Have you ever worked with barbed wire?
Photo: Amber Furness/USFWS. Source: Flikr. Public Domain.
In the late 19th century, settlers were moving into the American west. They needed to control animal movements over vast stretches of territory. Railroads needed to keep livestock off their tracks. Farmers needed to keep stray cattle from trampling their crops. Ranchers needed fence their grazing ranges against encroachment. Traditional fencing materials like wood and stone weren’t practical in the large open spaces, and dugout hedging wasn’t reliable in the rain-starved dusty soil.
Joseph Glidden, a farmer from DeKalb Illinois, used a coffee mill to cut short barbed wires, and twisted another wire around them to keep them in place. He quickly saw that this design would be effective in controlling cattle, and could be mass-produced. Glidden received a patent on his invention, established several demonstration ranches in Texas, and changed agriculture in the US forever.
Prior to the establishment of clear boundaries, the American West saw a series of “range wars,” feuds over grazing rights, water rights, and other flash points on the western range. Rustlers might gather cattle on the open range and re-brand them, claiming them as their own. Some of these fights have been memorialized in books and films, like The Virginian and Shane. Hundreds of people died in conflicts like the Pleasant Valley War, Johnson County War, Colfax County War, and others. These disputes arose because there was no way to enforce or clarify property rights. Barbed wire made these fights unnecessary.
Today, barbed wire can be a hazard, a leftover from prior land use and a menace. When we first moved into our home in New Hampshire, we found a lot of old barbed wire on the property, what a previous owner had used to keep in alpacas and sheep. We had to clear it away before we could have animals with more sensitive – and less furry – skins. Cleaning up old barbed wire is often a necessary task in the west as well, as our land use changes.
Photo: Patrick Sievert/USFWS. Source: Flikr. Public Domain.
Property rights are key to the modern economy: intellectual property, trading rights, transport rights, labor rights. Many economic conflicts today are due to unclear boundaries. As our economy moves from manufacturing to service to a digital, knowledge-based economy, finding ways to clarify who gets credit for what is critical.
Otherwise, we might see the return of the range war. Only this time, the stakes are a lot higher.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”