fence off

Fence Cutting War

The Fence Cutting War (ca. 1883 through 1888, with sparce instances into the early 20th century) was a dispute between advocates of the open range, and ranchers who wished to fence off their property, all taking place in Texas.

1883 and 1884

The first real incidents of the war started in 1883, when open range advocates, cowboys really, began cutting any fences they came across. A drought early in that year brought on a desperation by non-land owning cattlemen, who due to fenced properties found it all the more difficult to find the water and grass necessary to support their herds. Although it may seem that the open range cowboys were completely in the wrong, in fact there were many cases when large ranch owners not only fenced property they owned, but also property considered public land. This led to hostilities between the open range cowboys and the ranchers, with both believe themselves to be right.

By the beginning of 1884, cowboy bands calling themselves such names as the Owls, Javelinas, or Blue Devils, were cutting fences as they came to them. In many cases they would ride specifically for the purpose of finding fences to cut, while at other times they only cut fences as their herds passed through an area. By the middle of that year, ranchers were employing armed bands to battle the anti-fence cowboys. At least three men were killed in clashes during that period.

Newspapers generally condemned the cutters, but at times indicated that the ranchers who were fencing off their property were not entirely blameless, due to many fencing property they did not own. Little was done to mediate between the two groups, but in Clay County, Texas, the two groups did meet, with the ranchers agreeing to remove fences built across public roads and along areas not owned by them, gates would be built to allow farmer access, and fence cutting would end.

By the Fall of 1883, more than 20 million dollars in damage had been caused by the fence cutters across Texas, with 1 million dollars of the damage being in Brown County, Texas alone. In January, 1884, Governor John Ireland called for a special assembly to resolve the issues. Property owners were ordered to remove fences placed across property they did not own, and to provide gates every three miles, and to keep the gates in repair. Fence cutting was ordered to stop completely, and for all practical purposes this stopped large scale fence cutting.

1885 through 1888 and after

However, it did not stop all together. On February 10, 1885, Texas Ranger Ben Warren was shot and killed in Sweetwater, Texas while hunting fence cutters for whom he held warrants. Two of the three men suspected in his murder were sentenced to life in prison.

There were sporatic incidents in the years that followed, with a brief surge in 1888, mainly in Navarro County, Texas, prompting Texas Rangers to be dispatched. Texas Ranger Ira Aten placed dynamite at some fenced locations, rigged to explode if the fence was cut. The Adjutant General disapproved, and ordered the charges removed, however rumors persisted that dynamite charges remained, and despite them having been removed it did prevent extensive cutting. By the end of that year, most fence cutting had ended although there were isolated incidents into the early 20th century.

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