The Nebraska Sandhills
The Nebraska Sandhills, despite their immeasurable natural and economic importance, their rare beauty, and their place in the conservation of migratory waterfowl and other birds, remain surprisingly unknown territory, even to the rest of Nebraska. The Nebraska Sandhills are the largest area of sand dunes in the western hemisphere. Over 50,000 square kilometers, or close to 20,000 square miles in extent (not counting some outliers), the Sandhills are fragile grasslands that are wild, sparsely settled, desolate, and beautiful in unexpected ways. The Sandhills are cattle country, not farm country. Sand-trap back roads and extremes of weather can be unforgiving even to knowing inhabitants.
The Sandhills have inspired some of Nebraska's best writing, including memoirs, histories, and works of biography, natural history, fiction, and photography.
Janovy, John, Jr. Keith County Journal. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.
Considered a classic work of American natural history, the focus is on the inhabitants of the edge of the Sandhills, of waterways and rock canyons.
Johnsgard, Paul A. This fragile land: A natural history of the Nebraska Sandhills. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
The most thorough guide to the regions, habitats, ecology and plants, birds, wildlife and insects of the Sandhills. With line drawings, maps, and habitat profiles. By a world renowned ornithologist who loves the Sandhills.
Bleed, Ann and Charles Flowerday, editors. An Atlas of the Sand Hills. Lincoln: Conservation and Survey Division, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1990 (Second Edition).
This is a collection of essays and maps by experts in a variety of fields, exploring natural features, geology, water and other natural resources, and human use.
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McIntosh, Charles Baron. The Nebraska Sand Hills: The human landscape. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
A scholarly work with many sketch maps, this is our most comprehensive guide to understanding and exploring the cultural history of the Nebraska Sandhills in geographical context.
Jones, Stephen R. The Last Prairie. A Sandhills Journal. Camden: Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw Hill, 2000.
A celebration of the history and natural history of the Sandhills in the form of a personal journal.
Owen, David A. Like no other place. Chicago: The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2010.
Photographs and observations of ranching and small-town life in the Nebraska Sandhills by an East Coast resident who immersed himself in ranching culture and the many activities that bind ranching communities together.
Mackichan, Margaret and Bob Ross. In the kingdom of grass. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
A photo/text volume that accurately portrays ranch life in the Sandhills. A good description of the tasks performed by working ranch hands that are essential to successful ranching operations.
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Lisa Norman. Haythorn land & cattle co: a horseman’s heritage. Kansas City: Trabon Printing, 2007.
A multi-generation history of the Haythorn family – founders, owners, and operators of the Haythorn Land and Cattle Company, accompanied by an outstanding collection of photographs. The Haythorn ranch is one of the great ranches in America and is located in Keith and Arthur counties in the heart of the Sandhills. Much of the work on the ranch is done from the back of a horse, as is accurately depicted by the photographs.
Terry, Keith. Nebraska’s cowboy trail. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
A useful guide for persons interested in learning more about the hiking/biking trail along the route of an abandoned railroad line from Norfolk to Valentine, (The intent is to extend it west to Chadron.) Administered by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the trail will eventually be 321 miles in length. The guide provides information about flora, fauna, historical events, communities, and services available along the trail.
Yost, Nellie Snyder. The Call of the Range: The Story of the Nebraska Stock Growers Association. Denver: Sage Books, 1966.
While not about the Sandhills as such, this book, written for the Nebraska Stock Growers Association, recounts much Sandhills history and introduces issues and events encountered in the Sandhills ranch memoirs.
Histories, biographies and memoirs:
Mari Sandoz. Old Jules. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935.
Mari Sandoz’s portrait of her irascible but indomitable father established her as a great writer. Jules’ friendships with old mountain men and Indians, his land promotion, his feuds with the weather and his neighbors, and the conflict between ranchers and settlers make this, as Mari said "a biography of a community… the upper Niobrara country in western Nebraska."
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Mari Sandoz. Hostiles and friendlies. Selected short writings of Mari Sandoz. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959.
This collection includes "The Kinkaider Comes and Goes", "Sandhill Sundays" and some short fiction about Sandhills life.
Richards, Bartlett, Jr. with Ruth Van Ackeren, Bartlett Richards: Nebraska Sandhills Cattleman. Lincoln: The Nebraska State Historical Society, 1980.
Bartlett Richards Sr. was probably Nebraska’s best known, or, to some, most notorious early, open range rancher. One of Old Jules Sandoz’s antagonists, he built the old Spade Ranch into one of the great Sandhills ranches. He fought impractical land laws and government regulations associated with the anti-fencing law of 1885 and the Kinkaid Act, feuded with Theodore Roosevelt—an undocumented story related that Roosevelt told Richards to his face that he would put him in a penitentiary—and died while serving a federal term in the Adams County jail. The book, mainly written by Richard’s son, documents important and controversial issues of Sandhills history.
VanAkeren, Ruth and Robert M. Howard. Lawrence Bixby: Preserver of the Old Spade Ranch. Caxton Printers (and) The Nebraska State Historical Society, 1995.
