By Celeste Gunderson
Referred to as “The Devil’s Rope” by Native Americans, barbed wire was used originally on the American Great Plains to control the movement of cattle. The innovation of steel wire with sharp barbs remains the same since its conception, and yet its use has drastically diversified into a method of controlling humans as well as animals. What made barbed wire originally ideal for agriculture in the 19th century, made it also perfect for warfare and concentration camps in the 20th century. Its cheapness, hardiness, light-weight material, and convenience proved beneficial in many different settings. But perhaps most important about barbed wire is its ability to inflict pain and violence. It is this barbarity which has defined the Anthropocene since its beginning, arguably around the start of settler colonialism in the United States, transforming the dominance of space into the violent control of animals and people across the world and throughout history.
In 1874 Joseph Glidden patented the 157,124th model of barbed wire which became the most commonly used innovation. His invention improved upon earlier versions of barbed wire by twisting two iron wires around each other, which kept the sharp barbs in place better than one wire models. In the 1850s farmers were expanding westward into the Great Plains. The Homestead Act of 1862 increased this westward movement by allowing US citizens to acquire up to 160 acres of previously public land. The act states that citizens were “entitled to enter one-quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands.” The term “unappropriated,” however, did not take into account the Native Americans who lived on and survived off the land, but who did not consider the space their property. With the settlement of farmers in the west, the demand for cheap fencing continued to increase into the 1870s. Glidden’s innovation met this demand and by the late 1880s, barbed wire was as a part of the western landscape as the treeless prairies. From its creation in 1874 to its use in agriculture, warfare, and containment, barbed wire has been an undeniable symbol of cruelty and violence in the Anthropocene.
The success of Glidden’s barbed wire design was its ability to prevent the movement of cows by inflicting pain. Originally implemented to keep cows out of agricultural land, the sharp barbs proved injurious and even fatal to cattle when they wandered into the almost invisible wires. The epitome of barbed wire’s violence is demonstrated through the blizzard of 1885, an event which devastated herds on the Great Plains and killed as many as 200,000 heads of cattle. The “Big Die-Up,” as it came to be known, was most severe in the Texas Panhandle. The cattle had attempted to travel south away from the severe weather, but the barbed wire fences blocked their movements. When the cattlemen came out to check on their herds after the storm, they found thousands of dead cows piled against the drift fences, unable to move towards better conditions. Yet the original violence of barbed was not only inflicted on cows, but Native Americans as well.
Many Indigenous tribes had been pushed west of the Mississippi River throughout the 19th century, and by the 1840s these western tribes lived separately from American society. When barbed wire allowed settler colonialists to cultivate this western territory, however, Native Americans were further displaced. In 1887 the Dawes Act gave the president the power to take any part of Indian reservation land that they considered “advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes” and to divide it up among the Indians on the reservation, while also giving large pieces to white farmers. Similar to the Enclosure Movement in 15th century England, were public areas were converted to private land in order to make a profit, the Dawes Act took the common areas, which were shared among the Indians, and privatized them into spaces of cultivation. The enclosure was justified on the basis that the Indians were not exploiting the land to its full agricultural potential. However, the lifestyle of Native Americans did not function in enclosed areas of private property, as their nomadic customs and hunting practices required vast areas of land. Indian communities were forced to either assimilate to the enclosed land or to move elsewhere. Additionally, barbed wire successfully repelled buffalo by preventing them from moving freely in their natural grazing patterns on the plains. Instead, they overgrazed the pastureland they had access to, which resulted in a decrease in food and the decimation of the buffalo population. Therefore, the food source and way of life for the Native Americans was being eliminated as well. By enclosing the space, fragmenting the land and starving the buffalos, barbed wire created the conditions for the dispossession and decline of Native American communities in the United States.
