One of the reasons that Texas was able to develop a big cattle industry is that there were so many feral cattle in it, more or less up for grabs. They were the descendants of the cattle that had been imported by the Spanish, and although many Hispanic Texans became vaqueros, Anglo settlers were slower to get into the business, partly because it was so hard to control a herd on the open range--to keep the cows in and the rustlers out.

This is one of the reasons that barbed wire was such an influential innovation in the settlement of the western United States. One of my colleagues at The Economist had a great Christmas special about this in 1998:

The mixture of beauty and horror is only the most obvious of barbed wire’s paradoxes. It was a piece of sheer inventive genius; yet it was also just a mechanical copy of something nature did. It was one of the most widely and easily imitated inventions of the century, but also one of the most ruthless monopolies, blatantly controlled for the profit of a handful of millionaires. The results it produced were paradoxical, too. Wire encouraged settlers to put down roots in the West, but also prodded stockmen to claim vast areas for their cattle, so that unmoving farmers and roving cattlemen eventually declared war on each other. Wire allowed property rights to be defended and the public range to be restricted; as a result, Americans became both freer, and less free. It connected one point with another all across the western landscape, and estranged people and animals from the land itself.

If you're ever in Oklahoma City, this is another reason to stop by the National Cowboy Museum--they have a whole room devoted to barbed wire (with big pull-out shelves displaying the different kinds).


07/18/2012 10:11

This is one of the things people don't understand about cattle. They can be trained to herd and well-managed herds stick together, can be driven from here to there, etc. But I once helped out on a ranch that had been neglected for about a decade (a cow generation) and it was like herding deer.

Barb wire has limitations but it helps a lot in the intermediate process of teaching the cows compliance and a republican form of government.

11/18/2012 19:57

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