Eolian sand is extensive over the Great Plains of North America, but is at present mostly stabilized by vegetation. Accounts published by early explorers, however, indicate that at least parts of dune fields in Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas were active in the 19th century. Based on an index of dune mobility and a regional tree-ring record, the probable causes for these periods of greater eolian activity are droughts, accompanied by higher temperatures, which greatly lowered the precipitation-to-evapotranspiration ratio and diminished the cover of stabilizing vegetation. In addition, observations by several explorers, and previous historical studies, indicate that rivers upwind of Great Plains dune fields had shallow, braided, sandy channels, as well as intermittent flow in the 19th century. Wide, braided, sandy rivers that were frequently dry would have increased sand supplies to active dune fields. We conclude that dune fields in the Great Plains are extremely sensitive to climate change and that the potential for reactivation of stabilized dunes in the future is high, with or without greenhouse warming.