Bixby, who began work on the old Spade Ranch while its founder was in jail, held the ranch together and made it a successful working ranch in the modern era. Bixby helped restore the reputation of the Spades’ founder, and saw the ranch entered on the National Register of Historic Places. Bixby died in 1982.
Black, Roe R. The Horseshoe-Bar Ranch: Remembering a Prairie Childhood. Introduction by Robert Manley, Foreward and Afterward by Jon Farrar. Lincoln: Media Publishing, 1985.
An autobiographical essay about growing up on a ranch that straddled the Dismal River in the years 1900-1912, with an introduction by the (then) Director of the Nebraska State Historical Society.
Cook, Harold J. Tales of the O4 Ranch. Recollections of Harold J. Cook, 1887-1909. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
Harold Cook was the son of frontiersman James H. Cook, who established the 04 Ranch, later renamed the Agate Springs Ranch, on the eastern edge of the High Plains and the western edge of the Sandhills, on land containing perhaps the best fossil deposit of Tertiary (Miocene) mammals ever found. Harold grew up around Indians, old frontiersmen, cattlemen and famous paleontologists.
Bratt, John. Trails of yesterday. Lincoln, NE: The University Publishing Co. 1921.
John Bratt was an early-day ranching pioneer who was instrumental in the formation of stockgrower’s associations – organizations that were established to formulate and promote “ground rules” for use of the open range and to discourage rustling
Waddill, Olin. Saddle strings. Pierre, SD: The State Publishing Co. 1975.
This collection of stories and reminiscences of old-time ranchers and cowhands covers the adjoining areas of eastern Wyoming, southwest South Dakota, and northwest Nebraska, with a considerable amount of attention given to the Nebraska Sandhills. Included in this volume is an account of an early-day baseball game between two well-known Sandhill ranches (the Spade and the Diamond Bar) that has become part of the regional folklore.
Andersen, Theona Leonard. Ranching in the sandhills of Nebraska where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing, 1994.
A collection of anecdotes that ranges over a wide spectrum of everyday life experiences on a Sandhills ranch. Written by a Nebraska native who had lived on both coasts but returned to become the wife of a rancher.
Beel, Marianne. Sand in my shoes. Sioux Falls, SD: Pinehill Press, 2008.
Marianne Beel, a Cherry County rancher, writer, and photographer, wrote a weekly column for the North Platte Telegraph. This collection of columns spans four decades of observations of life in the Sandhills.
Moreland, Bob. Sandhills satisfaction. Henderson, NE: Service press, 1994.
An intimate history of a successful ranching family in the northern Sandhills. It depicts a family existing in harmony with their natural surroundings and respectful of the environmental constraints necessary to preserve ranching as an extremely satisfying life style.
Spindler, Will Henry. Rim of the Sandhills: A True Picture of the Old Holt County Horsethief-Vigilante Days. Mitchell, S.D.: Educator Supply Co., 1941.
A family memoir and local history that includes local stories of assorted horsethieves and bad men, including Kid Wade and Doc Middleton and the vigilantes.
McKelvie, Martha. Sandhills Essie. Philadelphia: Dorrance and co., 1964.
The story of Essie Davis, a genuine Sandhills character, who, widowed after a few months of marriage, overcame many crises and built the OLO ranch into a successful modern ranch. An admiring biography by her neighbor Martha McKelvie, wife of the former governor.
Moss, Ira. The Chosen Land: A Sandhills Life. Lincoln: Word Services, 1979.
An autobiography that recounts growing up on the old Sunnyside ranch, service in World War I, with personal perspectives on Sandhills life and travels elsewhere.
Monahan, Earl H. with Robert M. Howard. Sandhill Horizons: A Story of the Monahan Ranch and Other History of the Area. Alliance: Rader’s Place, 1987.
A family history of the Monahan ranch in Grant, Cherry and Hooker counties from the 1880s to the 1980s. An elegantly produced and especially well illustrated ranch history that includes the broader local history, the local community and its residents. It recounts social, legal and technological changes on the ranch.
More Natural History of the Sandhills Region
Johnsgard, Paul. The Niobrara: a river running through time. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
The Niobrara has a lengthy segment of its route included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System of the U.S. Often referred to as the “biological crossroads of North America,” the river is regarded as a unique ecological resource. Paul Johnsgard, a distinguished naturalist, provides readers with a comprehensive perspective of the river.
Johnsgard, Paul. A guide to the natural history of the central Platte valley of Nebraska. Alda, NE: Sponsored by the Nebraska Bird Observatory, Crane Meadows Visitor Center. 2006.
This guide provides important information for persons interested in birdwatching along the central Platte valley. It is focused on birding opportunities in 11 counties in Nebraska. It also provides information on other flora and fauna of the region.
Stansbery, Karyn. Wild and free on the high plains. San Diego: Bay Port Press, 1992.
This volume is a series of Nebraska natural history essays aimed at the general reader. It covers a wide variety of animals, plants, and other natural phenomena likely to be encountered in western Nebraska.
This is just a sampling of works on the Sandhills and Sandhills life intended to provoke interest in the subject and to make people aware of the Heritage Room collection. There are many more works about the Sandhills, including fiction, memoirs, and County histories.