Monday, January 24, 2022

Texas Drift Fences


After writing my article on The Great Cattle Extinction of 1886, a few of you have written to ask why I didn't talk about the thousands of cattle that were found on the fences after the thaw. Well, frankly, if I kept writing, that article would have been longer than it already is. Besides, I had planned to write this article as a follow-up. I hope you like it, and see why I had to make them two articles.

So what is a Drift Fence? Well, as used today, a modern "drift fence" is any long continuous stock fence used to collect animals for research. The concept of drift fences has been adopted today as one of the most effective techniques for researchers to collect and sample wildlife species in a particular area. They do so to learn such things as population density. The drift fence they use is short so that animals like deer can easily jump them. The technology of a short drift fence helps gather reptiles, amphibians, insects, and even small mammals that are subjects for studies.

In reality, today's drift fence is an example of a type of technology that has kept its original name while its use changed over the years. According to one source, "When animals come upon the fence, they move along looking for an opening. Many can be captured in a single night when many species are most active and hard to observe."

Some folks confuse "drift fences" with "snow fences" which are used in various states to control drifting snow from burying highways. Snow fences prevent massive drifts from forming on the highway. Of course, as anyone who has driven in those sorts of conditions can testify, drift fences help with better visibility -- which means there is a huge reduction in the number of accidents in those areas.

In my last article, The Great Cattle Extinction of 1886, I talked about how cattle died and the cattle industry changed because of the Winter of 1886. Well, a few years before that event, back in 1882, barbed wire drift fences were built to specifically stop roaming Northern range cattle from migrating South in their search for better pastures. The idea was to stop the cattle from competing with other cattle for grass. There was something else, their migration South cost ranchers in the Southwest time and manpower. Nothern open range cattle were seen as a problem since they competed with the local cattle for the little grazing that was there, and they had to be cut out from the cattle that were supposed to be there. Mixed brands during gatherings are a problem and time-consuming to cut out. Since drift fences were constructed to stop the Southern migration and keep herds separated, a drift fence would also make a round-up easier. 

While it is said that some ranchers in Arizona built them, and I've heard of New Mexico and Wyoming ranchers having built them, Texas built drift fences to epic proportions. Some say the most famous drift fence was that built by the enormous XIT Ranch. It supposedly extended from the New Mexico border and across the Texas Panhandle. In Wyoming, the Two-Bar Ranch constructed one in Goshen Hole. 

The drift fence in Texas was built to hold back cattle from Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico from crossing into Texas during blizzards. It was strung along the northern boundary of each ranch. The fence extended for more than two hundred miles in Texas, with a gate every three miles. Yes, you read that right. The Texas drift fence was over 200 miles long. 

In the Winter of 1880, thousands of Northern open range cattle drifted down the plains into the Texas Panhandle. Because the cattle gathered at the Canadian River, it almost ruined the Winter pastures of local ranchers. With pastures endangered, local cattlemen decided to put an end to what they saw as an incursion into their territory. They saw building fences across the northern borders of their range as the solution. 

Construction started in 1881, and by 1885 drift fences extended across the Panhandle. We should remember that by that time, barbed wire was being used throughout Texas. It wasn't new for pastures belonging to individual ranchers to be fenced off. Also, it should be noted that all of the cattlemen in the Northern Texas Panhandle strung drift fences. 

It is said, "Fences thirty to forty miles in length were common, and some were even longer. They were constructed on level ground above the Canadian River, and when completed it extended 200 miles across the northernmost counties from near Higgins to the vicinity of Dalhart and into New Mexico. The fencing material consisted of cedar posts set, usually, two rods apart and connected with four strands of barbed wire. Fences across some ranges were built with posts set closer together and strung with wire in three to five strands or more. Camps were established at regular intervals, and men were employed to keep the fences in good repair. The work was facilitated by a $500 reward for the apprehension of anyone damaging the fences. The wire was hauled in wagons from rail lines in Kansas, Colorado, or New Mexico or from Harrold, Texas, then the terminus of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway. Fence posts were cut, mostly, in the breaks of the Canadian and its tributaries, but some came from Palo Duro Canyon. Construction costs averaged $250 a mile."

In the town of Dumas, in Moore County, Texas, there is a historical marker with the inscription:

Site of Historic Drift Fence

Until the mid-1880s, no range fences existed in the Texas Panhandle. Thus when winter blizzards came, cattle drifted from Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas to the Texas ranches of T ("Box T"--Dominion Cattle Co. Ltd.), 7K ("Seven K"--York, Parker & Draper), CC ("Bar C's"--Creswell Land & Cattle Co.), ("Turkey Track"--Hansford Land & Cattle Co.), LX (Bates & Beal), LIT (Littlefield), and LE (Lee & Reynolds). The influx caused these ranches in the Canadian River breaks to be overgrazed, for by spring roundup there were as many northern as local cattle in the herds.

To prevent the costly and time-consuming job of separating the cattle, each Texas rancher agreed to construct a fence along his north boundary line. The resulting fence was 200 miles long and ran from the northeast corner of the Panhandle southwest to near the site where Dumas was later founded, then west about 35 miles into New Mexico. It was a 4-strand, 4-barb fence with posts 30 feet apart and a gate every 3 miles. The materials amounted to about 65 carloads of wire and posts hauled from Dodge City.

