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Fence Cutters' War

The Grinninger Fence
click image to enlarge

Texas cowmen, although they did not resort to as much violence against sheepmen as did those of some other western states, had a bang-up range clash of their own in 1883. This was the Fence-Cutters' War that marked the transition of the state's vast pastures from open range to fenced ranches.

Texas had relatively few fences before the invention of barbed wire. The reason was that it didn't have, in the grasslands of its western region, enough wood or rock for building them. Fences of smooth wire didn't hold the stock well; and hedges of Osage orange, or bois d'arc, were too tedious to plant, grow and trim.

During the 1870's barbed wire began coming into Texas. At first some stockmen ridiculed the newfangled fencing, but the far-sighted ones appreciated the advantage of controlling their own pastures. They began buying land with good grass and water and fencing it. In 1882 the Frying Pan Ranch, in the Panhandle, spent $39,000 erecting a four-wire fence around a pasture of 250,000 acres.

However, not all cowmen had the vision or the money to buy and fence ranches. Many of the smaller ones continued to graze their herds on what was left of the open range, most of it still owned by the state. As they saw fences enclosing choice pastures along streams, they became alarmed. The fencing made it harder for them to find enough grass and, in dry spells, water for their herds.

The plight of the farmers and small stockmen was made infinitely worse by the severe drought of 1883. The grass withered and turned brown. The earth cracked. Creeks dried up, and water holes that had supported large herds shrank to muddy ooze. In some sections, prairie fires added to the disaster.

Some of the open-range cowmen moved farther west, but fences stopped them there, too. Enraged at finding no range for their cattle, which were gaunt now and bawling for water, these small cowmen joined with the homesteaders in protesting that fences extended across public roads prevented people from riding to school or church and impeded the delivery of mail. One settler, E. S. Graham, said that some ranchmen invited trouble "by fencing large bodies of land that did not belong to them and by trampling on the rights of the public."

The growing resistance of the landless cowmen to fencing was backed by the Texas Greenback Party, which regarded barbed wire as a symbol of monopoly. The fencers, it complained, were trying to turn the farmers and small stockmen into serfs.

To the stockmen whose cattle suffered, barbed wire appeared to be an instrument of the devil. They sent letters and telegrams to members of the legislature and to the governor. They held public protest meetings. Finally, when no action resulted from their complaints, many of them decided that the only thing to do was to cut the offending fences.

These desperate cattlemen formed small, secret bands, with passwords and spies. Sometimes these bands had such names as Owls, Javelinas or Blue Devils. Posting guards for protection, they began destroying fences that blocked roads or enclosed other people's land. Usually they did their snipping at night, but in some places they worked during the day. As the drought became worse, some of the cutters destroyed not only unlawful fences but also those that enclosed land legitimately owned by the fencers.

In Tom Green County, night workers cut nineteen miles of fence on the ranch of L. B. Harris. The Fort Worth Gazette reported that they piled a carload of Harris' wire on a stack of cedar posts and lighted a $6,000 fire. On the coastal plains, other cutters snipped and ruined three miles of wire fence with which Abel H. ("Shanghai") Pierce had enclosed one of his gigantic pastures.

Sometimes the cutters left notes of warning. On Tehuacana Creek, nine miles southwest of Waco, reported the Galveston News, night workers destroyed the fence of a 700 acre privately owned ranch and burned some of the pasture. Then, referring to a pond that had been built on private property, they left a penciled note that read:

You are ordered not to fence in the Jones tank, as it is a public tank and is the only water there is for stock on this range. Until people can have time to build tanks and catch water, this should not be fenced. No good man will undertake to watch this fence, for the Owls will catch him. There is no more grass on this range than the stock can eat this year.

With most politicians cautiously silent, Texas newspapers denounced the cutters, and ranchmen whose fences had been taken down held indignation meetings. The Law and Order Association of Tom Green County and several similar organizations tried to stop the cutting by offering rewards for incriminating evidence, but few convictions resulted. In some places, defensive gunfire routed the bands of cutters.

