Do you ever wonder what happened to the cowboys? Obviously we still have them in spirit and many still claim to be "cowboys" but the real cattlemen, the men who earned their living driving cows from one place to another, are a thing of history and legend. What caused these men to hang up their chaps, give up the open range, and settle in to a stationary life. Recently I listened to a story about one of the big contributing factors. The beginning of the story is below. You can read or listen to the full story at http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/devils-rope/
Barbed Wire - The Devil’s Rope
"In the mid 1800s, not many (non-native) Americans had ever been west of the Mississippi. When Frederick Law Olmstead visited the west in the 1850s, he remarked that the plains looked like a sea of grasses that moved “in swells after a great storm.” Massive herds of buffalo wandered the plains. Cowboys shepherded cattle across long stretches of no man’s land. It was truly the wild and unmanaged west, but it was all about to change, due, in large part, to one very simple invention that would come to be known as “the devil’s rope.”
From the colonial era through the early 19th Century, the middle of the United States was populated mainly by Native Americans and a growing population of cowboys, or “cattlemen” as they were often called. Most of the American west was divided into “territories” and, apart from Texas, most of the land was owned by the federal government. The middle swath of the country was so unexplored that it was often labeled on maps as “The Great American Desert.”
Then in the mid-1800s, a notion of manifest destiny swept the nation—the idea that the United States could, and should, span coast to coast. The U.S. government wanted farmers to move west, because farmers, unlike cattlemen, would establish communities and build permanent settlements. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, offering 160 acres of free land to anyone who settled and farmed it for five years.
Would-be settlers started heading west in droves but they quickly encountered a problem: fencing. In that great “sea of grasses,” there weren’t many trees to use for lumber, so although the land was fertile, there was no way to stop the many cattle from trampling and destroying crops.
Farmers tried using thick and thorny Osage orange hedges for fencing, but they take about five years to grow, making them largely impractical.
Settlers also tried smooth wire fencing, but the cattle could bust through it. People were getting frustrated; many abandoned their homesteads.
Fencing became a hot topic among newspapers, agricultural publications, and the government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture the Land Office published a study in 1871, which found that it was impossible to settle the west because of a lack of fences.
But then came the solution: barbed wire…."
Read more or listen to the audio here http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/devils-rope/
While your here check out Andy's depiction of the west in our True Beginnings opening.