In 1890, however, to comply with an 1889 state law prohibiting any fence from crossing or enclosing public property, most of the fence was removed.

As a result of the 1887 blizzard, Texas in 1889 passed a law prohibiting fencing of public property, and the fence was removed in 1890.

Near the town of Stinnett, in Hutchinson County, Texas, a historical marker is inscribed:

Drift Fence

Famed cattleman Charles Goodnight established one of the first ranches in the Texas Panhandle, the JA Ranch, in 1876. Later that year Thomas S. Bugbee established the first cattle ranch in Hutchinson County.

As a result of soaring beef prices, cattle ranching proliferated in this region of the U.S. In the 1880s, the Texas Panhandle, with its open range and expansive grasslands, became the preferred winter grazing site for cattle migrating south from Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas. This seasonal influx of cattle disrupted the practice of area ranchers who went to great lengths to respect adjacent ranch boundaries.

Members of the Panhandle Stock Association pooled their resources and in 1882-85 erected barbed wire barriers along a 200-mile stretch of the panhandle Including Hutchinson County to prevent cattle from drifting south into the fertile Canadian River Valley.

The "drift fence" worked too well in the winters of 1886 and 1887 when thousands of cattle moving south ahead of strong storms stalled at the fence line and froze or were trampled to death. The staggering losses prompted legislation that limited fencing on public lands and the "drift fence" was removed or incorporated into private ranch fencing.


It was pretty evident from the start that cattle would gather along the drift fences during winter storms. In the Winter of 1884 and 1885, ranchers saw that the cattle were unable to go any farther and many died of a combination of starvation and exposure. Of course, as heavy as the losses were that Winter, it's said nothing prepared them for what happened in The Great Cattle Extinction of 1886 also known as the "Big Die-Up."

It is believed that more than 250,000 cattle may have died in the Winter of 1886 along that drift fence. As I said in my other article, it was such losses that wiped out many ranchers. It changed the way ranchers tended their herds. The days of ranchers believing that herds could sustain themselves changed. It became apparent that for ranches to survive, they had to change how they produced range cattle. Cattle could not be left unattended to forage for themselves during such winters. It was then that ranchers began to purchase more land. They also started leasing more land. They reduced herd size, fenced off their own pastures which enable them to rotate pastures, supplemented feed, and produce their own forage crops. More ranchers started looking at ways to provide cattle with food, water, and shelter during such horrific times. 

Of course, with the changes came a few benefits. For example, fencing off pastures defined property lines, controlled herds, mitigated the dangers of over-grazing, all helped to lessen the need for the drift fences. Because of the Winter of 1886 and the efforts made by cattlemen as a result of that disaster, laws were enacted to remove them, most drift fences were seen as unnecessary. Most were removed by 1890. Most, but not all. In fact, it is said that some sections of drift fences were still found years after they were supposed to be removed. Those sections weren't removed because they were seen as non-threatening to livestock. 

Drift fences were actually disastrous for ranchers and cattle during the Winter of 1886 and the Big Bie-Up. Incredibly deep snow and ice prevented cattle to find food, and the fences stopped them from moving South to greener pastures. As a result, the cattle froze to death along the fences. Of course, the intrepid cowboy had of riding the line to prevent the fence from being broken. This was some of the worse work that a hand had to endure. 

There is a story by Glynda Pflug titled "A Child's Grave." In that story, the writer talks about a cowboy near Dumas, Texas, who found a missing child. In her story, she describes how "The nearest cattle market [to Dumas] was 200 miles north at Dodge City, Kansas. The cattle were driven to market in large cattle drives and soon their feet wore a trail in the grass all the way to Kansas. Travelers going by horse and buggy, wagons, stagecoaches, and horseback started using those trails to make their way across the country."

She wrote about how "a day's travel was about 30 miles" and how a stage stop about 11 miles East of Dumas, was known as "The Little Blue Stage Stop." The stage stop was run by the Moore family. The writer notes in her story that there was no connection between the Moore family that ran that stage stop and the name of Moore County.

The story goes on as follows: "The Moores cared for extra horses for the stage, cooked for travelers, and provided overnight lodging. The family had a small boy. One day, John Arnot, an LX cowboy, was riding the drift fence checking for LX Cattle and stopped at the stage shop. The little boy had wandered away from home that day and John Arnot joined the search for him, finally finding him in a water pond where he had died.

The Moores buried him there on the prairie on a rocky hill overlooking a small creek. They found a big flat rock and chiseled the name "Moore" on the rock. They stood it up by the grave and put pretty rocks around it.

The markings on the stone grow fainter as the years pass, but decades later it was still possible to read the last two letters. The grave is believed to have been made in 1890. At one time, a fence was built around the grave in an attempt to preserve the site. Girl Scouts of Moore County have used the ranchland for their annual Day Camps and hiked to the gravesite each year. They take their gloves, hoes, shovels, and other tools and maintain the gravesite as best they can.

The deep wagon ruts that were made by the stage line can still be seen by looking closely and some of the wire and posts of the famous "drift fence" might still be there. It is in the same area that legends tell about John Arnot killing the last buffalo in the Panhandle of Texas."

It's said that the child's grave is one of the oldest in Moore County, Texas. 

Tom Correa


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