The great Sand Hills section of western Nebraska is in the shape of an open fan. The handle of the fan is in Hayes and Dundy counties near the southwest corner of the state, the broad wings of the fan extend into parts of Cherry, Sheridan, Holt, Rock, Antelope and Pierce counties, reaching the northern border of the state. The center of this sand hills fan is in southern Cherry and Thomas counties. Here extend for many miles in every direction great billows of sandy soil. Until closely studied all of the landscapes look alike, for each sand hill seems like each other sand hill, and the little vales which lie between are all sisters of the same age. The sand drifts and slides about with each gust of wind. There are no great landmarks to serve as guides. If one climbs to the top of the highest hill in sight, everywhere is a confused medley of hills and hollows extending as far as eye can see. It is as though in an ocean tossed by a great storm the waves suddenly had been changed to sand.
The Sand Hills.
(From photograph by G. E. Condra.)
In the early years of exploration and settlement the sandhills were regarded as a dangerous region. Many stories are told of hunters and explorers who were lost among these hills. In more than one place human skeletons have been found, telling their mute story of a losing struggle with hunger and thirst in these treacherous wilds.
One of the most thrilling incidents of frontier days occurred in the sand hills of Thomas County in 1891. In March of that year a German family named Haumann settled near Thedford. There were nine or ten children in the family. The eldest girl, Hannah, went to work for Mr. Gilson, a neighbor who lived about a mile and a half away. It was her custom to come home on Sunday and spend a happy day with her brothers and sisters. On Sunday, May 10th, she did not come home as usual, because Mr. Gilson was away and Mrs. Gilson wished Hannah to stay with her for company. This made the other children unhappy, and Tillie and Retta coaxed their mother to let them go over to the Gilson home to visit their sister. Tillie was eight years old and Retta was four. After dinner Mrs. Haumann let them go, telling them to stay an hour and then come straight home. They reached Mr. Gilson's safely and about four o'clock started, hand in hand, to return home. At this season the sand hills are beautiful with grasses and wild flowers, and the two children left their path and ran eagerly to gather those near by. They saw others still more beautiful a little farther off, so they laughed and ran on and on to gather them until the path was lost and the great sea of sand hills stretched before them wave upon wave. Lost upon this sea, they wandered on.
Night came and brought no children to the Haumann home. At daybreak the next morning the neighbors were searching the hills. Word had been sent to Thedford and from there to the surrounding country. Although it was the busy season of the year, men left their fields and herds and tramped or rode over the hills and hollows looking everywhere for the two little girls. Monday afternoon just before sundown they found their trail. That night Mr. Stacey with a party of searchers camped on the trail. As soon as it was light they followed the children's tracks, sometimes rapidly, often more slowly and not infrequently upon their hands and knees. The story of the children's wanderings and weariness was written in the prints made on the sand and grass along the way. Here Tillie had carried Retta -- here they had walked side by side -- here they had sat down to rest -- here they were up again and pushing bravely on to find their home.
Tuesday night the searchers camped again by the side of the trail. They did not know until too late that they and the children were only a little distance apart that night.
Wednesday morning they found where Tillie and Retta had passed the night lying close by each other on the sand. Here the trail grew hard to follow and much time was lost. Meanwhile the women at Thedford were helping in their homes, preparing food and coffee which they sent to the men on the trail. The searchers found the work anxious and nerve-racking. At times the little footprints were plain and clear and they hastened to overtake the children. A little farther on the light sand had sifted across and left no trace to follow. The poor mother could not join in the search, for she had two children younger than Retta, one a baby, so she waited at home from hour to hour for news of her lost children.
While the searchers followed, the two children wandered on, traveling when awake almost constantly. If they had only waited they would soon have been found, but their minds were filled with the thought of home while their feet carried them ever farther away with each weary step. On Wednesday morning Tillie told Retta to wait at the foot of a big hill while she went to the top to see if there was a house in sight. When she reached the top she seems to have seen a larger hill, a common impression as one looks out over that country, and went on to get the wider view from that. Retta thought that she would meet her sister more quickly by going around the hill, and so started on. Thus they were separated, never to meet again. About noon of this day the searching party, which included Mr. Haumann, Mr. Stacey, Mr. Maseburg and Dr. Edmunds, found Retta carrying one little shoe with its sole worn through, while the other had been dropped on the trail. Both of the girls had worn new shoes when they left home that Sunday. Very tenderly the little girl was cared for by the doctor and the others. She had wandered so long without food or water that her mind was affected for many days. She said that they saw a prairie fire and went to it in hope of finding some one, but no one was there.
The search for Tillie went on. From Dunning, thirty miles east of Thedford, a party of searchers started on Wednesday, the day on which Retta was found. They formed in a long line across the hills to intercept her, for the children had wandered east. On Sunday, May 17th, the Dunning party found the lost girl. She had taken off her apron, spread it over some rose bushes, laid herself on the sand beneath and died. Her body was placed on a hand car and taken to Thedford. Her parents did not recognize their child except by her clothing. She was wasted to skin and bones and her fair tender flesh was burned black by exposure. All the neighborhood came to her funeral and wept with her family as the wornout little body was laid to rest.
That country is settled now and fences stretch everywhere across the hills. One has only to follow a fence and he will reach a ranch or a road. The Haumann family still live on their ranch near Thedford. Retta has grown to womanhood and has a little daughter of her own. She lives at Broken Bow and often visits the old home. You may be sure they do not forget their lost sister, Tillie, nor do the early settlers fail to recall with deep feeling the days when they followed a fading trail while far ahead of them toiled the figure of a brave little girl carrying her younger sister in her arms to ease her weariness as they struggled on in search of home.