Symbols of the Old West are almost unquestionably associated with the right wing in this day-in-age. Yet the real history of the Wild West is more complicated. Take the 19th century Fence Cutting Wars in Texas, a state-wide, interracial armed movement against the encroachments of big ranchers backed up by the Texas Rangers in instating a new regime of private property on the territory. David Griscom, host of the Left Reckoning podcast, joins The Marc Steiner Show for a discussion on this little-known but deeply influential episode in Texan and US socialist history.
Studio / Post-Production: David Hebden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show, here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s good to have y’all with us.
Many of you listen to our series The Rise of the Right, and we’re going to take it on the road soon. Our first stop will be Texas. And today we have a conversation with Texas activist and writer David Griscom, joining us from Austin, the capital of Texas, where he co-hosts the podcast Left Reckoning. He recently wrote a fascinating article that was in Jacobin magazine entitled “When Cowboys Fought Private Property.” It’s the story of the Fence Cutting Wars of the 1880s, that in some ways led to the building of the progressive movement in Texas. And David Griscom, welcome. Good to have you with us.
David Griscom: I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you so much.
Marc Steiner: Fence cutting wars. So we’re not talking about a John Wayne movie here [laughs].
David Griscom: No, it would make a really great film, I gotta say.
Marc Steiner: It would. Well, go ahead.
David Griscom: Yeah, it’s a really fascinating story, and we can get into it in a little bit. But it’s a story I had heard a few times. I’m from Texas, I’m a bit of a Texas history nerd. And every time you come across this story, the way it’s always told is, this is how law and order came to the state of Texas. Because it’s an important moment of the Texas Rangers putting down the wild folks in this state.
But, if you really look closely at it, it’s a really incredible interracial movement against private property. And it was not one of those things… A lot of times when progressives find an interesting story from the 1800, it’s a very isolated event – Still interesting, but isolated. This engulfed the entire state. And all across the state of Texas, the vast majority of counties had active Fence Cutting Wars. So it’s a really, really important moment in the state’s history, and I think it’s something that is underdeveloped and uncovered.
But just briefly to sketch it out for folks, what happens. After the Civil War, the state of Texas, like many other Southern states, were economically devastated. So you have this huge land grab by wealthy folks, some people of the old planter class, but also an influx of Northern and European capital coming to the state of Texas to take advantage of the cheap land. They start buying up tremendous amounts of land across the state. And it just so happened that this was occurring at the same time of this new invention called barbed wire. And barbed wire, as a Texan, it’s very ubiquitous. It’s a part of growing up, getting your jeans cut on it or something like that someday.
But rather than it being something that people embraced, people fought against it, because what barbed wire represented to them was the end of what was called the open range. The idea that the land belonged to everybody. And you had these big land barons coming to the state, and also established Texas ranchers, buying up more and more land and then putting up barbed wire all around it.
And they did this with such enthusiasm. They weren’t just covering up their land, they were covering over public roads, public waterways, all across the state of Texas. So you see this physical impediment to life in the state. Literally, it was difficult to go from county to county even if you were just traveling, but certainly for people who made their living off of the land, particularly landless cowboys. This became a huge impediment to their life.
So at first, people started cutting down the barbed wire solely out of necessity. I got to get my cattle over here, there’s barbed wire in the middle, we’re going to cut it. But it very quickly became this vigilante movement. And all across the state, large groups of people started organizing themselves into different gangs to cut down these fences.
Of course, it being Texas, the landowners soon hired a bunch of goons with guns to shoot at the fence cutters, and the fence cutters armed themselves, too, and thus the Fence Cutting Wars began in earnest. And there were multiple incidents of shooting fights and things like that happening across the state of Texas.
Marc Steiner: And I love some of the names of the fence cutting gangs, names like the Owls, the Javelinas, the Blue Devils, the Knights of the Nippers [laughs].
David Griscom: And it’s a fascinating thing if you read into it. The Nippers in particular, which are the implements they were using to cut down these fences, it became a badge of honor. So you could go into a bar or a saloon in the state of Texas and people would proudly wear them on their hip [Steiner laughs] to indicate that they were with this rebellion, which is really cool.
Marc Steiner: It also has this complexity. I want to talk a bit about that. It’s something that you don’t read about much, these Texas Fence Cutting Wars. But let’s talk for a minute just about where Texas was then. The post-Civil War, the contradictions of race and racism. There’s this one quote you have in there. I’m sure it was very mixed in terms of some people allied with Chicanos and Mexican Americans and Black folks who were freed, and some people despise that. You have this line here, says some of the fence cutters in post-Reconstruction who hated the progressive policies of Reconstruction.
