LINCOLN — Today, we know Nebraska’s vast Sand Hills as an area of great but subtle beauty, where waves of grass-covered hills roll from horizon to horizon.
It’s also “God’s own cow country,” where abundant grass and water make it ideal ranching country.
But back in the early days of settlement, it was a place of danger, where someone could easily get lost in the featureless tangle of hills and valleys.
Even early ranchers stayed out, fearing that their critters would wander off, never to be seen again.
Recently, residents of some modern-day Sand Hills communities came together to remember two pioneer girls who ventured too far and became lost in the hills north and east of Thedford.
Tillie and Retta Haumann were new to the Sand Hills when, on Sunday, May 10, 1891, they convinced their mother to let them visit their oldest sister, Hannah, who was working at a ranch about 1½ miles away.
The Haumanns, who were German immigrants, had moved to the area only a couple of months earlier from the coal-mining region of Illinois. But after dinner, their mother agreed to let the two girls walk to the neighboring ranch, as long as they stayed only an hour and came straight back.
Thus began an ordeal that mobilized settlers from a wide area in a frantic search for the two girls.
It’s presumed that Tillie, 8, and Retta, 4, strayed off their path, in search of wildflowers, as they made their way home, according to the 1923 book “Histories and Stories of Nebraska” by Addison Erwin Sheldon.
“There were no fences, there was no well-traveled roads; everything was done on horseback. All the hills looked the same for those kids,” said Helen White of Thedford, a member of the Thomas County Historical Society. That group helped organize a “Lost in the Sandhills” commemoration on May 16 with the Sandhills Heritage Museum of Dunning.
When the girls hadn’t returned to the Haumann ranch by nightfall, a search was organized for the next morning. Residents from a wide area joined in the hunt, and a party of searchers eventually found faint tracks in the sand, which they followed, sometimes on 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,” Sheldon wrote in his book. “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.”
The search party camped along the trail Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, searchers found a spot where it appeared that the two girls had spent the night.
As the sun beat down, the girls had kept walking eastward for some reason. Eventually, Tillie told her younger sister to wait at the bottom of a tall hill while she climbed up to scan the horizon. It was the last time the girls would see each other.
Eventually, Retta began walking, thinking that she could meet her older sister if she walked around the hill. She was found by searchers about noon, disoriented, dehydrated and barely alive, three days after their walk began.
Tillie’s body was not found until May 17, seven days after they became lost. She had taken off her apron and spread it over some bushes to provide shade, then laid down and died. Her body was so sunburned, her parents could identify her only by her clothing.
Her body was found 37 miles from home, and it was estimated that she had walked 75 miles before her death.
“This is the most painful incident it has ever been our duty to record,” began the story in the Thomas County Herald.
The Thomas County Board passed a resolution expressing condolences: “Resolved, by the citizens of Thomas County, in mass assembled that while we deplore the intense anxiety and mental suffering that has hovered over the home of our neighbors ... we recognize the hand of Providence in this as well as every other dispensation and bow in meek submission to His will.”
The tragedy might have been lost in history if not for the efforts of area residents.
In 2016, a state historical marker was erected at the Thomas County Courthouse in Thedford. Six generations of the Haumann family, of which some still live in Nebraska, attended.
A cross was erected on a lonely hill north of Nebraska Highway 2 near where Tillie’s body was found. A bronze sculpture of the two Haumann girls — one showing the other a wildflower — was produced by Thedford artist Linda Egle and placed at the courthouse.
Egle said anyone who lives in the Sand Hills realizes how easy it would have been to become lost, especially in the days before power lines, barbed wire fences and other landmarks. Yet she wonders why the girls didn’t head south, following the sounds of the railroad engines chugging through Dunning, Halsey and Thedford.
“To think those girls had kept walking to try and find home. It just gets to you,” Egle said. If they had stayed in one place, she said, they might have been found.
The COVID-19 pandemic postponed a lost girls “tour” for a year. Events were held May 16 at both the Thomas County Historical Museum and the Sandhills Heritage Museum. A booklet on the tragedy was printed, a poem about the tragedy was read, and reenactors portrayed the lost girls and those who sought to find them. The crowd swelled to 330 once the event arrived at Dunning, which is more than three times its population of 102.
Linda Teahon, a Dunning photographer and bed-and-breakfast owner, said there were tears at times when the story was retold.
“It was sad to hear about these little girls getting lost,” she said. “But the story of the community, all the homesteaders, who came together to look for them was uplifting.”