What Common Thing Was Known As “Devil’s Rope” Shortly After It Was First Created?
Answer: Barbed Wire
As recently as the early 1870s, the midwestern United States was considered effectively impossible to settle because, despite the vast and fertile plains that could easily support both crops and livestock, there was one critical component missing: good fencing.
Wood was impractical on account of both the lack of old growth forests and mills in the area as well as the sheer amount of lumber it would take to fully fence off huge plots of farm land. Smooth wire fences were attempted but the wire posed little resistance to lumbering cattle who would bust right through it to graze on whatever they could find. Life was great out west if you were a cattleman who wanted to let your herd graze freely (and often on the delicious crops carefully planted on nearby farmland), but it was miserable for everyone else. The problem of fencing and keeping livestock away from farm land proved so great that many settlers simply abandoned the idea of carving out a piece of the midwest for themselves and returned east.
In the end what tamed the land wasn’t gunslingers, the iron will of cattle ranchers, or the persistence of farmers, but a very ingenious development: barbed wire. By twisting smooth wire and inserting wire prongs every so often, the wire fencing that had previously proven worthless in stopping cattle suddenly became a worthwhile barrier that protected farms and their crops from free range herds. Within a few years, millions of pounds of barbed wire were produced annually and deployed almost exclusively across the midwest.
Although the farmers loved how well it protected their land, it was hated by nearly everyone else. Cattle ranchers hated it because it could maim or kill their cattle, many farmers fenced off land they didn’t own, and it cut large swathes of federal lands into patchwork grazing areas. Native Americans hated it even more as it not only halted the movement of cattle herds, but also those of the buffalo, a then prolific animal which the cultures of Native Americans in the area depended on. The deployment of barbed wire across the midwest coupled with the expansion of white settlements proved so detrimental to the buffalo population that it earned barbed wire the nickname “devil’s rope”; by the end of the 19th century, and only a few decades after the invention of barbed wire, the population of buffalo had been reduced from the tens of millions to less than a thousand.
Image by Mike Knlec.