The quote is, “Down with monopolies. They can’t exist in Texas, and especially in Coleman County. Away with your foreign capitalists. The range and soul of Texas belong to the heroes of the South. No monopolies, and don’t tax the schools, and don’t tax us to school the ends. Give us homes as God intended. And now gates to churches and towns and schools, and above all give us water for our stock.” The contradictions were there. Talk a bit about that and what you learned in terms of where unity existed, but also where racism divided, and in many ways helped kill the movement.
David Griscom: This is one of the classic stories about any of these labor uprisings in the South is how effective racism was at breaking them. And certainly it was present in the Fence Cutting Wars. It was also something that, unfortunately, was a player in the Texas socialist movement, which has a very interesting and larger tradition than I think a lot of people expect. But you even had socialists who say, we’re not going to touch that, because if we start talking about racism and things like that, we’re going to get axed. It didn’t matter because the state destroyed the socialist movement pretty early on anyway.
But no, this was, when it comes to this progressive movement, I think there’s two factors at play here. One is, as I noted in the piece, the Fence Cutting Wars was a true grassroots reaction to a problem. But, it wasn’t orchestrated by any kind of political movement. Which, one, meant that you had people acting on their own in their small groups, but it also allowed newspaper men and people unaffiliated directly with the movement to be able to carry on whatever things that they wanted in with it.
That quote right there came from a newspaperman who’s talking about the problems the fence cutters were facing, and then slides in at the end his frustration with the funding of schools for Black folk in the state of Texas.
This is, I think, part of it is one to reckon with and realize the nasty history in the state here, but also to recognize some of the problems when you do have a movement like that. If you don’t have a political wing or the organization that’ll be necessary to push forward your message and things like that, anybody can try and own it. And the Fence Cutting Wars is interesting because it was one that was directly in people’s economic necessity. And I think that’s why there was that interracial component. It’s very different from something in a later time.
But the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which was a massive union of tenant farmers that had interracial organizing as a plank. The fence cutting didn’t have anything like that. But what the fence cutters had was because it was such a direct threat to Tejanos, to Black folk, to poor whites, that it became interracial just because of the economic necessity. And one of the tragedies, I think, of the Fence Cutting Wars was that it wasn’t able to harness itself into a larger political movement. Now, people in it ended up joining movements after. But this upsurge that we saw was scattered very quickly.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to talk a bit about what that meant, but I want to take a slight digression of what you just said. You mentioned the tenant farmers. And I know they were big in Mississippi and Alabama. Were they also big in Texas?
David Griscom: The Southern Tenant Farmers Union, where it was hottest, was in Arkansas. There were big parts of the Tenant Farmers Union in Texas as well as in Oklahoma. So they played a role. Never as hot and as big as they were in Arkansas. But I also think that that comes down to the tenant farming system in Texas not being as developed as it was in Arkansas. But all these folks, this is a whole other conversation that I’d love to talk about one day.
Marc Steiner: I didn’t mean that. When you said that…
David Griscom: No, no. I’m working on a piece right now on the tenant farmers that’s going to hopefully come out in Jacobin very soon. Prime for it. But a lot of Texans come from these populists and agrarian movements in Texas, and end up being leaders in Arkansas as well. So these are all connected, these fights.
Marc Steiner: The way, the article I mean, I really was not… You sent me down a rabbit hole with your article [laughs]. I started unearthing stuff from other stories. But these Fence Cutting Wars were intense and they were violent. And they literally were a war between people trying to open the range saying, you can’t cut the range off from us. We need the water. We need to be able to graze our cattle and take care of our livestock as well. It was really a fundamental class struggle that took place where, as we used to call them, the bourgeoisie won in the end. But, talk a bit about that. The intensity of what that moment was.
David Griscom: Oh, let’s start with the hypocrisy first.
Marc Steiner: Okay, fine.
David Griscom: Because the hypocrisy of this entire movement is that you have this class of landowners and big ranchers who are saying, this is my land. You guys get the public lands. All the while, the big ranchers, they were still using the open range. So they were putting their cattle up into the open range, into the public lands, eating up all the grass, drinking the water, and then once the grass was depleted, then they’d retreat into their enclaves. So there was a direct unfairness to this from the get-go.
This became something that was a huge economic push for people because what ended up happening was all of this, finance capital in particular, ends up investing heavily into Texas at this time, particularly into land owning and into the cattle market.
And you see this huge explosion in the price of cattle at this time. I noted in the article that in just three years, the price of cattle per head went from $7 a head to $25 a head. So a big reason that this becomes so violent is because the capitalists, the people who invested so much money into buying up all this land in Texas, investing in the cattle industry, wanted to make sure that they could get as much from their returns as possible, and having any kind of competition, even if it’s from unorganized small farmers, was an impediment to them.
