Old West Texas was a land of vast grasslands uninterrupted by natural barriers. The landscape was devoid of rock and timber from which landowners might have erected fencing to mark land boundaries or control grazing livestock. In 1883, a clash occurred among landed cattlemen and maverick stockmen and farmers that would become known as the Texas Fence Cutting Wars.
Under the Homestead Act of 1862, the US government offered 160 acres in the west to those who were willing to reside on and improve their selected parcel of land. Farmers were seeking cheap, plentiful land on which to raise their families, crops, and small herds of livestock; the Homestead Act precipitated a sudden influx of migrants into Texas. Over time, some of these men accumulated more cattle than others; companies and syndicates began to invest in large cattle operations. Those with larger holdings of cattle and other livestock were variously known as cattle kings, cattlemen, or cattle barons.
Barbed wire had been available in Texas since the 1870s, but initially, it wasn’t considered to be a durable form of fencing by cattlemen; cattlemen initially thought that it might be as useless as the smooth wire fencing that had previously failed to hold their stock. On the other hand, mass-produced barbed wire was cheap and eventually seen as a viable product to fence in private land holdings, hold back maverick cattle from encroaching private land, and prevent landless cowmen from using privately owned land to graze their stock.
Beginning in the 1880s, livestock owned by newcomers were beginning to overcrowd the herds of the larger cattlemen. This led cattle kings to fence off their lands to prevent access to privately owned rangeland and water. It was an action that infuriated many homesteaders, particularly when some of these cattle kings not only fenced their own land, but public lands as well. Irate homesteaders retaliated by cutting the barbed wire fencing to allow their livestock access to public lands, and these activities prompted the Fence Cutting Wars.
Fence cutters (also called nippers) were mainly small-scale stockmen who used free ranges out of necessity; they resented its appropriation by men who were much wealthier than themselves. They also detested the fact that their stock could get tangled up in the fences, injuring or killing the animals. This was one of the down-sides to barbed wire; injuries to livestock caused by rusted barbed wire that went unnoticed and unattended led to screwworm infestations, causing the death of many cattle and a concurrent loss of revenue among cattle ranchers.
A severe drought in 1883 was especially hard on cattlemen, rich or poor. Creeks, rivers, and watering holes dried up almost completely in the summer and fall of that year; grass was withering all over the open range. Landless cattlemen had little choice but to move west, but when they did, they were faced with even more fencing. The move west also brought cattlemen into contact with homesteaders, mostly farmers who disliked the fences because they quite often crossed public roads and impeded travel. These were the conditions that prompted maverick cattlemen and homesteaders to protest the growing number of wire fences. The Texas Greenback Party soon joined the protests.
After several unsuccessful meetings, protests, and unanswered letters, landless stockmen decided that the only option left open to them was to cut the fences. Well-organized groups were formed; large scale fence nipping began. As the drought worsened, even legally-installed fencing was cut. Pastures were set on fire, and landowners were threatened with violence. Groups of cowboys calling themselves Owls, Javelinas, or Blue Devils embarked on fence cutting raids. Ranchers reciprocated by hiring gunmen to battle the anti-fence cowboys.
There were pro-fence activists as well. The most influential of these was a widowed and debt-ridden lady by the name of Mable Doss Day. Her protests to elected representatives and the governor led to the passage of legislation that would punish the act of fence cutting and pasture burning as felonies, with sentences of up to five years in state prison. The fence cutters didn’t care about the legislation, however, and the cutting of fences continued until 1889, when the governor sent in the Texas Rangers. Well, in truth, the governor sent in one Texas Ranger to stop the Texas Fence Cutting Wars. His name was Ira Aten … and what a clever fellow he was; I’ll post an article about him in the near future.
Nevertheless, the implications of the Fence Cutting Wars were numerous because to begin with, they represented the last attempt toward keeping the open range alive. After the Fence Cutting Wars, western settlement patterns increased. Barbed wire soon crossed more formerly open ranges. Illegal fencing would become more common than fence cutting, as barbed wire continued to make its way across the region. As one scholar noted, “barbed wire closed off land, closed people in, and enabled some people to acquire land illegally.
Overall, damages caused by fence-cutting was estimated to be in the range of $20 million by the fall of 1883. At least four people, including a Texas Ranger named Ben Warren, died in the conflict. The conflict was ultimately resolved when wealthy landowners settled their disagreements with maverick stockmen and farmers by agreeing to remove fence barriers across public roads and land not owned or leased by them, allowing fence-nippers passage through their gates, in return for an end to the wire-cutting.
The Fence Cutting Wars were not confined to Texas, although Texas experienced the fiercest fence nipping activities. Fencing wars also developed in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.