Fencing and Fencing Laws

views updated


FENCING AND FENCING LAWS. The fencing of land was a problem in colonial America, where unoccupied land was plentiful and cultivated acreage was rare. Virginia Colony in 1632 required crops to be fenced and in 1646 defined a legal or "sufficient" fence. Maryland adopted a similar approach, but the laws of North Carolina were more rigid.

Fencing law evolved as white settlers moved west. Settlers claimed unsold public land as free range for their livestock, and as settlement increased, the demand for fenced pasture grew more acute. Planters in Virginia secured some relief in 1835, as did farmers in New Jersey in 1842. Despite the depletion of timber, laws requiring the fencing of crops were the rule by the mid-nineteenth century. In 1872 Illinois extended this general principle to livestock, passing a law requiring farmers to corral their animals.

Fencing styles varied with region and time. In the Northeast, stone fences were common. Elsewhere, the zigzag, or Virginia rail, fence was used wherever timber was available. As timber grew scarce, post and pole, picket, board, and wire fences became more widespread.

By the late nineteenth century, cattlemen controlled large swaths of the West and were driving cattle to the railroads. The advent of barbed wire allowed homesteaders to protect their crops from these enormous herds, but this evoked bitter complaints from cattlemen and sparked violent confrontations with the settlers. Open ranching gradually gave way to stock farming, with its controlled grazing and improved breeding techniques. As cattle ranching spread northward, cattlemen fenced government land for their private use, a practice curbed by federal legislation in 1885.


Fletcher, Robert H. Free Grass to Fences: The Montana Cattle Range Story. New York: University Publishers, 1960.

Russell H.Anderson/a. r.

See alsoLand Policy ; Public Land ; Fencing of ; West, American .