There’s an aspect to this that is the enclosure of the public lands, but it’s also an attempt to try to monopolize the market, to only have the big players being able to sell cattle in San Antonio and Austin and in Fort Worth. So this becomes a real life and death fight for these small… Some of the fence cutters were small property owners who owned very small, attractive lands. A lot of them were landless workers. Regardless of what their actual position is, they’re nothing compared to these big cattle barons. So this became something that was able to unite people who might’ve been able to have a moderate homestead or something like that against these incredibly powerful players in the state.
Marc Steiner: You read about how this led to other movements being built, the Farmers’ Alliance, the People’s Party, the Texas Socialist Party. The idea that Texas had a socialist party, I love. I went down that rabbit hole, too [laughs]. So you said many of the fence cutters ended up joining these movements. So talk a bit about that. Let me just stop there. Go ahead.
David Griscom: Yeah, yeah. Basically, this is a common experience across the South and the Midwest at this time, is you see these kinds of explosions around one issue. Farmers’ Alliance is another example of that where small-time farmers were getting screwed over by the national financial system, by the shopkeepers. And they realize, oh, if we get together, we can maybe fight back and push back against these kinds of things.
A lot of these people who get involved in the Fence Cutting Wars, their life gets interrupted by politics. Their life gets interrupted by this mass enclosure that’s happening. So people start to build connections, they start to get to know each other, they start to maybe read newspapers and things like that that are not just talking about the Fence Cutting Wars, but all of these wild ideas like socialism or populism or things like that.
So you have a lot of these community links that are being built, these class-rooted identities of people realizing that, we’re not all Texans. I’m a worker. I’m a small landowner. I’m a farmer, I’m a small farmer. I’m a cowboy, or something like that. That is something that is in direct opposition to the money powers that are governing in Austin. That is something that is in direct opposition to the big land baron a couple miles down the road from you. So it was something that really built a lot of class consciousness with people.
You see this massive upsurge in the populist movement in Texas at the end of the 19th century. And they were able to have some successes, get some people elected, made a big impact on politics, not even just by maybe getting an election here or there, but just because people had to react to the demands of these people because they were organizing into a political force. That’s why the state worked so hard to put them down. That’s why they made such an example out of these fence cutters in this example.
And out of that, going to the 20th century, people went through the experience of populism and started organizing with the Texas Socialist Party because they saw how populism, as effective as it was to some degree, was able to be incorporated into, particularly, into the Democratic Party in the state of Texas. And that became a big political threat. And the lesson that people took, and they started joining up the Socialist Party.
Yeah, the Socialist Party was very influential in Texas. Eugene Debs was a regular visitor here. There’s a really incredible history of the Socialist Party in Texas. Part of it comes out of these agrarian revolts. Another part of it comes out of the fact that a lot of people who came to Texas were these German socialists who came here to build out communes. They immediately were thrown – Again, they might’ve had this idea that they were going to go out into the wild and build a nice little community. Sooner or later politics started coming to their doorstep. Sooner or later they had to engage in the state, or at least the national political scene. So there’s these twin movements of this German and immigrant population that’s coming to Texas that’s holding these socialist ideas, and these agrarian populist movements that are pushing up against the limits of that kind of organizing and maybe looking for something bigger.
Marc Steiner: You sent me down that rabbit hole, too. I started reading about [laughs]…
David Griscom: I love it. I love it.
Marc Steiner: I started reading about Comfort, Texas, which is where these, the 48ers, the folks who fought in the communist revolutions in Germany, ended up coming here and creating a whole world, it was also an abolitionist world, in Texas.
David Griscom: Yes. For listeners, they might be surprised to know that there was a young journalist at the time named Karl Marx, who also tried to immigrate…
Marc Steiner: What was his name? Who?
David Griscom: Karl Marx [both laugh]. He tried to immigrate to Texas, but ended up being blocked when he was trying to leave Prussia at the time. But that’s the story for another day.
No, these Germans, particularly in central Texas and in Comfort, Texas, tried to build out these socialist systems. For political theory nerds, these were more utopian socialists in the sense that their idea of how to make political change was not so much like we’re going to seize power, but we’re going to create a great model. We’re going to get ourselves out of society, get some land, and we’re going to be able to build a utopian system. Very impressive things that they did. And these people lived and died for their ideals.
Comfort, Texas, and it’s a tragedy given the name of the town, was the site of a very brutal massacre of these German-Texan socialists by the Confederacy.
So after Texas seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, the Army of Confederate, the Confederate States of America, went around town to town and demanded people sign up and pledge loyalty to the Confederacy. These Germans refused. And what’s really interesting about this story is that, for a long time, the story has gone that they were murdered and they were all killed off. And they were. It’s the site of a massacre. But recently, in the past 20 years, more and more archeological evidence has come out that is starting to point to the idea that they probably fought back against all odds.
And so they end up being massacred. But these people went out fighting against a cruel system like slavery, fighting against the Confederacy, and dying right here in central Texas.
And I’ll just say this. As a Texan, these stories are really important for us, I think, to uncover, because it’s just as much a part of our history as anything else. And Texas has a really brutal history, obviously, like most places in this country. And I think it’s a testament to our ancestors and these folks to be able to remember their story, that for every one of these horrific chapters that you hear in the history of Texas, know that there were these incredible people who are fighting back against it. Oftentimes they lose. But it’s our duty, in my opinion, to hold up that legacy and to fight for their memory today.
Marc Steiner: When I read about Comfort, and we’ll conclude after this, but when I read about Comfort, it made me think of it as another Alamo.
David Griscom: Yeah, truly an Alamo of a different Texas. I love that idea.
Marc Steiner: What does this all have to say to us today? You’re a writer, but you’re also an activist in Texas today. So what are these stories? What does this history say to where Texas is now? And what lessons to learn? And where do you think that takes us to understand this in the context of what we face today, what you face today in Texas?
David Griscom: Yeah, I’ll just say, up top, I wish we would have more fence cutting, looking at what’s happening at our southern border going on right now.
Marc Steiner: That’s an interesting idea [laughs].
David Griscom: It’s our history, right? What are these lessons? There’s a lot of things that we can pull from the Fence Cutting War, that you were able to unite people against all odds of different backgrounds at a time when society was trying to pit groups against each other fairly well based on coming together across these shared interests. I think the Fence Cutting Wars is an inspiring one, but I think it’s limited in comparison to maybe the things that we saw in the socialist movement or in the populist movement.
There’s a lot of organizational lessons that, if you really want to dive into these things, can be really helpful. Looking at what people are experiencing in their day-to-day life that is the thing that is preventing them from being able to live a better life. So if you’re somebody working in the state of Texas right now, what is a force that is on your back? Well, right now, the state government has been actively working to ban water breaks for workers in a state that regularly gets over 100 degrees.
Marc Steiner: That’s insane.
David Griscom: Which is unbelievable. And if it were only that, they’re also, the way they’ve written that law, the way that movement is set up, is to effectively bar local governments from being able to pass any sort of regulations for workers. So that’s something that you can feel in your everyday. If you’re somebody who works outside, if you’re somebody who works in the state, you can see who’s lining up on the other side of you. Think about the same thing. Rising rents, cost of living in the state of Texas. You can see who is benefiting from that. The speculators and the real estate industry and the state government here that’s protecting them.
I think that this is one of the big lessons that we have to take from the populist movement, from the socialist movement, from the fence cutters, is we can talk about capitalism as an abstract system, and that’s great, don’t get me wrong. But if you can really root these things in people’s everyday lives where that connection, instead of it being this spiritual force – A lot of times people love talk about capitalism as this spiritual thing – But, instead actually rooting it in people’s day-to-day issues, I think that that has tremendous possibilities for people to organize.
And the other thing I have to say is that one thing that I think a lot of Southerners do and a lot of Texans do on the left is they eschew, I don’t know, they’re Texan-ness. And I’m not talking about doing some flag hugging, tailing of the right thing. I’m from this place. I love this place. I’m a socialist. I’m on the left because I believe in the people here. And being able to be well-versed in the history, in these movements, I think is really important for us. So that when we say, hey, we’re for these things like higher wages for workers and unions and basic democratic rights. These aren’t some foreign importation or something coming from California, New York. This is literally what people are fighting for in this state seven generations ago. This is as much a part of the state’s politics and the state’s history as anything else. And I think being able to be rooted in these things are things that are really important for us to be able to be confident in doing going forward.
Marc Steiner: It’s been a pleasure to talk to you about this, and I look forward to many more conversations. And we’re going to link to this article in Jacobin, “When Cowboys Fought Private Property.” You should definitely check it out. It’s an important piece of history that links to where we are in this country at this moment and what’s happening in our world today.
David Griscom, thanks so much. I really look forward to talking more to you and seeing you in Texas soon.
David Griscom: Sounds good. Looking forward to it too, friend.
Marc Steiner: And that’s it. Thank you all for joining us today. Please check this out, check this story out. It’s a really great article linked to other stuff he’s been writing. And I want to thank our crew here: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino, Kayla Rivara behind the scenes, and everyone at Real News for making this possible.
Let me know what you think about this, what you’d like us to cover, your own thoughts about Texas. I want to hear them. Write to me at email@example.com, and I’ll get right back to you. And by the way, before you roll, while you’re here, go to realnews.com/support, become a monthly donor. So for Cameron Granadino, Kayla Rivara and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.