Monday, November 17, 2014

Don't Fence Me In: the Texas Fence-Cutter War

(photo with permission from Darius Norvilas)

Don’t Fence Me In: the Texas Fence-Cutter War

By Kathleen Rice Adams

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!

Prodigal Gun
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:


Unknown said...

Sarah, thank you for hosting me today. As you already know, you're one of my favorite Southern Belles. It's always a pleasure and an honor to visit The Romance Room.

HUGS, sweetie!

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Holy cow, it will be very interesting to see how you pull Calhoun out of the fire, Kathleen. Jessie must be a smart woman made of barbed wire herself to have made the ranch work for such a long time on her own. I love a tough heroine. They really need someone strong to love them.
I knew about the fight for open range, but I really didn't know that Texas had a fence cutting war and that barbed wire started in Texas.
This was quite an informative article.
All good things to your corner of the universe.

Unknown said...

The concept for barbed wire has been around since 1867, patented by a man in Ohio. In its modern form, it was patented by Joseph Glidden (not the paint guy) of Illinois.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of his wire to one of the largest markets in the West, in 1881 Glidden bought a chunk of land in the Panhandle. He named the place the Frying Pan Ranch and fenced the entire property with barbed wire to keep 12,000 cattle from straying.

Yes, I took a few liberties with dates in Prodigal Gun, but sometimes fiction requires that sort of thing. :-)

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Texas has such an amazing history. Thank you for that added information about Glidden, who invented barbed wire. The first thing I thought when I saw his name was, is this the paint guy? Good thing you said he wasn't right off.
I looked up the song "Don't Fence Me In" last night and was surprised that it was written by Cohen in 1934, and first recorded by Roy Rogers in 1935.
Your article is crammed with good stuff, Kathleen.

Unknown said...

Fence-cutting was widespread during those decades, yes, and wars? More than one over those fences. The open range life finally died, but man, did it give a good fight.
The cowman and the farmer.
The cowman and the sheep herders.
The barbed wire fences.
All conflicted with the idea of open range. It's one big thing that made Texas...but even those cattlemen couldn't win and keep their open range.
I thought about writing a bride series based on "The Last Free Land in Texas," which was a N-
S strip of land out in the Panhandle close to the NM border. (think the XIT and the Spade ranches) The pioneers who went out there lived in dugouts (the main reason I moved my bride series!)and they used windmill water--well, they stole it--from enormous unfenced ranches already established. One enormous ranch was based in North Dakota, but unofficially had claimed land for their cattle. Why? No fences. But they patrolled their ranch borders with armed gunmen. However, they finally gave up and took their cattle home.
My favorite movie--well, one anyway--is Open Range--Kevin Costner and Robert Duval.
Great post!

Unknown said...

I didn't realize Roy Rogers was the first to record "Don't Fence Me In"! I can still see him singing the song while riding Trigger.

Good heavens. I'm really getting old. :-D

Unknown said...

Celia, there was something sad about the end of the open range in Texas, wasn't there? Texas's wide-open spaces disappeared with the introduction of barbed wire in the mid-1870s.

The fence wars were typical of the Texas attitude, though, I think: wild men and women taming a wild land and not afraid to defend what they considered theirs. Texans have always been a rowdy bunch. You can speak to that better than almost anyone else, having had ancestors in Texas before the war for Texas independence.

Big HUGS to you, dear friend!

Kirsten Lynn said...

Extremely fascinating post, Tex. I hate to admit, I knew nothing of the Texas Fence Cutter War. That crazy barbed wire sure did cause a lot of ruckus throughout the West. Just show a cowboy the stuff and he turned into a rabid bull.

I was never too fond of the stuff, myself, on my grandparents farm. It slowed down my adventures, which was probably my grandpa's plan all along.

Unknown said...

