How Did Barbed Wire Change the West?

Barbed wire established finite boundaries among adjacent farming lands, facilitated the work of some ranchers and farmers and sparked disputes over rights to land and water. Barbed wire first saw use in the American plains during the late 1860s. Farmers and large-scale ranchers turned to barbed wire as a cheaper and equally effective method of controlling livestock and preventing others from using their lands, increasing economic production and settlement populations.

Barbed wire proved beneficial for large-scale ranchers because it reduced the land areas cattle could roam. It also secured farmlands from wandering cattle and pioneers, which facilitated the growth of crops. Barbed wire proved economically efficient for these early American settlers too because it was less expensive and more readily available than wooden fencing.

While some ranchers welcomed barbed wire, other Americans voiced concern. Settlers found the once open lands of the West off limits, which restricted access to water and available land. Ranchers with small operations, who relied on public lands, faced widespread losses of their cattle herds as the animals lost access to food and drinking water. Barbed wire also forced many Native Americans off the open lands they once inhabited, leaving them with limited settlement options. In response, some marginalized citizens initiated lawsuits and participated in range wars to protest fencing.