[T]he traditional wooden fences of earlier American frontiers were simply not feasible in a landscape whose most distinctive feature was its lack of trees. Ranchers could of course get any amount of wood they needed from lumber merchants in Chicago and the Mississippi Valley – if they could afford it. Earlier fencing styles were so wood intensive, however, that they were simply too costly for wide use in the open spaces of the High Plains. Large-scale fencing there became possible only in the 1870s, after Joseph Glidden’s invention of barbed wire in 1873 dramatically reduced the amount of wood that went into a typical fence. The railroads that allowed ranchers to ship their animals to Chicago’s market brought in return the fence posts and barbed wire with which to partition the grasslands.
William Cronon, in his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.