Barbed wire’s central theme of demarcation continued into the 20th century during the transitioning use of barbed wire in agriculture to modern warfare in World War One. The unchanged purpose of barbed wire in warfare demonstrated how the same violence applied to cattle and Indigenous Peoples was also applied to soldiers. Being introduced to the battlefield after agriculture had driven down prices, barbed wire was advantageous around trenches for the same reasons it was adopted on the western frontier; it was lightweight, hardy, cheap, easily repaired, and could protect territories by inflicting pain and terror. In fact, “artificial bramble” as barbed wire was called on the war field, was almost identical to that used in agriculture. As it had done on the Great Plains, barbed wire increased human’s control over space in war by inflicting violence on flesh. A New York Times article from 1918 describes American troops “cutting their way through acre after acre of barbed wire” as they marched through France during World War One. Barbed wire illustrates the conflict of WWI, revealing how its use leads to rising violence among humans. During World War Two and the Nazi concentration camps the symbol of barbed wire demonstrated the great intensification of this violence and human cruelty.
Barbed wire fences surrounded each extermination camp during World War Two and were often the first thing to be constructed. However, as Olivier Razac, a philosopher from the University of Paris suggests in his novel Barbed Wire: A Political History, “Barbed wire was not just a material used in the camp. It provided the essential foundation of the totalitarian management of space.” During the beginning years of the Nazis gaining power in Germany, political opposers of the party were rounded up into early concentration camps. A New York Times article from 1933 contains the headline, “Nazis Herd Enemies Behind Barbed Wire in Big Prison Camps.” The article, therefore, portrays the first concentration camps as a type of enclosure for animals, rather than people, and demonstrates the beginning practice of dehumanizing people in order to justify cruel and violent treatment. In the Nazi concentration camps, human violence became industrialized for the first time, and barbed wire provided an essential component. The benefits of barbed wire were the same in concentration camps as they were in agriculture and trench warfare: its cheapness, convenience, and ability to successfully contain. Within the camps, barbed wire organized space and defined the prisoners and “normal society” by their ability to cross the barrier and those who could not. In this way, Glidden’s invention continued to include some and exclude others, sometimes even determining who should live or die. Barbed wire is such a fundamental part of concentration camps, that without it, people did not think of internment camps as being camps. In his novel on barbed wire, Razac recalls an excerpt from Joe Nordmann’s memoirs, who was a French communist in the 1930s. During Stalin’s regime, Nordmann did not believe that Stalin’s concentration camps existed, and Razac suggests that this is because the camps were not surrounded by barbed wire or walls. Concentration camps and barbed wire have become so closely associated with one another, that camps are not conceived to be real without the violence symbolism of the metal fencing.
In the Anthropocene, barbed wire has served as a cheap tool for controlling movement and space. It is cheap not only because it takes little money to produce, but also because barbed wire relies on violence and cheapens the lives it affects. In their book The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things Raj Patel and Jason Moore explain how cheapness comes as a cost of capitalism which degrades lives and nature to the value of only a usable commodity. By dividing space, barbed wire creates areas of private property worth only the number of crops they can produce or the amount of land they occupy, while also valuing the worth of lives based on the space they take up. The uses of barbed wire throughout history, therefore, demonstrate how capitalism has become a way of organizing the relationship between humans the rest of nature. Today, barbed wire continues to create divisions of space in prisons, refugee camps, and at borders, therefore continuing to define those included and excluded from society. Viewing the Anthropocene through the history of barbed wire illustrates how people and animals are being squeezed out of space itself.
“Americans Cut through Acres of Barbed Wire in Advance to the Bethune-Soissons Roadway.” New York Times (New York), Sep 3 1918, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 23 Apr. 2019.
Krell, Alan. The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2002.
Liu, Joanne S. Barbed Wire: The Fence That Changed the West. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Pub., 2009.
“Nazis Herd Enemies Behind Barbed Wire in Big Prison Camps.” New York Times (New York), Apr 8, 1933, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 23 Apr. 2019. http://