Free Grass vs Fences
Navarro County, Texas


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Free Grass Vs Fences
by Nelson Ross
Originally published in "The Navarro County Scroll", 1967
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society

Barbed wire was invented in 1873.  By 1880 fencing was well under way in most settled parts of Texas.  Fencing was not an accepted way of life for a great portion of the population until about 1890.  However we do have a record in the Texas Ranger files of a young county judge, John Nance Garner of Uvalde, requesting about three Texas Rangers for that area to catch fence cutters.   It seems the cutters had cut for the third time, the fences of a large ranch in his county.  Mr. Garner later became Vice-president of the United States and is still living in Uvalde, Texas at this writing.  His request was made in the year 1893.

A great segment of Texas population was taken by surprise when large owners began to turn off employed cowboys and fence their holdings.   Cowboys were not needed in such large numbers since fences made their work much simpler.

Most small land owners had moved to Texas with the "dream" firmly implanted in their minds and plans that Texas would always have free grass and open range.  They also felt that they would be able to always ride in any direction without any hindrance.

When the settlers with small holdings saw that outside capital was moving into the state and investing in huge tracts of state lands and constructing fences at an alarming rate, they almost panicked.  The state tried to pacify them by demanding gates every three miles on the new fences; this was not enough.   They began to see that a new era was a threat to their economic system of free grass.  The result was that men, who had for years been good neighbors and had helped build Texas, combined with unemployed cowboys, became breakers of the law in destroying every fence they could find.

Navarro County was no exception.  We have records that at least one indignation meeting was held at the Corsicana Court House.   Two other meetings were held later at Angus to protest the arrest and conviction of a man named Humphries for cutting Judge Frost's fence at Eureka.  They talked of storming the Navarro County Jail and freeing the prisoners.

Judge Frost and Sheriff West had requested the Governor, Sul Ross, to send Texas Rangers to the county to stop what had become a very dangerous situation.  The trouble had reached a peak by 1888.  Two Rangers were sent in as plain clothe farm workers.  They were Sgt. Ira Aten and "Fiddling" Jim King.

Sgt. Aten and Jim King spent at least two months in the Richland area, at the request of Judge Frost and Sheriff West, trying to catch the fence cutters in the act.  During this time Aten wrote five letters which have been preserved and copies can be found in "Texas Rangers" by Walter Prescott Webb (1935), The Riverside Press.  These letters tell how Aten detested this kind of work, also show his courage and sense of humor.  All five letters were addressed to Captain L. P. Sixker, his superior officer at Ranger Headquarters in Austin, Texas.  One letter was written from the Big Spring, Richland, Texas.  He was camped somewhere on the Love Brothers Ranch, some two miles north and west of Richland, Texas.  In this letter Sgt. Aten wrote:

"We have an excellent place to watch.   Its at what is known as the Cross Lanes where four pastures come together... We can hear them cutting on either of the eight strands of fence from a half to three quarters of a mile ...  If such a thing is possible I want to take the villains alive without having to kill them.

But I think a little more of my life than theirs and I will stand a trail for murder before I will stand up and be shot down like a fool.

I expect some of these days to stand up before a fire and shake off my six-shooter and Winchester, kick them in the fire and watch them burn up and then head for the panhandle and settle down on a little farm, go to nesting, be a better boy, and read my Bible more.  When I am called upon by an officer to assist him in making an arrest I will go out to the barn and get the pitch fork or the hoe and follow in behind the officer like old Grangers do.  So I don't want to kill these rascals and have any more deadly enemies on my trail than I have already got."

Sgt. Aten also stated that when he first came in, no fence was standing west of the H. & T. C. Railway line.  This was known as "Free Range Country".  In his last letters he tells of plans to put dynamite booms on the fences and bought dynamite in Dallas for that purpose.  This gave him reason to be called off the job.  Gov. Ross and Capt. Sixker called him in.   It also seemed to put fear in the fence cutters.  They did not know for sure and everyone was afraid of dynamite.  The war was over, fences went back up and stayed up.

There is a law still on the statues, against carrying wire cutters.  Some settlers went further west, others adjusted to a new era.  Some scrapes of wire used in that period can still be found on the old fence lines or protruding from the trunks of trees along those lines.  Some samples will be shown here tonight, and it is hoped that we can reproduce them for pictures to accompany the scroll in 1967.

 


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Copyright March, 2009
Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox