Traps, Barbed Wire, and Rails: Iron in Wyoming and the Craft

I’ve discussed iron a lot on lists and with friends about iron, both in folklore and in practice. I’ve always looked at it from a theoretical and scientific viewpoint, looking at the physical properties and what they can tell us about the use of iron in folk practice and folk tales. Most of my emphases has been on the magnetic properties and the conductive properties, and what these might have meant to ancient peoples and what they might mean now. This is, of course, a legitimate line of reasoning, and has direct practical application.

However, recently I’ve been looking more at my current Landscape and how various elements of folklore and practice relate to where I’m at. I began thinking of iron in that context, and got a much different picture. I think this picture is very important to my practice, and might help others investigate their own Landscape and practice.

Today in the US, in a lot of ways, steel workers are the masons of our world. Steel and iron form the bones of the great cities, and cities are more steel and concrete than anything. In more rural areas like Wyoming, though, you don’t find many iron structures. But iron is no less important.

I will start with a brief history of iron in Wyoming, for without iron, there would be no present day Wyoming. Throughout this post, keep in mind that when I use the term “iron”, I am including steel as well. In some cases, one would be more appropriate than the other, but I will use “iron” everywhere, unless the distinction is important.

Iron use was first introduced into what is now Wyoming by fur trappers. Beavers were very plentiful in many areas of Wyoming. To begin with, French fur trappers worked various areas of Wyoming, which was mostly in land claimed by France. Soon after, with the Louisiana Purchase, United States fur trappers moved in. Though there are other uses, during the fur trade period, the main uses of iron were for guns, knives, and traps. All three are significant, both to history, and to our purposes. A gun, of course, served two purposes, both connected to death. The killing of animals, for food and for self defense, and the killing of people, both offensively and defensively. The knife was also used for these, but more for skinning and cutting meat. Skinning is of course important when you’re livelihood is the pelts of animals, and it also allows you access to meat underneath on game animals. And traps, of course, are for catching the beaver for its fur. This was not humane live traps, this was the type that closed on a leg, usually breaking it, and doing enough damage that the leg was lost even if the animal got free. The goal wasn’t capture, the goal was obtaining a pelt. A trap, too, is an agent of death, like the gun. The fur trade led to settlement and military present to protect the trade routes and settlers from attacks by “Indians”. Iron tack and iron horse shoes on the military horses is important, but the military presence mostly meant more guns and knives, from an iron perspective. Iron smiths were present both to cater to the trappers and traders, and for the military. The fur trade in Wyoming lasted about fifty years, until beaver hats went out of fashion in Europe.

The next major event was the gold rush, starting at South Pass. Gold was discovered in 1842, but the rush didn’t pick up for another twenty years because of the Civil War. About the same time as gold was discovered, migration on the Oregon Trail trough Wyoming picked up. This meant iron rims on wagons and more iron shoes on horses, and meant more iron smiths. Some of the settlers didn’t make it across Wyoming before winter and were stuck here. Those that survived the first winter often stayed and settled. Settlers of course brought iron axes, knifes, and guns. It’s important to note that while South Pass City and the other gold towns nearby are now ghost towns, that South Pass City was larger than Cheyenne at one point, and there was a push to move the capital there. The gold rush had a huge impact on Wyoming, economically, politically, socially, culturally, and on deeper levels. The rush itself didn’t last long, only a few years, but it resulted in a large increase in population, and made way for later mining and mineral related ventures. To this day, minerals are the state’s largest source of income, including oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, natrona, and other substances. Iron in gold mining took several forms. True mining meant iron picks and shovels. Gold panning meant iron pans. With settlement and mining, iron moved from an instrument of death and preparation of the dead to tools to shape the land and gather from it. Iron rims meant long distance travel. Shovels and picks and axes meant the gathering of mineral and wood.

In the 1860s, iron took on a new role.  This began with the Pony Express in 1860.  While iron was used in tack and other things relating to the Express, the important role was iron horseshoes.  While not new in that time, the speed and constant movement of the Express would have been impossible without horseshoes, and horseshoes without iron.  Iron made the fast communication of the Express possible.  Eighteen months later, the Express was made obsolete by the second part of this new role.  The first transcontinental telegraph lines were iron and ran through Wyoming.  Iron became the the instrument for communication.  When telegraphs were later made mostly obsolete by the telephone, however, copper lines were used instead of iron.  Iron telegraph lines are still used along the railroads of Wyoming.

