ARTIFACT: Barbed Wire

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Barbed wire
Photo by Maria Luisa Ruiz

ARTIFACT: Barbed Wire

SIZE: 12.5 to 15.5-gauge steel wire, various lengths, 2 point or 4 point

FOLKLIFE: Occupational folklife, ranching, military, World War I & II, land use, immigration, borderlands

by Kimi Eisele

Two strands of steel wire twisted together to form a stiff double helix. Coiled perpendicularly around one of the strands, an additional short wire, sharp at the ends for security, for order. Barbed wire. Material object. It might even be called beautiful for its simple design. But.

Depends whom you ask.

Surely Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois thought it was beautiful. In 1874, he was granted a patent for what would become the most commonly used commercial barbed wire in history. Some accounts say his wife, Lucinda inspired the invention. She needed a way of keeping animals out of her garden, so Joseph hooked her sharp hairpins to a strand of wire as a detractor. When the hairpins kept slipping, he found a second wire and twisted it around the first.

Barbed wire patent drawing
Patent Drawing for Joseph F. Glidden’s Improvement to Barbed Wire, 1874. National Archives and Records Administration

But Joseph and Lucinda were not the first wire wielders. Between 1868 and 1974 the U.S. Government issued over 500 patents for barbed wire, including one that made metal look like ribbon and another that featured a tiny revolving spur. Surely some of those designs were easier on the eyes, and on the bodies of bulls and men.

If you visit the old courthouse in Tombstone, Arizona, now a museum, you can see a wall display of many of those designs and decide for yourself which was the most beautiful or offered the best thorn. But it was Glidden’s design—effective, inexpensive, and easy to produce—that stuck.

Barbed wire variations on display
A display of barbed wire patents in Dennis Maroney’s barn. Photo by Maria Luisa Ruiz

For the Homesteaders, who’d arrived on the “American Desert” of the West—actually, the prairies—over a decade earlier, the invention was a lifesaver, or at least a property saver. There was little wood on the prairie, and the prickly shrub Osage orange, or hedge apple, grew too slowly. So barbed wire helped the newcomers fence in their 160 acres, protecting their farmsteads from hungry, free-roaming cattle.

Indigenous people, already pushed off the land—which they believed no one should own—didn’t much take to the wire, and reportedly called it “the devil’s rope.” And many cattle ranchers and cowboys hated it, thinking it a Yankee scheme to control land and property. They preferred the open range, where cattle—and they themselves—could freely access common land and water.

Enter John Warne Gates, who was hired to promote the product. The story goes that in 1876 Gates went to San Antonio, Texas, where he corralled longhorn cattle in the central plaza and took bets from the crowd on whether or not they’d break through the wire. They did not. In a showy finale, a Mexican rider holding two flaming torches entered the corral charging the cattle, cursing in Spanish. The wire still held.

Barbed wire variations including "Sunderland's Kink," "Hodge's Spur Wheel," and "Scutt's locked rings."
Detail of barbed wire exhibit, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park. Photo by Maria Luisa Ruiz

And then it sold. A lot. By 1900, the Worcester, Massachusetts company, Washburn and Moen, likely thought barbed wire was the most beautiful thing in the world. They held a virtual monopoly over its production, and that year alone, some 80,500,000 pounds of it were produced.

As the wire sold, so did a host of quack remedies—barbed wire liniments and antiseptics to treat wounds caused by the barbs. Not only animals, but also humans could get tangled in or injured by the wire

A little more than a decade later, in the theaters of World War I, the wire truly became a weapon of war. Soldiers used snarls of it to line the trenches, and spirals of it tumbled across no man’s land, a brutal barrier for any who tried to cross it.

Barbed wire continued its tyranny during World War II, becoming a material of control in the Nazi concentration camps and an enduring signifier of the Holocaust. In a horrific historical symmetry, when the first mass transport of Jews from occupied Poland began in 1940, many were carried in cattle cars, wires strung across gaps in the wood, the barbs marring the last view of their homeland.

A black and white photo of child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence.
Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence. Still photograph from the Soviet Film of the liberation of Auschwitz, taken by the film unit of the First Ukrainian Front, 1945 by Alexander Voronzow and others in his group, via Wikimedia Commons

Keeping in cattle, kind of

Barbed wire is still used to exert control over land, animals, and people all over the world. As an artifact of the borderlands, it has particular resonance.

Dennis Moroney runs 47 Ranch, a cattle ranch just 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. He calls barbed wire “a blessing and curse.”

“There’s a saying that good fences make good neighbors, but only when they’re undisputed fences,” he says. “Even today we have boundary disputes with neighbors and they become sometimes really serious. It’s a mixed bag. It’s a love-hate kind of thing.”

