Paleo-Indian hunters
Paleo-Indian hunters as they may have appeared 9000 years ago.

Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site

Before the Europeans

The earliest signs of human presence along the Niobrara are found 150 miles upstream of the scenic river. The Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site contains the disjointed bones of over 600 extinct Bison Antiquus and a number of Alberta type spearpoints from a period 9000 to 9800 years ago. These points are characteristic of the Alberta Culture of the Paleo-Indian period.

During the Archaic period (2000 to 8000 years ago), American Indians used numerous sites in the Niobrara valley where they relied on a variety of small game and plant materials. The people of the Plains Woodland period (1000 to 2000 years ago) added the manufacture and use of pottery to their lifestyle. Through the Plains Village, Central Plains Tradition, and Coalescent Tradition periods (250 to 2500 years ago), these people began building semi-permanent earthlodges and supplementing their gathering with agriculture.


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♫ [Music plays] ♫

NARRATOR: The cool running water of the Niobrara has attracted people to its shores since ancient times.

In the Ponca language, “Niobrara” means running waters or wide-flowing waters.

Traditionally, when we traveled and we moved camp, there had to be a lake, or a spring or a river that we would’ve camped near. So we were always around the water.

Holes like this— if you’re hungry, that’s where you catch your fish at.

This river here, we used it for traveling to village sites, trading goods, and along the river there are places where we gathered different food sources.

NARRATOR: Pawnee, Lakota, and other tribes also hunted and traveled through the Niobrara River valley. Europeans arrived in the 1700s, exploring and trading with American Indian tribes.

The population grew in the area when the US Army established one of the last frontier forts to be built on the Great Plains in 1879: Fort Niobrara.

The arrival of the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad in 1883 opened the area to homesteading and cattle ranching.

RICH EGELHOFF: My great-great-grandfather came over from Germany. And then my great-grandfather came to Keya Paha County just north of here. The house that they built, they built out of rock and cement.

NARRATOR: Valentine City supplied the Sandhill region’s ranchers and homesteaders through sun and snow.

When troops departed, Fort Niobrara was established as a national wildlife refuge in 1912. The red hay barn is all that remains from the early days.

MAN: There you go! Rope him. Good Job!

NARRATOR: Today, Valentine is still a cattle town at heart. The ranching heritage is celebrated on Main Street at the annual Bull Bash.

ROD GIERAU: My grandfather come over from the Alsace-Lorraine and homesteaded right where we’re at in 1884. We’re one of the very first homesteaders in Keya Paha County.

NARRATOR: The human history of the Niobrara River valley is rich and continues to link those who live along it today with those who have come in the past.

DENNY BAMMERLIN: Once your land’s been in the family for 100 years, you feel pretty obligated not to mess up. There’s… it’s a strong connection to the land.

I feel the presence of my ancestors when I'm close to the areas where they would have camped or where they would have lived. And when I'm in certain areas Where I know they were, where they lived, I get goosebumps, because I can feel them there.

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4 minutes, 41 seconds

Explore the recent human history of the Niobrara River Valley, which makes the Niobrara such a unique and wonderful place.

Ponca earthlodge
Interior of Ponca earthlodge

NPS photo by Linda Gordon Rokosz

Contemporary Plains Tribes

From about 1750 to the present, numerous tribes used or occupied the Niobrara valley. The nomadic Lakota and Pawnee both hunted bison and other game in the area. The Plains Comanche were also present at this time. The Ponca built their earthlodges near the mouth of the Niobrara after separating from the Omaha in the early 1700s. Here they raised corn and launched hunting expeditions for big game. After settling differences with the Comanche in the mid-1700s, they continued to skirmish with the Lakota for another century. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 divided the sandhills and Niobrara valley between the Lakota and Pawnee. In 1857, the Pawnee ceded 14 million acres for $200,000 in annuities. Fort Niobrara was established in 1880 as part of the series of forts to monitor the Lakota to the north in the Great Sioux Reservation.

Today, the Ponca are split into northern and southern tribes after a controversial 1878 relocation. Members of the northern tribe are scattered throughout the country with tribal offices in Niobrara, Nebraska. The Pawnee were also relocated to Oklahoma. Many members of the various Lakota tribes still occupy remnants of the 1868 reservation; others try to maintain traditional ties and customs while living in mainstream society.

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7 minutes, 12 seconds

Phyllis Stone, Elder of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, tells stories of her family and tribal heritage and how the traditions of her people are enriched by the lands they care for.


