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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

A barbed wire fence provides a resting spot for a scissor-tailed flycatcher
(2012.201.B0091.0565, photo by P. Hellstern, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS).

Don Pierce and his collection of barbed wire, 1967
(2012.201.B1054.0646, photo by Tony Wood, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS).


As one of the three classic technological innovations that assisted in the economic development of the western United States (the others being the windmill and the revolver), barbed wire played a vital role in the development of the prairie-plains of Indian Territory after the Civil War. "Barbed wire" consists of one or more strands of metal wire implanted with sharpened metal spikes, or barbs, at regular intervals. Smooth-wire fencing was in general use when the first practical barbed wire appeared in 1868, created in New York by Michael Kelly. Because it used very sharp spikes, which often caused injuries to horses, cattle, and men, it was nicknamed "vicious" wire. In 1874 Joseph Glidden patented a more marketable "obvious" barbed wire (with larger, dull-pointed, and safer barbs). Although hundreds of varieties were patented, the most popular were 2-Point Baker and 2-Point Glidden. While most historians generally credit farmers with being the first to use the new product, in the Indian Territory barbed wire was first adopted by cattlemen soon after its invention.

After the Civil War ended in the Indian Territory, cattle raising became an important economic activity, both among the American Indian nations, to whom the region belonged, and to white ranchers from Texas or elsewhere who leased grazing land from them. Contemporary ranching practice on the Great Plains, and also in the prairie-plains of the Indian Territory, allowed cattle to freely roam and graze, restricted only by canyons, rivers, and other natural barriers. Cowboys kept the herds within the owner's range, doctored and branded them, and protected them from predators and thieves. Whether conducted by American Indians or by white lessees, open-range ranching was the common practice until the introduction of barbed-wire fences.

Open-range ranching gave rise to the semiannual roundup, spring and fall, in which cowboys from various ranches combined their efforts to gather the animals. When the cattle had been assembled in one place, they were sorted by brand, and each owner herded his own animals back to his territory. After the spring roundup the cattle were moved to the southern ranges. After the fall roundup cattle were selected to be sent to market. Cattle raised in this way were usually wild, tough longhorns capable of surviving the environmental disasters that might befall animals wandering in "loose" herds. The roundup proceeded in a circuit from ranch to ranch. For example, ranchers in the Cherokee Outlet organized a roundup circuit as early as 1880, and it extended into Kansas. Another circuit started in northeastern New Mexico and moved eastward into present Oklahoma. In the Chickasaw Nation one of several circuits began at Atoka (in the Choctaw Nation) and moved northwest and then north to present Ada, southwest to near present Roff and Sulphur, and back to Atoka.

The open-range system on the plains allowed interregional herd movement. In winter, Kansas cattle sometimes drifted southward from the Platte and Arkansas rivers into the Public Land Strip or Cherokee Strip or southward from the Beaver (North Canadian) River into more southerly ranges, even as far south as the Little and Red rivers. Fencing could correct the problem, and thus the barbed-wire product found early application in the Texas Panhandle.

In 1880–81 cattlemen there constructed a 175-mile-long drift fence from the Indian Territory border westward to New Mexico. Its probable location was approximately fifteen miles south of the southern border of the Strip (or No Man's Land, the Oklahoma Panhandle). Opposition to this kind of long-distance fencing surfaced in the severe winters of the mid-1880s when thousands of cattle piled up against the wire and died during a series of blizzards. The catastrophe was a huge financial loss and ever after has been known as the "big die-up." Nevertheless, during the 1880s closed-land ranching developed as the norm throughout the Indian Territory.

In the Cherokee Outlet of northern Indian Territory, large-scale cattle raising developed in the late 1870s. Individual Texas cattlemen and corporate ranch managers began to enclose numerous areas with fences beginning in 1882, generally with the Cherokees' approval. These barriers, using locally cut timber as fence posts and strung with barbed wire, allowed a rancher to keep his herds on their home range and prevented other herds from using his grazing lands. Cattlemen enclosed horse pastures to keep cattle out, marked cattle ranges to keep herds from drifting too far, and separated areas to protect other property. Fences also halted the incursions of potentially Texas fever–infected cattle from south of the Red River. However, in early 1883 the U.S. Department of the Interior decided that the fencing was an "improvement" (implying land ownership) and threatened to remove all of it. This stimulated the ranchmen to incorporate the Cherokee Strip Live Stock Association in early 1883. It soon negotiated a five-year land lease with the Cherokee Nation. The fencing was declared to be temporary, was deemed property of the Cherokee Nation, and was allowed to remain. When the lease was ended, the federal government ordered all cattle to be removed from the Outlet by October 1890. Ranchers removed their cattle but left much of the fencing. It was salvaged by ranchers from Kansas and later by area farmers after the Cherokee Outlet opening of September 1893. South of the Outlet, a similar drift fence extended westward from Vici for several miles.