With fence cutting reported in more than half the Texas counties, many ranchmen began finding warning notes. On a fence near Castroville a card with a bullet hole said: "If you don't make gates, we will make them for you." A stockman in Hamilton County found a picture of a coffin and a declaration that the cutters would risk their lives for free grass and free water. The Albany, Texas, Star told of a coffin nailed to one of the posts of a cut fence. In Coleman County a sheepman found a coffin on his porch, with the words: "This will be your end if you keep fencing." Cutters in Live Oak County dug a grave, dangled a rope in it, and left a note that said: "This will be your fate if you rebuild this fence."

Before many weeks, the work of fence cutters began to be noticed as far away as Chicago. Horace B. Starkweather, a Texas sheepman in Coleman County, had his fences cut twice and two thousand cedar posts burned. When he went to Chicago to borrow money, he found headlines in the papers there:

Wire Cutters Destroy
500 Miles of Fence
In Coleman County

Unable to obtain a loan, Starkweather hurried home, where he found so much turmoil that he sold his ranch.

As Far North As Montana

People were killed, property was destroyed, business was crippled, and peaceful people were alienated against one another. A special report from Las Vegas, New Mexico, described the extent of organization of the fence cutters in that area. Mounted and placed in squads of convenient number, they would ride up to the fence, a man would drop off at a corner and cut half a mile or more to where the next man had begun, then jump into his saddle and rush to the head of the line again, after the fashion of school boys playing leap frog. A number of reasons have been given for this unusual destruction, but a series of letters in the Galveston News throw some interesting light on the social and economic theories that actuated many of the cutters. Apparently the motives behind much of this disturbance were diverse, for small farmers as well as large stockmen experienced the nippers alike. One writer stated that the fence cutting was incited by the theories of communism; another said it was greenbackism; while another remarked that it was agrarianism. "Agrarianism," one correspondent wrote, "is a system of spoliation," while "Communism is, in the highest degree, salvatory in its tendencies." In this case agrarianism probably meant big pastures with their attendant monopolistic control, while communism involved a free and open range. Those who favored the big pastures argued that the free and open ranges had been "the parent of crime in Texas. It has been the educator of the mavericker, the brand blotcher, cattle-thief and the fence-cutter."

In a few places, fences across roads or around land not owned or leased by the fencers were removed by agreement, and the snipping in those sections ended. But in most neighborhoods, feeling was too strong to allow negotiation. Newspapers estimated losses from fence cutting at a million dollars in Brown County and twenty million for the state. Tax valuations, said the Fort Worth Gazette, fell more than thirty million as a result of the range war. Some settlers moved out, and many prospective ones feared to come.

At last, on October 15, Governor John Ireland, who preferred to dodge the issue, called a special session of the legislature, to meet on January 8, 1884. Its purpose was "to find a remedy for wanton destruction of fences, to provide a more efficient system of highways, and to amend the law providing for enclosing school lands."

After weeks of argument, the lawmakers set penalties of one to five years in prison for cutting a fence and two to five years for maliciously burning a pasture. They made it a misdemeanor to fence public lands knowingly or to enclose the property of another with out his consent. Unlawful fences were required to be taken down within six months. A gate every three miles was required for fences that crossed public roads.

The new law lessened the fence troubles, although some thought the unlawful fencers escaped too easily considering the much heavier penalties against cutters. Yet sporadic troubles continued for a decade, especially during droughts. Navarro County had so much snipping in 1888 that local officers called on the Texas Rangers. Two disguised Rangers, Sergeant Ira Aten and Jim King, drove into the troubled area in an old farm wagon pulled by a horse and a mule. They found jobs picking cotton, and in the evening King sometimes played his fiddle. By keeping their ears open, the Rangers soon learned who the cutters were. Aten began making bombs to place in the fences. His boss ordered him to desist, but rumors of the bombs quickly stopped the snipping.

Minor outbreaks of fence cutting appeared in most of the other plains states. In Wyoming in 1883, a court ordered a big cattle company to quit fencing public lands and to remove the fences it had built around eleven sections. Three years later a territorial governor there was removed from office because of his unlawful fencing. But in Texas the sale of barbed wire was resumed on a larger scale, and fencing soon ended the era of the open range.

Jay Monaghan. Range Wars. The Book of the American West Simon & Schuster New York, NY 1969.

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