A man with a long white beard wearing a vest and cowboy hat, standing next to a saddle.
Dennis Maroney has a love-hate relationship with barbed wire. Photo by Maria Luisa Ruiz

Range lands in the American West are a mix of private, state, and federal land, each managed slightly differently. Fences help ranchers maintain a certain control over their cattle and ideally in compliance with state and federal laws.

One difficulty with determining boundaries on public land, Maroney says, is that “the people defining land areas are working on a table, and they love squares and straight lines,” which means they pay little attention to actual topography. This has given him trouble, particularly with one set of neighbors, who moved a fence to align with a legal allotment. “It took away grazing land from us and made a straight fence but kind of messed up how we worked the ranch,” he says.

The old fence followed a valley that cows could easily access. “But now they have to go up and down to get to water,” he says. “But the land department people are happy.”

Moroney can buy barbed wire at most hardware stores and feed stores. It comes in a quarter-mile-long roll. “It’s horrible to work with. It’s stiff and it’s sharp. Nobody likes to build fence because it’s hard work,” he says.

On the other hand, he says a fence can be a tool to improve range management, as he can fence off one area and move animals to another to avoid overgrazing.

coiled barbed wire
Photo by Maria Luisa Ruiz

But barbed wire doesn’t always contain animals. “I’ve watched animals crawl through fences without the slightest bit of stress,” Moroney says. “And they do it like they’ve done it a hundred times before because they have.”

Some of Moroney’s cattle come from a New Mexico ranch on the federally owned Jornada Experimental Range, where many years ago the New Mexico Fish and Game released African oryx gazelles as a possible hunting species. Oryxes are a range species with four-foot-long horns, “They run super fast and then they just dive under these fences and their horns lay back over their back and off they go,” Moroney said.

With a four-strand barbed wire fence, which is what Arizona law requires, “Cows will just walk up and stick their noses under the bottom wire, wriggle under, and walk on. They learned from the oryxes.”

The same thing happens with people. Because 47 Ranch is so close to the border, Moroney has had countless experiences with migrants moving north across his property, undeterred by barbed wire.

Barbed wire as border fence

When Catherine Gaffney came to the borderlands from the east coast and started walking in the desert, she always felt like she was crossing private land boundaries. “It took be a while to realize most of it was public land, leased to ranchers,” she says.

Gaffney’s desert walks mostly consist of following trails made by migrants. She is as a volunteer with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, which organizes supply drops and offers medical assistance to migrants in need.

“If you have a fence, people will try to go through it,” she says. Which necessitates a lot of rebuilding for a rancher.

Gaffney says she’s seen gates in fences, clearly made for human passing. “The ranchers, it seems, have decided to live with this human migration,” she says. “It’s very practical. This way of saying, ‘We’re gonna do this without bothering each other.’”

Migrants from Mexico and other countries have been crossing the border and the cattle fences along the way for decades. How easily they can cross the international line depends a lot on U.S. immigration policy and economic conditions south of the border. And, to some degree, on the kind of fencing they encounter.

Ten years ago, Jason Welborn worked as part of a survey team to mark the international boundary between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico for the construction of new border fence, one that would replace the barbed wire that had been there for decades.

Welborn and his surveyor colleagues used original boundary monuments—12- to 15-foot-tall concrete obelisks built in the mid-1800s marking the line between the United States and Mexico—to plot the new fence line. They worked along a 27-mile stretch, mostly within the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

A person surveying land and standing next to a 12- to 15-foot-tall concrete obelisk in the desert.
Jason Welborn surveyed the US-Mexico border ten years ago, removing decades-old barbed wire. Photo courtesy Jason Welborn

“Some of that barbed wire was so old it would just break in your hands,” Welborn says. But any good wire they discarded, he says, was quickly salvaged.

“These guys from Mexico would pull up in a truck. They were literally following us as we worked, reeling up the wire we discarded so they could re-use it for their own corrals or fences,” Welborn says.

Also, paradoxically (or not), as he and his team plotted the new fence line, day laborers from Sonora were hired to build the fence and at night, to guard it. “They’d guard millions of dollars of equipment, with arms and really mean dogs,” he says.

Welborn, a geographer, was struck by the complicated geopolitics of the situation. “We’re building a fence to keep people out but paying those same people to protect and build the fence. The absurdity was off the chart. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least,” he said.

The fence that went up after Welborn’s surveying was a patchwork of Normandy barriers and pipe fencing “to eliminate the risk of Mexicans putting a ramp and driving up over it,” he says.

Beyond barbed wire

The barbed wire border of the past has been replaced today by steel walls, increased surveillance technology, and human border patrol agents.

Daniel Martinez, a sociologist at the University of Arizona who studies unauthorized immigration, criminology, and undocumented border crosser deaths, says those technologies impact border residents.

