The Devil’s Rope

Cerrillos Fence

I hate seeing fences dividing open land, but at least around here, many of them are old and artful, twisted by hand before barbed wire was mass made by machines.

Barbed wire, also known as thorny fence and the Devil’s rope, consists of two strands of zinc-coated steel wire with sharp barbs twisted every four to eight inches along its length. The strands do horrible tearing things to hide so animals keep their distance, even cows, which are notoriously disrespectful of fences.

Don't Mess

On my road trips, I have been to at least two different barbed wire museums: the Barbed Wire Museum in La Crosse, Kansas and the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Oklahoma. These museums are about more than just fencing; the history of barbed wire closely parallels the settling of the West.

Different types of barbed wire displayed at the No Man's Land Museum

Wire fences began appearing in the Plains in the 1850’s but cows would routinely lean on the wire until it loosened enough they could escape. The first barbed wire is credited to a rancher named Michael Kelly in 1863, but he failed to market his invention and in 1874, Joseph Glidden was awarded the first patent for barbed wire that could be mass produced using a hand turned crank.

Glidden’s invention, nicknamed simply “The Winner” established him as the “Father of Barbed Wire” and made him one of the richest men in America. More than 2,000 different types of wire fencing were invented and marketed in the mid to late 1800’s by ranchers and entrepreneurs looking to create a more effective, more efficient wire fence, but despite upwards of 530 competing barbed wire patents, Glidden’s original thorny fence still dominated the West.

Handmade fence near Cerrillos, New Mexico

Around here, there are generally two types of barbed wire fences: old and new. The old fences, built in the mid to late 1800’s are almost all constructed from wire hand-twisted around old juniper branches and logs. Hand twisted wire is uneven and often spliced and knotted. Sometimes I even find snarls of single stranded wire left behind from fence making:

Wire Snarl

Whenever I find lengths of wire like this, I pick them up and secure them to a nearby fence, where they’ll be less likely to ensnare a passing animal. I really hate barbed wire. It’s nasty stuff and can be really dangerous for people, dogs, livestock and wild animals. Don’t mess with the Devil’s Rope!

The Blonde Coyote & the problem with fences in tumbleweed country. This is a real fire hazard!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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4 Responses to The Devil’s Rope

  1. Jack Stansbury says:

    Kippi and I have some of the barbed wire that is pictured above, second from the top. I found it up in Pepperell, Massachusetts on one side of our property.

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