Mari Sandoz

Early Life

Mary (Marie) Susette Sandoz, daughter of Jules Ami and Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz, was born at Sandoz Post Office on Mirage Flats, Running Water Precinct, Sheridan County, Nebraska, on May 11, 1896. The family moved from the “River Place” in 1910 to another homestead 33 miles south of Gordon in the Nebraska Sandhills. This second homestead is commonly known as the Sandhills or Orchard Place.

Jules Sandoz came from an aristocratic Swiss family. He was a violent and domineering man, who disapproved of his daughter reading or writing. He shunned the trappings of civilization and worked his family like hired help. The majority of young Marie’s childhood was spent in hard labor on the farm or helping her mother raise the five younger children. Marie developed snow blindness in one eye after a day spent digging the family’s cattle out of a snowdrift with her brother. Marie was greatly influenced by her father's personality, his acquaintances who visited the homestead, and the country in which they lived. She knew trappers, traders, Indians and Indian fighters, and learned their stories and their background. Her ability to remember or “catch” these stories would later lead to her moniker – Story catcher of the Plains.

Her inability to speak English, the languages predominately spoken in the home were French and German, somewhat limited her early education, but she learned the language and attended school irregularly until the age of sixteen. After graduating from the eighth grade, she took the rural teachers’ exam and passed. Marie taught in nearby country schools. At age eighteen, she married a neighboring rancher, Wray Macumber. The marriage was an unhappy one and the couple divorced in 1919. Marie then moved to Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Lincoln Years

Despite or in spite of her lack of a high school diploma, she managed to enroll at the Lincoln Business College in 1920 and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, thanks to a sympathetic dean, in 1922. Marie took classes as she could, but always continued writing. During these years, she received over a thousand rejection slips for her short stories. However, her work entitled "The Peachstone Basket," won her honorable mention in the 1926 Harper Intercollegiate Short Story Contest.

During the sixteen years, Marie, still going by her married name Macumber, lived in Lincoln, she held a variety of low-paying jobs. She worked as a reader in the English Department, proofreader and researcher at the Nebraska State Historical Society, and associate editor for School Executive Magazine. The campus magazine Prairie Schooner was regularly the recipient of her further literary efforts.

In November 1928, Marie received word that her father was dying. She visited him in the Alliance (Nebraska) hospital and was shocked by his final request – to write his life story. She began extensive research on his life and documenting his decision to become a pioneer.

On June 26, 1929, literary agent June Margaret Christie suggested that Marie Macumber use the pen name “Mari Sandoz.” After that, Marie Macumber was gone and Mari Sandoz was born.

The book, Old Jules, was completed in 1933. The book would be rejected, at least once, by every major publisher in the United States. She briefly gave up writing burning over seventy of her manuscripts. Malnourished and in poor health, she moved back to the Sandhills and lived with her mother.

Mari returned to Lincoln in January 1934 and continued working on Slogum HouseCapital City, and revising – and resubmitting – Old Jules.

Mari received word in March 1935 that her most recent version of Old Jules won a non-fiction contest held by Atlantic Press. Before this work could be published, however, she would begin the long standing battle with editors over the right to retain her distinctive Western idioms rather than use standardized English.

The book was well-received critically and commercially when it was issued, and became a Book of the Month Club selection. Some readers were shocked at her unromantic depiction of Old Jules, as well as her strong language and realistic portrayal of the hardships of frontier life. Others, closer to the Sandoz family, were shocked at the secrets that Mari shared about her family and the Sandoz family neighbors.

After Old Jules

Sandoz’ next works brought her notoriety of a different nature: hate mail and threats. Slogum House (1937) was perceived as an attack on the character of rural Nebraskans and the graphic nature of the book led to the book being banned in some cities, including Omaha, Nebraska. Capital City was considered and assault on the city of Lincoln and those in Nebraska state government.

Mari moved to Denver in 1940 partially to escape the backlash and partially to be closer to the resources she would need for her research for books including The Cattlemen and The Battle of Little Big Horn.

In 1942 Mari moved to New York in order to be closer to her publishers. It was difficult for Mari to advocate for her work when she was so far away from the publishers and editors. More importantly to most of Mari’s fans, her monumental biography of the great Lakota leader Crazy Horse was published. Sandoz was ahead of her time by writing biography from within the Lakota point of view using Lakota concepts, metaphors, and speech patterns.

Later life and Recognitions

Sandoz encouraged writers whenever she could. She presented summer writing workshops at institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She reviewed manuscripts sent to her by aspiring authors and taught creating writing through programming produced by Nebraska Educational Television.

Mari was fortunate in that she was able to see the value of her work during her lifetime. In 1950, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and in 1954 she received the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Native Sons and Daughters of Nebraska for her “sincere and realistic presentation of Nebraska as it was.”

Her proudest honor came in 1955. She returned to the Sandhills to spend Christmas with her family. The sign as she approached Gordon, Nebraska, which had read “Home of Old Jules Sandoz” since 1935 had been changed to “Home of Mari Sandoz.”

By 1964 she knew that she had cancer. That year Mari received the Saddleman Award, now called the Owen Wister Award, and the Western Writers of America “Spur Award for Best Juvenile Book for The Storycatcher.

Mari Sandoz, in spite of failing health, spent her later years actively writing, lecturing, and visiting the land and people she wrote about. She died of bone cancer in New York on March 1966, and was returned for burial on the family farm south of Gordon, Nebraska.

Mari’s Legacy and Impact

Her Great Plains series stands as her central achievement because of its singular interpretation of the High Plains region from the Stone Age period to the twentieth century. In addition to Old Jules and Crazy Horse, the other books in this series include The Buffalo HuntersThe Cattlemen, and The Beaver Men. The final book in the series was to be about oil. Unfortunately, Sandoz passed before it could be written.

