and put up extensive fencing to keep out cattle from a single stock owner. The report based its estimates on a group of 20 settlers seeking to form a community contending with that single cattleman who might already be:

… rich in cattle, and becoming richer by feeding them without cost on the unpurchased prairie. This little community of twenty families cannot see the justice of the requirement which compels the expenditure of $20,000 to protect their crops from injury by the nomadic cattle of their unsettled neighbor, which may not be worth $10,000 altogether.”

Because of the harsh environment — often lack of rainfall and natural lakes or even streams — the Plains grasslands would not permit European-style hedges grown as natural fencing. It was only with the invention and wide availability of barbed wire.

Barbed wire (also referred to in writings about the West as “barb wire,” “barbwire,” “bob wire,” and “bobbed wire”) was first patented in the late 1860s and early 1870s. It became widespread throughout the Great Plains during the 1870s and ’80s. It was the first truly effective fencing material both cheap enough, readily available, and strong enough to control cattle grazing. That was a good thing if you were a homesteader/farmer, and not good at all if you were a cattle rancher. The fencing of the West really did lead to a lot of tension and violence, as well as political corruption and financial gains/losses — all of it depending on which side of the fence you were: farmer or rancher.

The railroads indeed brought thousands of settlers to the Great Plains. Almost all of those brought to the Plains by the railroads were eager to start new lives, often escaping old lives in the East. But many of them also were shocked in one way or another by the harsh realities life on the Plains. Those who survived the shock learned to cope with the less than advertised environment and circumstances. Those who couldn’t adapt and go on, and those unable or unwilling to afford such necessities as good fences, lost out.

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