In the second session of the Legislative Assembly for the Dakota Territory, the legislature meeting at Yankton passed a law which declared that no one “shall maliciously break down any fence belonging to or inclosing land not his own, or shall maliciously throw down or open any bars, gate or fence, and leave the same down, or open. The penalty, if found guilty was “imprisonment in the county jail not more than one year, nor less than three months, or by fine not exceeding two hundred dollars ($5,867 in 2022).”
A comprehensive fence law was passed by the 1865 – 67 legislature and it was expanded in 1868 – 69. However, in 1870 – 71, the Dakota Territory Legislature passed a one-page law of only two sections entitled “An Act to Establish a Ditch Fence as Lawful.”
That law provided: “That a ditch so excavated as to be three feet wide on the surface, three and one-half feet deep, and twelve inches wide at the bottom, with the soil taken therefrom, placed on the edge of one side of the ditch, exclusively, with one post placed firmly in the ground not a greater distance than twelve feet apart, with one rail or board, attached firmly thereto, and said rail, pole, or board, to be not less than twelve inches, nor more than eighteen inches from the surface of the soil as thrown up. That a ditch fence made as described in section one, shall be deemed a lawful fence when in good repair.”
That law was approved on January 11, 1871. And this was before the popular “Bobcat” of today. Then, the long handle shovel and pick were the only tools available for digging ditches. No South Dakota newspapers reported anything on the “Ditch Fence.” Apparently, it was not a popular or satisfactory fencing solution for the early homesteaders living out on the prairie.
During the Custer expedition of 1874 into the Black Hills, on July 30 they found the first trace of gold in the gravel at the bottom of French Creek several miles below the present town of Custer. In his communications of August 2 and 12 he reported the finding of gold by a number of the over a thousand men who accompanied him on this sixty day exploratory visit.
The first official news of this finding of gold near Custer was released on August 12 by the military headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota. Custer had barely left the scene of these discoveries before prospectors were making plans to invade the Black Hills.
The efforts of the military keep them out of the Black Hills was unsuccessful. A group of twenty-six from Sioux City reached French Creek near Custer on December 23. A crude fortification was built where they spent the remainder of that miserable winter.
A military troop from Fort Laramie finally caught up with them in early April and physically removed them to Cheyenne. The majority were eventually returned to Sioux City by rail.
The best efforts of the military was unsuccessful in discouraging prospectors from entering the sacred Black Hills. They came from all directions and from the most remote parts of America.
By 1879, the arrival of barb wire in the Dakota Territory prompted the editor of the Daily Press and Dakotan in Yankton to ask: “If the barbed wire fence comes into general use, where is the undecided politician to seat himself?”
It is most likely that the first barb wire brought into the Black Hills was initiated by the farmers who had settled in the lush valleys. They had come to the area to raise crops, produce, and cattle to provide food for the miners.
Their demand for wire was great even before the first railroad came to the Black Hills in 1885 – 86. It had to be hauled from the railheads at Pierre, Chamberlain, and Valentine. This kept many bullwhackers busy on the three roads for several years.
The August 24, 1883 issue of the Rapid City Journal reported: “Among all the things kept in a hardware store, there is no more staple article than barb wire. It has been impossible for our hardware merchants to keep up a supply equal to the demand.”
That same newspaper, on March 11, 1884 proclaimed: “Tom Sweeney has been unloading a large amount of wire during the past few days, and informs us it totals 10 carloads, the largest shipment of this staple ever made to the Rapid City market.”
At first, the big ranchers did very little fencing. In 1900, one rancher said he “could drive to Pierre, 80 miles . . . by team and buggy without opening a single gate.”
The exception to early fencing on the open range was their hay land which had to be harvested and used as feed during the winter months when grazing was not possible. Work during the winter months for the cowboy consisted of feeding the cattle when needed, keeping water holes open, checking cattle for injury or illness, and keeping the wolves and coyotes under control. In the early spring, the young calves were especially vulnerable.
It was after the buffalo disappeared that wolves began the wholesale slaughter of calves and colts.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on September 7, 2022