The Sandhills…..What? Where? When? How?
These are four of the questions that may be asked most often about the sandhills, and I will try to answer them as briefly as possible.
What do the sandhills look like?
There are regions of gently rolling hills and areas of giant dunes, which have long since grassed over. In parts of the sandhills, lakes are abundant and on these lakes the waterfowl are numerous in the summer. There are very rough and choppy hills near the rivers, and many of the rivers are winding and treeless, but some are abundant with cedars and other trees.
Throughout the sandhills, the hills are dotted with soap weeds, or known more formally as yucca. They are beautiful when in full bloom around the first part of June. The bloom is on a tall, woodlike spike, and it has white blossoms which are quite pretty against the green background.
The sandhills are mostly grassed over since the cowboy has been in charge. Only a few blowouts and washouts interrupt the sea of green.
Where can these sandhills be found?
They span nearly two-thirds of the state of Nebraska. This is roughly 200 miles long and 150 miles wide. The sandhills are a vast region, of which the major portions are in the state of Nebraska. They also include a very small portion in South Dakota to the north and Wyoming to the west. Also to our southwest, they lie in the state of Colorado and into Kansas, Oklahoma and even into Texas.
When were they first populated by the Native Americans?
I can’t tell you that, as I have no data on that before the 1700s. But one of the early archeological finds in the immediate sandhills area was that of the Apaches. The ruins of Apache homes were uncovered on the Dismal River. They were here as early as the 1700s and until 1728. It is thought that the wars with the Pawnee may have moved them out of the region.
By the 1820s, the Pawnee were one of the most powerful tribes of the Great Plains. At this time, their hunting area was from the Niobrara River on the north and as far south as the Arkansas River, from the tall grass area in eastern Nebraska, west to as far as the high plains of eastern Colorado. Their raiding and trading was being done as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In the summer of 1831, the Pawnee came down with smallpox, taking the lives of about one-half of their people. What was worse, the disease took almost all of those under the age of 33, which greatly reduced their fighting force. In their weakened condition the Sioux began to harass them and by 1860 the Pawnee were facing a real possibility of extinction. By the late 1700s, the Oglala and Brule Sioux were hunting throughout western Nebraska. The Sioux were now the dominant force in the sandhills.
How did the sandhills become populated by the whites, especially the breed known as the cowboy?
Thousands of people headed west, following the Oregon Trail along the Platte River. They were just a stone’s throw away from the sandhills. No one was interested in heading north into this region. It appeared to them to be a sandy desert, as there were accounts of people entering into this region and never being seen again.
In 1796, a Scotsman by the name of James McKay described the Sandhills as a great desert of drifting sand, void of any animals or trees. This idea was reinforced by later explorers who said that the sandhills were not only barren, but also impractical for travel.
By the 1870s, the cattlemen settled in the range areas surrounding the sandhills. Frank North, commander of the Pawnee Scouts, went into partnership with his brothers and Buffalo Bill Cody.
Frank North is credited with having the first ranch that had its headquarters inside the Nebraska Sandhills. He is listed in the Cowboy Hall of Fame for this fact.
By the 1880s, the cowboys were getting acquainted with the fact that the sandhills had the best grass and water anywhere in the country. The cattlemen were beginning to get the sandhills pretty well settled up and it has been cattle land ever since that time.
Source: The Voice of the Sandhills, Spring Edition, Tryon NE 2006.