Barbed Wire

By: Frances T. McCallum and James Mulkey Owens

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: July 22, 2020

By the 1870s westward expansion of the agricultural frontier across the Great Plains had been halted by the lack of adequate fencing material to protect crops from cattle. Texas substitutes for the stone and wood fences common in the East included ditches, mud fences, and thorny hedges, the most popular being those of Osage orange or bois d'arc. Bois d'arc is native to Texas and Arkansas, and export of its seed was an early enterprise in Texas. Hedges of it were claimed to be "pig tight, horse high, and bull strong." Experiments with varieties of thorn hedges and smooth wire failed to solve the problems of plains ranchers and farmers, however, and so their features were combined into barbed wire fences.

On November 24, 1874, Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, was granted a patent for fencing material consisting of barbs wrapped around a single strand of wire and held in place by twisting that strand around another. Known as the "Winner," this was the most commercially successful of the hundreds of eventual barbed wire designs. Another DeKalb inventor, Jacob Haish, who had applied for a patent on a similar "S barb" design earlier in 1874, undertook a protracted legal battle that failed to halt the progress of the Glidden design. In partnership with Isaac L. Ellwood, Glidden sold his interests, which included other barbed wire patents, to the Massachusetts wire manufacturer Washburn and Moen in May 1876. Ellwood remained an active partner in the new organization as sole agent and distributor for the South and West. Washburn and Moen, eventually absorbed by United States Steel Corporation, had acquired all major barbed wire patents, except that of Haish, by 1876, thus achieving a near-monopoly on this important product.

Henry Bradley Sanborn traveled to Texas in 1875 as representative of Glidden and Ellwood's Barbed Fence Company. Though he sold the first barbed wire in the state, he failed to exploit the large potential market. In 1876 salesman Pete McManus with his partner John Warne (Bet-a-Million) Gates conducted a famous demonstration on Alamo Plaza in San Antonio in which a fence of Glidden's "Winner" wire restrained a herd of longhorn cattle. Gates reportedly touted the product as "light as air, stronger than whiskey, and cheap as dirt." Sales grew quickly thereafter, and barbed wire permanently changed land uses and land values in Texas.

Charles Goodnight, a pioneer of the open plains, fenced along the Palo Duro Canyon, accepting the need for clear title to grazing rights and hence the eventual end of the open range. Enclosure of the open range upon which the early cattle industry had been based resulted in the fence-cutting conflicts of the early 1880s. More controlled livestock breeding was made possible by the enclosure of herds, thus virtually eliminating the demand for the longhorn cattle, which were most suited to the open range. The wire simultaneously contributed to the end of the long cattle drives and Indian raids. Barbed wire, still an essential tool in the livestock industry, is today a popular collector's item. The official depository of the papers of the Texas Barbed Wire Collectors Association is the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon.

Robert T. Clifton, Barbs, Prongs, Points, Prickers, and Stickers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970). Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission Library, Austin (Barbed Wire Demonstration). Frank W. Jennings, San Antonio: The Story of an Enchanted City (San Antonio: San Antonio Express–News, 1998). Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum, The Wire That Fenced the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Boston: Ginn, 1931).

  • Agriculture
  • Equipment and Technology
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Science
  • Innovations and Inventions
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Frances T. McCallum and James Mulkey Owens, “Barbed Wire,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 22, 2020