By the middle of the 1880s, barb wire had come to South Dakota. About fifteen years later, cowboys rounding up livestock in the far western part of the state which was still “everybody’s pasture” came into contact with the wire and the sharp barbs. They saw brands from Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and even Canada. And directly in front of them was a sure sign that the open range was about to change.
One evening while sleeping, near the wire fence of a local rancher, a Midwestern thunderstorm passed overhead and lightning struck nearby. The intense storm was accompanied with the sound of running horses, breaking fence posts, and sounds not usually heard on the prairie.
During the early morning hours, the night hawk brought in only a portion of their horses. There had been over four hundred horses in their remuda which hit that barb wire fence. A lot of valuable and well-trained horses were ruined. The rest were gone.
It was estimated that nearly forty were cut so badly they had to be shot and about the same number were simply turned loose to either live or die on the range. The scene that morning was the bloodiest and worst sight many of those cowboys had ever seen. That was life on the roundup in 1898 out on the plains of western South Dakota.
Barb wire, strands of wire twisted together, with barbs at regular, close intervals had arrived and was becoming well-established on the prairie. From the beginning, this simple invention came to be known as “the devil’s rope.”
The land which the earliest settlers encountered in their migration west during the last half of the 19th century was not like anything they had seen before. This was the first time they saw vast, treeless stretches of prairie empty of any distinguishing features.
It was an ocean of grass and wildflowers for as far as the eye could see. With no trees for fences and no stones to build walls, the early homesteaders needed more practical methods to contain the livestock and protect their property.
Some planted hedgerows which were stock-proof living walls of thorny trees and bushes, such as Osage orange. According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term “Osage orange”, an ornamental thorny tree, was in 1817.
During the last half of the 19th century — up until the time barbed wire became widely available and inexpensive — settlers and farmers throughout much of the eastern half of the United States planted their fences. The tree which they most generally used was the “Osage orange” tree. It was sometimes called “prairie hedge,” “hedge apple,” “horse apple,” and “bowwood.”
When the early French settlers moved west of the Mississippi River — into what is now eastern Texas and Oklahoma and western Arkansas — they encountered the Osage Indians. They were known far and wide for making bows that were superior weapons for fighting and hunting. The unusual tree that the Osage used for making their bows was unknown to the French. They immediately named it “wood of the bow.” This later was corrupted by the pioneers and eventually came to be called “bowwood.”
As homesteaders moved west of the Mississippi, it was natural that they would bring the Osage orange tree with them. Daniel Freeman was the first person to file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862 near Beatrice, Nebraska. He filed his claim about 10 minutes after midnight at the Land Office in Brownville, NE on January 1, 1863.
He was required to build structures needed on the farm and improve the property. One of the features of his homestead was an Osage orange hedgerow on the border of his property. This was planted in the early 1870s and pruned to keep animals out of his productive fields. Remains of this hedgerow still exist on the site of his homestead today. He also planted corn, wheat, oats, and fruit trees.
The biggest disadvantage of using the thick and thorny Osage orange hedges for fencing was that it took five years for them to grow. The homesteader had only five years in which to make the necessary improvements and acquire his homestead.
Where used for a fence, the thorny Osage orange later became a source of fence posts especially to be used at the corners. There are ranches in the west today who still have some of these in their fence line which are over a hundred years old. They are almost as good as when they were put in the ground.
In 1871, fencing became a hot topic among newspapers, agricultural publications, and the government. The U. S. Dept. Agriculture and the Land Office published a study which found that it was impossible to settle the west because of the lack of fences.
This started the mad rush to come up with an affordable and practical solution. Many different patent applications for barb-wire-like fences were filed during the next couple of years. The designs varied and some were even what we would today call “bizarre.”
The design that ultimately won-out was by Joseph Glidden. His design had sharp metal barbs twisted around a strand of smooth wire, with a second intertwined piece of wire so that the barbs couldn’t slide.
Those living on the farm and ranch in South Dakota today are very familiar with “the devils rope.” They have all at one time had to fix fence!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on August 31, 2022