Courtesy Spade Ranch
Loading Spade cattle on to train at Ellsworth, Neb. stockyards around 1900 bound for Chicago.
Courtesy Spade Ranch Loading Spade cattle on to train at Ellsworth, Neb. stockyards around 1900 bound for Chicago.

By Troy Smith

In the beginning, Nebraska’s ranch country had a huge hole in it. Early cattlemen grazed their cattle all around it and up to the edges, but not within the area known as the Sandhills. Viewed from its perimeter, the great expanse of sand dunes, “haired over” with grass, appeared to go on forever. It looked big, empty and scary. That seems odd now, since the Sandhills area is recognized as fine ranching real estate. But 140 years ago, it was unknown country.

Covering 20,000 square miles of west-central and northern Nebraska, the shape of the Sandhills region resembles a lady’s fan. Only a few miles wide at its southern tip, south of North Platte, it spans more than 200 miles across the northern portion of the state.  Until late in the 19th century, the Sandhills were considered a strange medley of hills, hollows and valleys where men could become confused and lost. Livestock straying into the heart of the Sandhills seemed to just disappear and herders were afraid to follow. There were tales of men that also disappeared.

The storied event said to have opened the Sandhills was a cow hunt conducted by cowboys riding for the Newman Brothers. In northwest Nebraska, along the Niobrara River, theirs was one of the pioneer “big outfits” operating according to the old Spanish model. Cattle ran on unfenced range and except for twice-a-year roundups to brand calves and sort off market cattle, cowboys spent much of their time riding line - patrolling the farthest reaches of their outfit’s range, turning back straying cattle.

Newman cattle grazed mostly north of the river, and line-riders prowling the south side kept animals from going too far into the Sandhills. In 1879, however, a snow storm forced Newman line-riders to shelter, and nearly 8,000 cattle drifted south into the dunes. After the storm, the Newman foreman decided that was too many to lose. Taking extra horses and wagonload of provisions, a 12-man crew launched a search.

Hindered by more bad weather, it was five weeks before riders returned with the herd, plus 1,000 or so extra cattle. Judging by the number of unbranded yearlings and two-year-olds found, animals that had “disappeared” in the Sandhills, during previous years, had survived, thrived and reproduced amid the grassy valleys and lakes of the deeper Sandhills. Word spread rapidly and far, about this “new found” free range – over 12 million acres of it. 

The big outfits operating near the Sandhills moved in quickly, but so did a growing stream of settlers. The days of Nebraska’s original “cattle kings” were numbered anyway. J.M. Hanna, who cowboyed for Stemm and Rankin’s large Bar 7 operation and eventually established his own ranch near Brownlee, stated his belief that the first big outfits, largely owned by non-resident speculators, were doomed to failure.

“Everything was in the experimental stage,” Hanna wrote in his memoirs. “Very little hay was put up for winter, and the winter losses were terrific -- from 20 per cent up. The calf crop was always pitifully small -- from 60 per cent down. Every winter storm drifted the harassed cattle south, ever south. Many cattle belonging to the Running Water (Niobrara River) were gathered in the spring round-ups on the Loup rivers, and the Loup River outfits could always find critters wearing their brands on the Platte.”

Even before the extreme winters of the late 1880s ruined the big outfits, some of their riders saw writing on the wall. According to Hanna, cowboys were among the very first to file homesteads in the Sandhills. Within a few years, new ranches were being built around 160-acre claims – usually on the better hay valleys – but grazing mostly on the public domain. And the farmers or “grangers” weren’t far behind.

“Most (Sandhills) counties were organized between 1885 and 1890. The Burlington and North-Western railroads laid their steel across the west state line, and the covered wagons of the grangers with a plow and a chicken crate tied on the sides, came over the eastern horizon in a steady stream,” wrote Hanna.

Some newcomers were cattle folk and brought modest herds of blooded stock on which to build. Homesteading sodbusters with hearts set on farming didn’t last beyond the dry summers of the late 1880s and early ‘90s.  Farmers that gave up often sold their homesteads for whatever they could get and ranchers acquired more deeded land by purchasing the claims of former neighbors. Between 1888 and ’92, half the population of western Nebraska retreated to somewhere east of the Missouri River.

Some settlers were more adaptable. After their corn patches dried up and blew away, for the second or third time, they hauled freight, dug wells, hunted, trapped or did whatever work would pay money enough to buy cattle. Many of them worked for established ranchers, especially as the practice of haying the wet meadows increased and large crews were put to work. Many a summer hay hand took his wages in cattle, to build herd.

The Sandhills also became home for another generation of big outfits that grazed large portions of the remaining open range. The Spade Ranch started in 1889, with the purchase of several small panhandle ranches by Bartlett Richards and J.J. Cairnes. Richards’ subsequently partnered with Will Comstock to run up to 50,000 cattle. The Standard Cattle Company bought deeded hay meadows in southern Cherry County and ranged maybe 25,000 head branded with the “101,” along 40 miles of the North Loup River corridor. And United British Investors, called the UBI, ran 10,000 head along the Dismal River, with headquarters south of Mullen.