The Nebraska Library Association established the Mari Sandoz Award in 1969.It is given annually to “significant, enduring contribution to the Nebraska book world through writing, film production, or related activity.”

Mari was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in the State Capitol Building in 1975-1976 and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center's Hall of Great Westerners in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1998

“As a resident of western Nebraska, Mari Sandoz participated firsthand in the settlement of one of the last "free" land areas of the continental United States -- the Kinkaid period of the twentieth century. Although her scars were no greater, and no less, than those of the thousands who experienced the same thing, she was the one who put them down in writing. Mari Sandoz has left each of us with a richer appreciation of our past and a clearer vision of our future through her 22 published books and numerous short stories and essays”. – Gordon City Library; Gordon, Nebraska

C. F. Coffee

In 1871, C.F. Coffee hired on with his brother-in-law J.W. Snyder’s cattle drive as a $30 a month drover to trail a herd of 1500 cattle from Brownsville, Texas to Kearney, Nebraska. Two years later, he and partner, A.H. Webb borrowed approximately $13,000 at 24 percent interest to purchase their own herd. The cattle were driven to Wyoming where Coffee secured a contract with the US government to supply them with 60 beeves a month for a cost of $40 a head. Within two years the men had paid off the loan and Coffee had established a ranch on Box Elder Creek just south of the present site of Torrington, Wyoming.  Early in 1872, Coffee and five other cattlemen met in a Cheyenne, Wyoming stable to draft the by-lines of the Wyoming Stock growers Association. C.F. Coffee had established himself as a cattleman.

In a letter written to the Wyoming Stock Growers Association in 1915, Coffee said he decided to move his herds into Nebraska in 1879, because the Wyoming region had become “too tame.” He drove his herds across the Nebraska/Wyoming border and settled them on Hat Creek approximately 12 miles north of the present site of Harrison, Nebraska. Coffee added the Durham bloodline from cattle obtained in Oregon in 1878, to improve his longhorn herd. He built irrigation ditches, planted trees, and established a headquarters. When the surveyors arrived in 1882, they listed the Hat Creek Ranch as “Coffee’s Garden. “ 

Coffee had traveled to Camden, Arkansas in April of 1879 and married his “Daisy,” second cousin, Virginia Ashland Toney, but his young bride set up housekeeping in Cheyenne, Wyoming and for many years, Coffee commuted the 150 miles between his ranch and his home.  Eight years later, after drought and snow decimated cattle herds on the Great Plains, his wife and three young children moved to the ranch. Daisy quickly settled her family into the community. The couple welcomed neighbors, helped finance the building of the local church, and joined other community members in Fourth of July celebrations and Christmas parties.

Known, throughout his life time, as a progressive cattleman and community leader, Coffee continued to diversify his cattle breeding program, he helped establish the Nebraska Stock growers Association, built a railroad siding that made shipping cattle to eastern markets easier and cheaper, and helped establish the Omaha Stock Yards. In 1889 Coffee purchased the Commercial Bank in Harrison. Less than ten years later,  he traded friend and fellow-rancher ,Bartlett Richards, 2000 cows with calves at side for controlling interest in the First National Bank in Chadron, NE. On September 7, 1900, the Dawes County Journal reported that Charles Coffee would be named as vice president of the First National Bank. In time, he’d have an interest in all but one of the banks from Lusk, Wyoming to Gordon, Nebraska.  

Coffee served one term in the Nebraska House of Representatives. He was instrumental in securing Chadron State College for the Panhandle, and throughout his lifetime he continued to support and improve both the banking and the ranching industries.  When Coffee died in 1935, E.P. Wilson, Professor of History at the Nebraska State Teacher’s College at Chadron noted that, “It will not be possible fifty or one hundred years from now to write the pioneer history of Eastern Wyoming or Western Nebraska without recognizing Colonel Coffee’s far reaching influence…” The National Cowboy Hall of Fame confirmed Coffee’s influence by inducting him into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1966.

Over 60 years later Wilson’s prediction continues to hold true. Coffee’s original Hat Creek Ranch is still owned by his family. The First National Bank, although no longer owned by the Coffee family, is a strong viable institution that continues to follow C.F. Coffee’s financial ideals, and C.F. Coffee continues to be recognized in American history as one of the men who established the industry that supplies the world with beef.

Bartlett Richards

Born in Vermont, Bartlett Richards, the son of a Congregational minister, came to Wyoming in 1879, at the age of 17, to spend a year as a ranch hand before enrolling in Williams College in Massachusetts, but he never returned to the East. Instead, by the time the year was over, he had purchased 1000 head of cattle and established the Ship Wheel Ranch on the Belle Fourche River in northeast Wyoming. Shortly before his 21st birthday in 1883, Richards was hired to oversee a herd of 6000 cattle on the Upper 33 and Lower 33 ranches in Sioux County, Nebraska. He had become a cattleman.

In 1900 Richards was labeled one of the most influential cattlemen in the United States. He had owned the First National Bank of Chadron, had established several ranches including the nearly 300,000 acre Spade Ranch in the Sand Hills, and had developed a cattle herd that topped prestigious cattle shows in Chicago and Denver. He’d also made a powerful enemy: a fellow rancher--turned politician, Theodore Roosevelt. The men’s battle over a ranchers’ right to the public domain began shortly after Roosevelt became president in 1901 and led to Richards’ conviction and incarceration for land fraud. In 1911 Richards died, a month before completing his one-year land fraud jail term.

Bartlett Richards’ achievements are often overshadowed by the land fraud conviction and the negative press surrounding the purported actions of the big cattlemen during the homesteading era, but his achievements were finally recognized in 1970, when Richards was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in honor of his role of establishing a ranching industry based on husbandry not chance.