Fence cutting in Texas in the summer and fall of 1883 was a part of the conflict between landless cattlemen who wanted to retain practices of the open range and those who bought barbed wire to fence the land to establish themselves on permanent ranches. The fence war was precipitated by the drought of 1883, which made it all the harder for the cowman without land of his own to find the grass and water necessary for his herds.
Most of the ranchmen owned or leased the land they fenced, but some of them enclosed public land when they enclosed their own, and others strung their wire about farms and small ranches belonging to other persons. Often the fences blocked public roads; in some instances they cut off schools and churches and interfered with the delivery of mail. This unwarranted fencing led some men whose land was not actually fenced in to join in the nipping. As the cutting continued, it became less discriminate and attracted rougher elements; soon no ranchman's fence was safe.
Wrecking of fences was reported from more than half the Texas counties and was most common in a belt extending north and south through the center of the state, the ranchman's frontier of 1883. Much of the cutting was done at night by armed bands who called themselves such names as Owls, Javelinas, or Blue Devils. Often those who destroyed fences left warnings against rebuilding, but these were usually disregarded. In some instances, pastures of the fencers were burned. Some owners defended their property, and at least three men were killed in clashes between fence cutters and ranchmen.
Texas newspapers generally condemned the cutting but indicated that not all the fencers were free of blame. Few attempts were made to reconcile the embittered groups, but at Henrietta spokesmen for the fence cutters met with Clay County ranchmen, and the two groups agreed that fences would be removed from across public roads and land not owned or leased by the fence builders, that gates would be provided for farmers' use, and that wire-cutting would end.
By the fall of 1883 damage from wrecking of fences in Texas was estimated at $20 million-at more than $1 million in Brown County alone. The Fort Worth Gazette asserted that fence troubles had caused tax valuations to decline $30 million. The clashes discouraged farming and scared away some prospective settlers. Politicians shied from the explosive issue, but on October 15 Governor John Ireland called a special session of the legislature to meet on January 8, 1884. After a deluge of petitions and heated debates, the legislature made fence cutting a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. The penalty for malicious pasture-burning was two to five years in prison. Fencing of public lands or lands belonging to others knowingly and without permission was made a misdemeanor, and builders of such fences were to remove them within six months. Ranchers who built fences across public roads were required to place a gate every three miles and to keep the gates in repair.
These measures ended most of the fence troubles, although sporadic outbreaks of nipping continued for a decade, especially during droughts. Texas Rangers were sent after fence cutters in Navarro County in 1888, and for several years the rangers had occasional fence cases in West Texas.