“It’s problematic for those of us that study the border and live near it because we know these are communities with strong cross-cultural ties, strong kinship networks, strong economic interdependence,” he says. “These walls tear into that.”

Gaffney says most borderlands residents understand that fences and walls have rarely stopped human migration. “There’s no wall a human can’t climb if they’re trying to flee violence or to get to their children on the other side,” she says.

What fortified barriers do, Gaffney says, is push people to cross in more dangerous areas. “There’s no stopping migration, but I don’t even know if that’s the goal of border policy. Or is it to endanger and scare people and make them more vulnerable when they get here?”

Concertina wire on the tall, slatted border wall in Nogales, AZ
Border officials added concertina wire to the border fence in early November 2018. Photo by Kimi Eisele

Martinez says any fence or wall along the border as “a physical manifestation of “Us versus Them.” “It’s a way of saying, ‘Who belongs and who doesn’t? Who is like us and who is not like us?’”

In the fall of 2018, when large numbers of people fleeing violence in Central America left their home countries and began walking north in what came to be known as the “migrant caravan,” the Trump administration responded by fortifying the U.S.-Mexican border with additional troops and rows of concertina wire atop the border fence, particularly at ports of entry. Concertina wire is a form of coiled barbed wire that can expand like an accordion. It was first fashioned by soldiers in World War I.

Eliany Gim, a 16-year-old high school student from Nogales, Sonora who crosses into Arizona every day for school, calls the increased security “a cruel trick on our community.” There is already a big wall at the port of entry, she says. “There is no reason that they should keep militarizing our community. I am concerned that there will be more tension because of border patrol and the troops.”

Students crossing into Nogales, Sonora with barbed wire at the U.S.-Mexico border
Students from Nogales, Sonora return home after a school day in Nogales, Arizona. Photo by Kimi Eisele

Eighteen-year-old Sergio Astorga, who lives in Nogales, Arizona, says, “All of this new barbed wire, the extra troops and the wall mesh makes me feel like we are living in a war zone,” he says. “My community is not a war zone.”

Two to three times a week Joanna Williams crosses the border from Arizona into Sonora for her job as the director of education and advocacy for the Kino Border Initiative, a binational faith-based organization offering humanitarian aid, education, and advocacy for migrants.

The organization has been receiving Central Americans in transit, who commonly express a sense of confusion about why they are perceived as threatening. “When I’m sitting with a mom and her kids who have fled from violence, to be viewed as a threat is disconcerting and confusing—it’s so far from the reality of their situation,” Williams says.

For Gaffney and others, the recent military buildup along the border—including the concertina wire—is about optics, but one that has a real effect on people. “We meet folks in the desert who say, ‘What’s going on with your president. Why does he hate us?’” she says.

Fences, of course, are also metaphorical. Gaffney sees the work of organizations like No More Deaths and Kino Border Initiative not simply as providing life-saving water or medical treatment to migrants in need, but also as breaking down barriers that make undocumented communities in the United States unsafe.

Currently, nine No More Deaths volunteers are facing federal prosecution for their humanitarian work. “To me, that’s like putting a metaphorical barbed wire fence around water or medical treatment, which everyone has a right to,” she says.

Concertina wire near the pedestrian port of entry, Nogales.
Concertina wire near the pedestrian port of entry, Nogales, AZ. Photo by Kimi Eisele

In early November of 2018, President Donald Trump addressed a crowd in Montana and spoke about the migrant caravan and increased military presence on the border. He said, “Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight.”

But what is beautiful to one is menacing to another.

Maurice Magana, a professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona, calls barbed wire “a violent object.” “Someone might want to romanticize this frontier idea. But it’s never really put up in a generous or gracious or peaceful way,” he says. “Barbed wire is about keeping people or things or animals out. It’s about exclusion, carving up the land in ways that are not natural, that are about how to commodify the earth. It has a lot of symbolism.”

Cesar Lopez offered additional reporting on this article.


Homestead National Monument of America. National Park Service.

Krell, Alan. 2002. The Devil’s Rope: A cultural history of barbed wire. Reaktion Books: London.

Razac, Olivier. 2000. Barbed Wire: A political history. The New Press: New York.

2 thoughts on “ARTIFACT: Barbed Wire”

  1. Great article! It would be great to have a short bio about the the author at the end so we can know more about who wrote it, what is their training and areas of expertise.

    • Hi Francisca,
      I wrote the piece. I’m the editor of BorderLore. I suppose I could include my bio. I am the Communications Director for SFA. I hold an MA in geography from the UA. My writing has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, High Country News, and others. You can also visit my web site Best to you! Thanks for the kudos! -Kimi


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