Among the five major southeastern tribes of the Indian Territory, land was owned in common, and fencing was not a traditional way to protect property or cattle. In the Cherokee Nation the range generally remained unfenced until Texas ranchers began leasing land there. Officially, the Cherokee Nation remained all free range, although observers noted fifteen- to twenty-mile-long drift fences in places, sometimes eight or ten miles apart. After allotment, free range no longer existed, as Indians thereafter held small plots, and most of the cattlemen left.

In the Chickasaw Nation of south-central Oklahoma, open-range ranching was practiced on a small scale before the Civil War. Chickasaws ranched extensively, running an estimated 140,000 head in their nation by 1882. They also used the new wire. For example, Montford T. Johnson and his son E. B. (Edward) operated a sizeable ranch on the western side of the nation. E. B. Johnson observed the use of barbed wire on a trip to the East in 1885, and he brought back enough to enclose a mile-square horse pasture. After observing that the wire did not cut up his livestock, his neighbors also began using it. In the 1880s, because the white ranchers had been enclosing huge ranges with wire, thereby impeding traffic across the nation and implying an "ownership" of the land by non-Indians, the Chickasaw Nation's legislature limited pastures to 640 acres. In April 1889 the Chickasaw legislature empowered Ben Pikey and a group of other ranchers to build a "barb wire drift line" along the entire length of the main (South) Canadian River in their home county, in order to protect their property from settlers coming into the Unassigned Lands to the north. By 1906, when the allotment of Chickasaw lands to individual Indians was complete, pasture fences had become common.

In Old Greer County, technically a part of Texas until 1896, Texas cattlemen also practiced free-range cattle raising and used barbed wire to keep their herds apart. Numerous interviews in the 1930s Indian-Pioneer History Collection refer to lengthy fences running north and south and in one instance, the Day Land and Cattle Company apparently erected one east to west across the entire region. Anecdotal mention is also made of cattle freezing to death by piling up against barbed-wire fences during the "big die-up."

Barbed-wire fencing gradually became useful for keeping cattle out of, rather than within, areas. As homesteaders and other settlers moved into newly opened regions, they adopted the practice of fencing their fields. William Beaumont, who in 1888 settled near present Mangum, claimed to have fenced the first ten-acre farming patch in Old Greer County. However, American Indian ranchers such as E. B. Johnson saw barbed wire's other utility, and he fenced in several mile-square plots and hired farmers to grow various crops there.

The spread of barbed-wire fencing spelled the end of the open-range cattle industry and the roundup circuit as well. Ultimately, and more importantly, fencing of grazing land in all areas of Oklahoma has facilitated the development of high-grade, registered cattle breeds, such as the Hereford and the Angus, that produce superior, more marketable beef. In the process, as noted by Great Plains historian Walter Prescott Webb, the open range gave way to the enclosed pasture, and "ranching" became "stock-farming." The primary beneficiaries of barbed wire, however, were the homesteaders who came to Oklahoma Territory in the numerous land runs and other openings, established farms, and put up fences. Many farmers added cattle raising to their agricultural pursuits. The cattle industry remained a significant income-producing activity throughout the twentieth century in Oklahoma, due in large part to the universal adoption of barbed-wire fencing in the 1880s.

Dianna Everett


Mary Ann Anders, Ranching Resource Protection Planning Documents, Regions One–Seven, 1984–1985, State Historic Preservation Office, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

Edward Everett Dale, "The Cherokee Strip Live Stock Association," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 5 (March 1927).

Arrell M. Gibson, "Ranching on the Southern Great Plains," Journal of the West 6 (January 1987).

Neil R. Johnson, The Chickasaw Rancher, ed. C. Neil Kingsley (Rev. ed.; Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2001).

Henry D. McCallum and Frances T. McCallum, The Wire That Fenced the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965).

William W. Savage, Jr., "Barbed Wire and Bureaucracy: The Formation of the Cherokee Strip Live Stock Association," Journal of the West 7 (July 1968).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “Barbed Wire,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=BA016.

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