Monday, November 17, 2014
Don't Fence Me In: the Texas Fence-Cutter War
By Kathleen Rice Adams
“I’m Going to Leave Old Texas Now” (The Cowman's Lament)
I’m going to leave old Texas now.
They’ve got no use for the long-horn cow.
They’ve plowed and fenced my cattle range,
And the people there are all so strange.
I’ll take my horse and I’ll take my rope,
And hit the trail upon a lope.
Say adios to the Alamo,
And turn my head toward Mexico.
The hard, hard ground shall be my bed
And my saddle seat shall hold my head.
When I waken from my dreams
I’ll eat my bread and my sardines.
When I die, please bury me
In a narrow grave just six by three.
I’ll tell Saint Peter that I know
A cowboy’s soul ain’t white as snow.
Yet in that far-off cattle land
He sometimes acted like a man.
(Texas folksong, source obscure)
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Texas saw a massive influx of former Confederates dispossessed by the Civil War and seeking a place to start over. Texas seemed like a good spot: The state offered plenty of open range and brimmed with feral cattle called longhorns. Many a man with nothing more than guts and grit built a fortune and a legacy by shagging longhorns from deep scrub and driving the tough, stubborn, nasty-tempered critters north to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. Others pushed herds to Montana and Wyoming to begin new lives where the West was even wilder.
Between 1866 and 1890, cowboys drove an estimated twelve million longhorns and one million horses north. A crew of twelve to twenty men could push a herd of 2,000 to 3,000 beeves about ten to fifteen miles a day, reaching Kansas railheads in three to four months.
The development of barbed wire in the mid-1870s—along with an incursion of sheepmen and farmers—put a crimp in the cattle drives by crisscrossing Texas’s wide-open spaces with miles and miles and miles of fence. To protect themselves and their herds from the yahoos who would use Texas range for something besides Texas cattle, wealthy ranchers strung wire around the land they owned or leased, often extending their fences across public land, as well. What once had been open range across which cowboys drove enormous herds of beef on the hoof became parceled off, causing no end of frustration and unfriendly behavior.
Fence-cutting began almost as soon as the first wire went up. Small confrontations over “the Devil’s rope” happened frequently, with wire-nipping taking place in more than half of Texas counties.
In 1883, the conflict turned deadly. Instead of merely cutting fences that got in the way during trail drives, bands of armed cowboy vigilantes calling themselves names like Owls, Javelinas, and Blue Devils destroyed fences simply because the fences existed. Fence-cutting raids usually occurred at night, and often the vigilantes left messages warning the fence’s owner not to rebuild. Some went so far as to leave coffins nailed to fenceposts or on ranchers’ porches. During one sortie, vigilantes cut nineteen miles of fence, piled the wire on a stack of cedar posts, and lit a $6,000 fire.
In response, cattlemen hired armed men to guard their wire…with predictable results. Clashes became more violent, more frequent, and bloodier. In 1883 alone, at least three men were killed in Brown County, a hotspot of fence-cutting activity, during what came to be known as the Texas Fence-Cutter War.
The bloodiest period of the Fence-Cutter War lasted for only about a year, but in that period damages from fence-cutting and range fires totaled an estimated $20 million—$1 million in Brown County alone.
Although politicians stayed well away from the hot-button issue for about a decade, in early 1884 the Texas legislature declared fence-cutting a felony punishable by a prison term of one to five years. The following year, the U.S. Congress outlawed stringing fence across public land. Together, the new laws ended the worst of the clashes, although the occasional fracas broke out in the far western portion of Texas into the early part of the 20th Century.
The Texas Rangers were assigned to stop several fence-cutting outbreaks, and being the Texas Rangers, they proved remarkably effective…with one notable exception. In February 1885, Texas Ranger Ben Warren was shot and killed outside Sweetwater, Texas, while trying to serve a warrant for three suspected fence-cutters. Two of the three were convicted of Warren’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1888, a brief resurgence of fence-cutting violence erupted in Navarro County, prompting famed Texas Ranger Ira Aten to place dynamite charges at intervals along one fence line. Aten’s method was a mite too extreme for the Texas Adjutant General, who ordered the dynamite removed. The mere rumor of the explosive’s presence brought fence-cutting to a rapid halt in the area, though.
In my debut novel Prodigal Gun, a barbed-wire fence touches off a war in the Texas Hill Country, bringing an infamous gunman to Texas for the first time since he left to fight for the Confederacy sixteen years earlier.
To celebrate the book’s release, I’ll give an e-copy in the winner’s choice of formats to one person who comments today!
A dangerous man. A desperate woman. A love no war could kill.
Widowed rancher Jessie Caine buried her heart with the childhood sweetheart Yankees killed on a distant battlefield. Sixteen years later, as a Texas range war looms and hired guns arrive to pursue a wealthy carpetbagger’s agenda, Jessie discovers the only man she ever loved isn’t dead.
At least not yet.
Embittered by a brother’s betrayal, notorious gunman Calhoun is a dangerous man, come home to do an unsavory job. A bushwhacker’s bullet nearly takes his life on Jessie’s land, trapping him in a standoff between the past he tried to bury and the infamy he never will. One taste of the only woman he ever loved puts more than his life and her ranch in the crossfire.
With a price on his head, a debt to a wealthy employer around his neck, and a defiant woman tugging at his heart, Calhoun’s guns may not be enough to keep him from the grave. Caught between his enemies and hers, Jessie faces an agonizing choice: Which of her dreams will die?
Paperback will be available Thursday, Nov. 20
Kathleen Rice Adams
A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks…even Kathleen’s good guys wear black hats.
Visit Kathleen on the web at: