Split Rail Fencing in American History
How many times have you closely examined split rail fencing? Unless you have a fence fetish, the answer is probably a big fat zero. Although this fencing type may seem modest, boring and completely unworthy of your attention, it becomes much more interesting when one considers its key role in American history.
The following is a summary of the importance of the split rail fence to American pioneers, who streamed by the thousands into the American west during the late 1800s. As they settled, those pioneers used local resources as fence materials. This fence style also destroyed an even earlier way of life, that of the American cowboy. In addition, Abraham Lincoln won his presidency partially based on his reputation as a masterful rail-splitter.
How American Pioneers Built Their Fences
Because it was comparatively easy to gather logs hewn from trees that had been cleared from the land, split rail was the most common type of pioneer fence installation. Western geography looked very different in the 1850s; there seemed to be an unlimited amount of forest for eager pioneers to clear into farmland. In the new farms springing up around young pioneer cities, pioneers split logs lengthwise to create wood for fences.
For several reasons, split rail fencing was the pioneer’s preferred type of fence installation. Much of the American West has rocky, hard ground in places. Split rail fences can be built even on hard ground. Furthermore, split rail fencing can be erected with only a few tools. These fences are simple in their construction; they don’t even require nails, which were hard to come by in the pioneer days. Due to this fencing’s simple design and minimal requirements for fence materials, pioneers across the West preferred this type of fence.
How Fencing Conquered the Cowboy
As American pioneers erected split rail fencing, they were carving up the landscape of the American west. What was previously a wide-open landscape of grazing land became a civilized patchwork of homesteads. For the reasons listed above, this fencing was usually the first sign of a new claim. Each new fenced homestead removed one more area where cowboys could graze their herds.
American artists such as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell highlighted the role of the split rail fence in their paintings. These two artists chronicled the Wild West in their paintings. One Remington work, The Fall of the Cowboy, shows two cowboys opening a split rail fence – almost as if they were walking out of their old way of life, and into a new American landscape of farmland and cities. As this fencing type cut across the American territories, it made it much more difficult to move livestock great distances.
Abe Lincoln: Master Politician who Started Building Split Rail Fencing
American political history also contains important references to the split rail fence. In the 1840 presidential race, William Henry Harrison mounted the “Log Cabin Campaign” to show American voters that he was truly a common man, especially compared to his opponent, Marten Van Buren.
Lincoln used a similar tactic in his 1860 campaign for office. At a key moment of the Illinois state convention, Lincoln’s cousin John Hanks strode into the hall carrying two pieces of split fence rail that he had gathered from the Lincoln family farm. Unlike many modern political stunts, this one was real – Honest Abe really had split those rails back on the family property. Between the rails hung a banner, which proudly read, “Abe Lincoln the Rail Splitter.” The entire hall burst into wild applause as Hanks entered. Lincoln’s reputation as a common man rode on the fact that he had in fact built his own fencing back on the family farm.
Throughout American history, split rail fencing has been an important form of fence installation. Pioneers, landowners and farmers used this fencing type to cut up the land for farming, ending the cowboy way of life. Residents can honor the part split rail fencing has played in American history by having this type of fence installed on their property.