West Won by Wire? Well…


“Barbed wire killed the Wild West.”

Good. There’s that sorted out.

Wait, what?

The study of history, among its many positives, disabuses one of simple explanations. It also forces one to confront vaguely defined phrases, like, “The Wild West.”

If you want the quick and answer to this question, it is: “Sort of.” If you want the full answer, read on.


It all started when schoolteacher Joseph Glidden left New Hampshire for Illinois in 1843. He and his family settled in rural De Kalb County, but their new life was shattered when Glidden’s wife Clarissa and his two sons died in 1843.

Glidden would remarry, but his isolation and profound loss likely left him with plenty of time to think. Surrounded by the expanse of rural northern Illinois, he had an idea.

The westward expansion of the United States saw many tensions on the frontier. One if these was between ranchers and farmers, cropland versus grazing land. How to separate them? Traditional split rail fences were time -consuming and needed a large supply of wood, something that didn’t exist in the West.

Enter Glidden’s idea. It’s pretty simple: long wires with smaller, sharpened wires twisted around them, dip it in zinc to prevent rusting (galvanizing), nail it to regularly spaced posts. He patented this barbed wire in 1874.

Glidden’s patent for barbed wire, 1874.  The Wild West’s death certificate?  Not exactly.

Now, fencing could be built whenever and wherever it was needed at a fairly rapid rate. Cows and sheep stayed put. Thus ends the Wild West, consigned to memory, terminal cuteness, misunderstanding, or irrelevance.

This explanation, while tidy, is useless by itself. It ignores little things like the spread of transportation networks, immigration, incorporation of territories into states, the depression of the 1890s, and Frederick Jackson Turner.

What can be said of Glidden’s elegantly simple idea is that it was a tool (and perhaps a product) of the changing geographical reality in the middle of North America.

I’ll readily admit that the previous statement isn’t as eye-catching as the one about barbed wire. Another thing one learns in studying the past is that one tells the story that one can.

Fortunately, the past teems with small stories like this that lead to larger insights. Glidden’s wire didn’t kill the Wild West, but it got you thinking about what did do it, right?

If so, then my job here is done (for now).

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