Monday, January 15, 2007

In the beginning - there were no fences

You wouldn’t have thought anyone could really do a "history" of the fence. After all, where does it begin? At the walls of Jericho? With the Chinese wall? From the beginning of man-on-earth?

Well, believe it or not, it’s been studied, and the writings about it that I found most interesting were by Christina Kotchemidova, a professor at New York University, much of whose writings are referenced here.

Dr. Kotchemidova made the point that fences do more than provide a physical function (like keeping someone in or out) - they actually have a cultural function. In fact, she says that the history of civilization is closely tied with the history of the fence. Human civilization is imagined as emerging from agriculture, family and property. And all of these evolved with the serious help of the fence.

And she, and others, identify the fence as a key to understanding of the idea of private property. Fences, she says, define ownership, and societies that did not have individual ownership, such as early European farming, (harvesting, and moving-on societies, and many American native tribes,) did not have fences.

That plant-cut-and-run farming technique, however, was enormously destructive of the land. The coming of the fence marked the transition from a pattern of one-time looting the land to a pattern or taking care of it and farming it for years.

Some American Indian tribes had man-constructed fences, but only for defense... not ownership. As a result, they never encircled the Indian camp, but were on one side of the camp, behind which the warriors could shield themselves.

While noone knows the name of the inventor of this technology, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who writes about social contracts, wrote: "The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society." The fence helped institutionalize one of the most important elements of the social contract – the collective recognition of private property.

So there. The history of the fence reveals it as the beginning of serious farming, conservation, and the beginning of recognizing private property. How about that.

And more - the thinking about private property. An English observer of farming once said "Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock and he will turn it into a garden. Give him a nine years' lease of a garden and he will convert it into a desert."

Ownership is different from leasing, and such thinking has, in many ways, defined several societies.

Further, in 7th century England, the King of Wessex added a new function for the fence ... the business of protecting crops from cattle, and the land-owner’s responsibilities. He proclaimed that a homestead must be fenced winter and summer. If it is not fenced and his neighbor's cattle get in through his own gap, he has no right to anything from that cattle; he is to drive it out and suffer the damage.

Now, getting back to America, several interesting historical notes. First, visitors to Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s were amazed to see a style fence they had never seen before... a worm fence... logs just laid atop others at an angle eliminating the need for posts of any kind. It was, of course, something to do with the spare logs yielded when clearing the land, but it was unique.

And then, John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, justified his enclosure policy saying: "That which lies common, and hath never beene replenished or subdued, is free to any that possess and improve it."

That idea (though hardly uniquely American) - if it’s unoccupied, it’s free to anyone who will improve it - had enormous implications in the settling of the American west. In the 1880s a war of fences flared as settlers arrived in 11 western states between the 100th meridian and the Rockies, only to find that rangers had fenced off huge pasture terrains. They, the settlers, discovered they could not buy and farm the land, even if it was suitable (water, soil) for farming.

It also affected the migrating Indians who followed the buffalo, the cattle drives of the Texans driving their steers to Kansas markets, sheep vs. cattle people as it influenced water, railroaders whose tracks crossed the cattle ranging, and other settlers in the west. These "range wars," roughly from 1875 to 1895 or so, define the Hollywood genre of "the western."

The conflict between the rangers, the cattle drivers, the farmers and the Indians coincided with the boom of barbed wire, invented in 1873 and thriving as a cheap and efficient tool for enclosure. The range wars were often cited as "fence-cutters war" and it greatly affected the development of those 11 states.

But more about the history of barbed wire another time.

Christina Kochemidova, The Culture of the Fence,
Jay Monaghan - Range Wars...
Ranching West of the 100th meridian ..., Richard L. Knight et al.
T.R. Fehrenbach, San Antonio TX Express News
Between Fences, Smithsonian Exhibit, California, MO. (Missouri Humanities Council)
Book "Mayflower"