I'm surprised somebody didn't build a cage out of the stuff and stick you in it, Rustler. :-D

Did I tell you Prodigal Gun mentions WYO? The hero spent some time there in the middle of a...uh...range disagreement partially about barbed wire. Darn Wyomingites. ;-)

Kirsten Lynn said...

Aw, Mason, was up here in WYO? The cold must have scared him away. :)

Poor man, dealing with Wyomingites during a range...shall we say disagreement...I'm surprised he made it back to Jesse at all. :)

I just can't wait until PG uploads on the old Kindle. Getting ready for Thanksgiving or not, I'll be reading it this weekend for sure.

Unknown said...

The poor guy did have a bit of trouble getting back to Texas after turning into an icicle with guns the way he did. Jessie warmed him right on up, though. ;-)

I hope you enjoy PG as much as I enjoyed Home Fries. Fires! I mean Home FIRES! ;-)

Alison E. Bruce said...

I remember my mother singing "Don't Fence Me In" and "Home Home on the Range". Although a Brit by birth, she had a thing for the old west. Between that and my father's love of Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey, it's no wonder I gravitated south west in my imagination.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Until Livia's book, I didn't know Texas had an actual name for the range wars. I guess folks down there are a little more organized. What a fascinating period, though--when the cattle industry morphed from free ranging to fenced-in. I'm not sure it helped or hindered those yay-hoos with running irons.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the wonderful and interesting article. I just love old west history. The excerpt was awesome also. Who doesnt love a romantic western with cowboys. All the best.

Unknown said...

Ali, y'all have your own western tradition up there in Canada, too! Who can resist a hunky Mountie?

You have got to make a trip to Texas one of these days. We'll regale each other with quotations from Zane Grey. ;-) You're already an honorary Texan. :-)

Unknown said...

Trail Boss, I don't think it made a dime's bit of difference to those scalawags with runnin' irons. They're still cutting fences and stealing cattle to this day.

Texans organized? There' a new concept. :-D

Unknown said...

Thanks for popping in, JoAnne! I agree with you about western history -- and who in their right mind can resist a hunky cowboy? :-)

Renaissance Women said...

As usual, your post is not only educational, it is a quick and fun read. I love this type of post. History, in all its glory and horror is worth rememebering. Thank you. Doris

Unknown said...

Doris, I'm always happy to see you! We history buffs gotta stick together. Thanks for your kind comments.


Unknown said...

Kathleen, that was an interesting piece of history I knew nothing about. I enjoy learning more about this county's history and fascinating facts from you. I only associated barbed wire with the Death Camps in Germany. I had no clue it's been around since 1867. I am looking forward to reading your book. That sounds like an interesting story.

Unknown said...

Claudia, the death camps in Europe were one of the cruelest uses for barbed wire, weren't they? It's bad enough that animals occasionally tangle with the stuff, but when it's deliberately used to confine human beings for nothing more than genetics over which they had no control... I'll never forget those horrifying images.

Thank you for your kind words, sweetie. They mean the world to me. I've got your name in the hat for the drawing!


Cheryl Pierson said...

Kathleen, when I worked at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum here in OKC, they had a room that was NOTHING BUT barbwire samples in these vertical drawers that pulled out. One day when I was working, this guy came in where I was, and said, "Ma'am, come here! I've got to show you this. I can't believe it!" I followed him in to the room and he puts his hands out and says, "Look at this! A whole room with nothing but bob-war! My God, I didn't know such a place existed!" LOLLOL Great post--as always, I enjoyed it so much. You do good work! And I'm sure glad Mason worked his way back down to Texas...and everything that awaits him there.


Unknown said...

Okie, I'm glad Mason worked his way back to Texas, too, the stubborn coot. :-D

I'm going to have to come up there and visit that museum. I've always wanted to do so but never had time. I'll have to make some.


jhon said...

Your efforts have seemingly come to naught; the various, sometimes conflicting tracks you've been following into the distance have all but disappeared. Last month's job leads have dried up. yard fencing