By 1900, the Sandhills cattle country was nearly all in the hands of cattlemen again. Considerable fence had been strung to delineate the range and water was developed with wells and windmills, although many of these improvements were on public lands. Then, in 1904, passage of the Kinkaid Act amended original homestead legislation to allow homesteaders to file claims on a full section of land – 640 acres. It applied specifically to 37 western Nebraska counties, including all of the Sandhills. Hopeful “Kinkaiders,” as they were called, stampeded to land offices in Broken Bow, Valentine and Alliance. 

A 640 acres seemed ample land to eastern legislators and farmers unfamiliar with the Sandhills. It wasn’t enough for a ranch and the thin soils weren’t suited to farming anyway. Some people managed to acquire more land by having family members file on adjacent or nearby sections. Even before the Kinkaid Act, the Spade and UBI ranches reportedly arranged for old soldiers, Civil War widows, teachers or anybody with a homestead right to file claims. The ranchers helped these pseudo-settlers prove up their claims and bought the land afterward.

Some Kinkaiders parlayed their homesteads into very respectable ranches. In The Call of the Range, Nellie Snyder Yost wrote how Charles Reece taught school, using his wages to stock his Cherry County operation. Reece’s experience illustrates the difficulties fledgling ranchers faced.

“...(Reece) and his brother ran out of hay one year and lost all their cattle in some late spring storms,” related Yost. “That summer they passed up wages in the neighbors’ hayfields to put up 200 tons of hay in their own meadows – then a November prairie fire cleaned them out so thoroughly they didn’t have enough hay left to set a hen. ‘I went into debt when I was 19, and didn’t get out until I was 70,’ the old ranchman said. But the day came when he could look out upon 10,000 acres of his own, where grazed good Angus cattle wearing his brand.”

In the first decade of the 20th century, the Sandhill’s three biggest ranches came under scrutiny, for their creative use of the homestead law, and for illegally fencing public land. A handful of ranchers, including the Spade’s Bartlett and Comstock, were prosecuted – “persecuted,” some people claimed – then fined and jailed. The fences on public land came down.

By 1910, the last of the big outfits had dissolved and Kinkaiders had claimed nearly nine million acres. After this second wave of homesteaders, private land ownership was the basis for Nebraska ranching. Farmers gave up the fight. Conceding to the region’s sandy soil and climate, they either converted to the cattle or sold out. It was mainly smaller ranchers that were able to hold on, buy out the plowmen, and try to get grass growing again where the sod had been turned wrong side up.

Management of more defined and finite ranch resources became important, and credit is due the land grant institutions for disseminating knowledge ranchers could apply to the stewardship of land and livestock. University of Nebraska botanist Charles Bessey had inspired students to look at plant populations and their interaction with environmental factors. One of Bessey’s students, Arthur W. Sampson continued to promote range management as an applied science. Considered America’s first range ecologist and advocate of rotational grazing, Sampson authored the first range management text book.

As more scientific methods came into use, not all practitioners were cattle-men. Widowed in 1915, barely two years after marrying a Hyannis rancher, Essie Davis took over the 3,000-acre operation and eventually worked to pay off the debt against it. One of the ranchers who expanded by buying land from defeated Sandhills farmers, Mrs. Davis also applied sound range management and conservation practices, eventually growing the ranch to over 25,000 acres. Following her example, OLO ranch continued under the management of her son, Thane, daughter-in-law, Jean, and grandson, current Nebraska State Senator Al Davis.

Thedford-area rancher Byron Eatinger believes management has been the key to the sustainability of Sandhills ranching. The last of the huge open range operations were still active when Eatinger’s great-grandfather came to the area, locating on a piece of range the big outfits weren’t using. The old patriarch never filed a homestead claim, but his three sons did. And like many of the survivors, they bought more as nearby homesteaders called it quits.

“They talked about how the country looked when they started, and how it changed,” says Eatinger, recalling his forebears’ stories. “They claimed you could track a gray wolf through the sand, all the way down to the Dismal River (some 25 miles to the south) – the grass was that thin on the hills. But there was decent grass in the valleys and especially the wet meadows. Things improved, and I think better management sure helped.”

 According to Eatinger, even more ranchers became conservation conscious in the 1960s. Range management continued to improve, generally, but he believes a real boost to awareness and application of stewardship began in the mid-‘80s. That’s when ranchers began to hear and consider the range and ranch management concepts taught by Allan Savory and Stan Parsons. In Eatinger’s opinion, much improvement to range health and productivity has been made by ranchers that have moved away from season-long grazing of pastures, and toward more aggressive rotational grazing systems.

“A lot of things have changed,” adds Eatinger, who as a youngster squinted into winter winds while sledding hay behind a team of horses. “Equipment keeps getting better. Cattle genetics are better. Ranchers have access to more technology and more information. They have better management tools. I think most changes have been for the better.”


(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first appeared in the National Junior Angus 2016 program.)