Panhandle Drift Fences

By: David L. Wheeler

Type: General Entry

Published: May 1, 1995

In the winter of 1880–81, thousands of cattle from the northern plains drifted into the Panhandle in search of shelter or sustenance. The cattle accumulated in the Canadian River breaks and nearly ruined the winter pastures of local herds. Cattlemen whose pastures were endangered resolved to end future incursions by building fences across the northern limit of their ranges. Construction began in 1881, and by 1885 a broken line of drift fences extended across the Panhandle. By the early 1880s barbed wire was being used throughout Texas, and in the Panhandle immense pastures were being fenced. The enclosure of pastures may have led to the discovery that a fence across the northern line of a range would protect it from drift cattle and that local cattle could be kept on the home range by a fence across the southern line. The fences were frail in appearance, but to drifting cattle they proved to be cruelly effective barriers.

All cattlemen in the northern Panhandle strung drift fences. Fences thirty to forty miles in length were common, and some were even longer. They were constructed on level ground above the Canadian River and when complete extended 200 miles across the northernmost counties from near Higgins to the vicinity of Dalhart and into New Mexico. The fencing material consisted of cedar posts set, usually, two rods apart and connected with four strands of barbed wire. Fences across some ranges were built with posts set closer together and strung with wire in three to five strands or more. Camps were established at regular intervals, and men were employed to keep the fences in good repair. The work was facilitated by a $500 reward for the apprehension of anyone damaging the fences. The wire was hauled in wagons from rail lines in Kansas, Colorado, or New Mexico or from Harrold, Texas, then the terminus of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway. Fence posts were cut, mostly, in the breaks of the Canadian and its tributaries, but some came from Palo Duro Canyon. Construction costs averaged $250 a mile.

Cattle accumulated along the drift fences during winter storms. Unable to proceed and unwilling to face the wind, many died of exposure and starvation. Losses were large in the winter of 1884–85, but nothing in comparison with those of January 1886, when as many as 200,000 cattle may have perished in the "Big Die-Up". Such losses could not be sustained without a change in the system of producing cattle on the range. It became apparent that cattle could not be left unattended. Cattlemen began to purchase land or lease it and to establish ranches as permanent bases of operation. Herds were reduced in size and placed in fenced pastures. Forage crops were produced, and cattle were provided with food, water, and shelter. With the enclosure of the range there was less need for drift fences. Consequently, most drift fences were removed by 1890, although sections were reported standing in 1926.

Roy D. Holt, "Barbed Wire Drift Fences," Cattleman, March 1935. Roy D. Holt, "The Introduction of Barbed Wire into Texas and the Fence Cutting War," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 6 (1930). Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum, The Wire That Fenced the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). David L. Wheeler, "The Texas Panhandle Drift Fences," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 55 (1982).


  • 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.

David L. Wheeler, “Panhandle Drift Fences,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 20, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995