The first recorded cattle drive in Wyoming was in 1866. From then, the ranch industry grew exponentially. Even today, agriculture is the third largest industry after minerals and tourism. In the early days of ranching, Wyoming was completely open range. Cattle barons and sheepherders vied for the same areas, resulting in armed conflicts and slaughtering of the animals of the Other by both sides. In addition, when homesteaders began to settle in Wyoming, cattle barons took this as the settlers taking their land, and it wasn’t unknown for drummed up charges of cattle rustling to result in hangings of those settlers. The problem grew until a raid in 1909 resulted in seven convictions and five imprisonments of cattlemen. In addition, the Taylor Grazing Act helped to define where grazing was allowed and create regulations to control grazing land to avoid conflict. One of the main issues in Wyoming besides water and mineral rights has always been open range and at large animals and how that interacts with private land. There are two main parts to Wyoming law involving this, branding and fencing. Brands were originally controlled by county but was taken over by the state in 1909. A brand is a symbol burnt into an animal using a hot iron brand, basically iron in the shape of the brand symbol that is heated and placed on flesh to leave the pattern burned into the animal. A brand is designed to prove ownership and is very hard to conceal with your own brand. The laws have since been expanded to include several other types of marks and electronical devices. Brands are essential on shared open range to make sure each rancher retrieves their animals and only their animals when bringing them back to their own ranch. Also, no livestock can cross Wyoming state or county borders without a brand inspection to verify ownership. This prevents cattle and sheep theft by taking them out of the area their brand is identifiable in. Obviously iron is very import to this process. Brand design and registration is very important, and I am working on an article about symbols that will discuss them along with other types of crafted symbols. The other issue is fencing. When Wyoming drafted our state constitution, it included a provision that said unless overridden by state, county, or local law, British Common Law should be followed. Open range is one of the few places that Common Law is specifically overrode at the state level. British Common Law dictates fence in. The owner of a domestic animal isresponsiblefor any damage done by that animal if it is at large, and the property owner whose property the animal is on is not responsible for any harm done to the animal. “Where my beasts, of their own wrong, without my will and knowledge, break another’s close, I shall be punished, for I am the trespasser with my beasts,” 12 Hen. VII, Keilway 36. Wyoming, however, is fence out unless local law overrides that. A land owner is responsible for fencing out any at large animals, and if they don’t, they are responsible for any damages done by or to the animal. This also means that if you kill a domestic animal in open range land (for instance, hitting a cow with your car), you have to pay for the animal plus any damages you suffer. So, fencing your land is very important. The original law in 1869 (21 years before statehood) dictated it must be constructed with rock or wood. In 1882 and 1888, legal fences were redefined to include barbed wire, and specified how barbed wire fences had to be constructed. There’s a lot more details to all this, and the laws, rulings, and practices the laws and rulings imply are far more complicated, but for our purposes here, the point is that iron is used for most branding and most fencing in private rural areas of Wyoming. And very little of the private land in Wyoming is not rural.

The fifth major event that changed Wyoming was the railroad.  The first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, like the first telegraph, was built across Wyoming.  Iron tracks, iron spikes, iron engines, iron cars.  There is no railroad without iron.  The railroad effected Wyoming in many ways.  First of all, the building of it brought many many people.  For the first time, Wyoming’s population swelled above five hundred thousand people.  It would only do twice more, once around 1890 when Wyoming became a state, and currently, due to the current coal boom.  The railroad also brought trade, brought money, brought goods that were impossible before, brought jobs.  Towns grew up along the tracks, Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Green River, Evanston.  And it brought the Irish and Chinese.

The sixth and final major event and its children occurred in 1913.  The Lincoln Highway, named for President Lincoln who had the first transcontinental railroad possible, was the first transcontinental improved “auto trail”, the first transcontinental highway.  It roughly followed the railroad except on the western edge of the state where it diverted north.  With the highway came automobiles from the East.  Cars of steel, of iron.  Later, the first transcontinental Interstate Highway, I-80, followed it, diverting from the route of the Lincoln Highway and railroad in three sections, then following the railroad into Utah where the Lincoln Highway headed more northerly into Idaho.  These highways and the other national, state, and county highways that formed off of them in a web made automobiles, with their steel or iron frames and engines, the primary mode of transportation.

So, we have:

  • Trappers with traps, guns, and knives.
  • Miners with picks and shovels.
  • Settlers with axes, knives, and guns.
  • Military with horseshoes, swords, knives, and guns.
  • Pony Express riders with horseshoes.
  • Telegraph with telegraph lines.
  • Ranchers with brands, fences, horseshoes, knives, and guns.
  • Railroads with tracks, engines, and cars.
  • Highways with automobiles.

A few themes run strongly through these.  Death (traps, guns, swords, knives), breaking apart or tearing down (knives, picks, shovels, axes), communication (horseshoes, telegragh lines), marking (brands), boundaries (fences), trade (horse shoes, tracks, train engines, train cars, automobiles), food (guns, knives, horseshoes, brands, fences, tracks, train engines, train cars, automobiles), and transportation (horseshoes, tracks, train engines, train cars, automobiles).  These seven uses of iron built the Wyoming that’s here today.

These seven things are also what are important with iron in the craft in Wyoming, because iron will resonate with these seven usages, death, separation/loosing, communication/binding, marking/naming, boundaries, trade/finances, food/sustenance/nourishment, and transportation/movement.  Though in the work, there is convergence.  Boundaries becomes separation, so loosing.  Loosing/separation/boundaries becomes banishing as well, especially with the fence out aspect.  transportation/movement, trade/finance, and communication/binding come together as binding/invoking.  Food/sustenance/nourishment becomes life.  So we end with two pairs, two Divine Twins.  Life and Death.  Loosing/banishing and binding/invoking.  Though really the second pair can be written simply loosing and binding.  But ultimately life is the binding of our Wyrd, our Fate, to this world, and Death is the loosing of the same.  So, in Wyoming, iron is either that which binds (especially brands and barbed wire) and that which looses (especially guns and axes and picks).  Binding and loosing.  Understanding why, and how to use that knowledge is the mystery and the secret.


FFF,
~Muninn’s Kiss