Early explorers

James MacKay, a fur trader working for a Spanish company, visited the region in 1795 and 1796. He later described the sandhills as a “Grand Desert of moving sand where there are neither wood, nor soil, nor stone, nor water, nor animals, except some little tortoises of various colors.”

Various army expeditions in the 1850s and 1860s explored possible wagon and rail routes, although no wagon trail was ever developed.


Soldiering at Fort Niobrara

The Treaty of 1868 created the Great Sioux Reservation north of the Niobrara River in Dakota Territory. Over the next two decades, the U.S. Army proceeded to surround the reservation with a ring of forts to monitor the tribes.

Construction of Fort Niobrara, the southernmost of the forts, began in 1879 on a well-watered, well timbered site selected by General George Crook. This was close enough to monitor the Sioux, but far enough to avoid accidental friction between the tribes and the troops. The soldiers constructed a steam-powered sawmill to cut lumber and made adobe bricks. The fort was laid out in a standard military pattern with barracks and stables on one side of the parade ground and officers’ quarters on the other.

The soldier's daily routines were relatively peaceful; soldiers drilled, worked at construction and maintenance of the fort itself and shipped beef and supplies to the Rosebud Reservation. The fort served as an embarkation point for troops responding to the Pine Ridge outbreak, which culminated in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Among the units stationed at Fort Niobrara were the African American troops of the 9th Cavalry.

While stationed at Fort Niobrara, soldiers provided "notes" to the local newspapers. The "Bulge Notes from the Fort" gives insight to the soldier’s daily life and social woes and triumphs.

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    Niobrara River Near Valentine
    Niobrara River near Valentine, Nebraska - early 1900s

    Vintage postcard courtesy of The Niobrara Council.

    Prairie homestead
    Typical prairie homestead with sod house.

    NPS photo - Homestead National Monument of America

    Homesteaders and ranchers

    Cattlemen from south of the sandhills were the first Euro-Americans to spend any great length of time in the sandhills and to extensively exploit the central Niobrara River area.

    In the 1870s, using Texas cattle, Mexican cattle-raising methods, and the free grass of the plains, a small number of men profited from the open range of the sandhills and the Niobrara River valley. They found a ready market at the military forts where the army purchased cattle to supply the Indian reservations.

    The deep ravines and canyons along the Niobrara River provided ideal places to hide stolen cattle, and cattlemen’s associations and vigilante groups were formed to curb the rustling.

    Federal and local regulations began to restrict the free range, but it took the farmer to settle the sandhills, change ranching, and convert a frontier to a state. While the eastern third of the state was populated in the 1850s, it would be another thirty years before the central Niobrara Valley was settled.

    Cherry County’s first homesteader, Charles Sears, staked his claim ten miles east of Valentine and received his patent in 1886. Niels Nielsen, a Danish immigrant, estimated that a sod house cost about $50 to build, and a wood-frame house cost $250 to build in 1889. $272 in materials would build the two miles of barbed-wire fence to enclose a 160 acre quarter-section homestead. Promoters and developers made dubious claims regarding the productivity of the land and amount of rainfall, leading to a high failure rate among homesteaders who tried their hand at dry-land farming.

    The 20th Century

    One animal unit (cow and unweaned calf) requires from 10 to 30 acres of grazing in this rangeland, so a traditional 160 acre homestead could only support from 5 to 16 head of breeding stock – not a profitable number. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Kincaid Act, increasing the size of a western Nebraska homestead to 640 acres, a full square mile section. This acreage proved more practical for the type of prairie range present in the area, and made ranching a more attractive prospect than attempting to grow crops.

    Between 1900 and 1935, the average sandhills ranch had doubled in size from 640 to 1280 acres. However, as ranches increased in size to over 4000 acres by the end of the 1900s, population steadily declined, with 1990 census counts lower than those of 1890. In some respects, the area is returning to its frontier phase as sparsely populated rangeland.

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    10 minutes, 12 seconds

    Debby Galloway tells stories and tales of the years when men and women from all corners of the United States were seeking homestead claims of free land in the West. She traces her genealogy through these homesteaders and illustrates how the spirit of the Nebraska Sandhills along the Niobrara River have captured her heart.

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    7 minutes, 5 seconds

    Steve Breuklander tells the story of how his family became one of the first river outfitters in the Niobrara River Valley and explains how outfitting and ranching complement each other as parts of the modern economic structure of the region.

    Last updated: May 19, 2021

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