How could an ordinary fence shape the development of a nation? Before the 1870s, much of the American West was an uninterrupted expanse of prairie and cowboys ran cattle on an open range without a fence in sight. Then the Homestead Act of 1862 passed and settlers poured into the west looking for land to tame and farm. This set up a conflict between the farmers who wanted to keep cattle off their crops and cattlemen that needed the land for their livestock. The invention of barbed wire gave farmers an inexpensive solution to the rampages of their neighbors’ cattle and heralded the end of the open range.
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Now a new book, Barbed Wire: The Fence that Changed the West, examines the tumultuous history of a simple twist of wire that shaped the settlement of the American frontier and led to the end of the open range. “Barbed wire transformed not only the landscape of the American West but also the lives of its occupants in the last quarter of the nineteenth century,” observes Joanne S. Liu, the author of the newly released Barbed Wire: The Fence that Changed the West.
While documenting the effects of the new fence on the landscape, Lui also covers the rancorous patent battles that surrounded the invention of barbed wire. Barbed Wire illustrates how inventions that we now take for granted can affect the course of history.