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Ricker, Eli S.

In the early 1900s Eli S. Ricker began gathering data for a book he planned to call The Final Conflict Between the Red Men and the Palefaces. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not see the advance of Europeans across the American continent as a glorious conquest of the wilderness. Instead, Ricker recognized the terrible consequences for the Native Americans who faced this avalanche in their homeland. Ricker had the audacity to suggest that history as seen from a Native American point of view was as valid as the white man's history. In the course of his research he interviewed at least fifty Native Americans about conditions and battles on the Plains in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Ricker was born in rural Maine in September 1843 and was raised in Oneida, Illinois. During the Civil War he served with the 102nd Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry. After his discharge in June 1865, he returned to his Illinois home and began farming. Ricker worked hard, but money was in short supply, and in 1866 he journeyed with friends into Kansas, where he apparently took a land claim before returning to Oneida. In 1867 he married the girl, Mary A. Smith, with whom he had corresponded since 1863. Ricker had always had a desire to obtain more education, and his family lived frugally as he worked his way through two years of college. In 1882 he took his wife and children to Brooklyn, Iowa, where he read law in the office of John T. Scott and was admitted to the bar in 1884.

In 1885 the family moved to Dawes County, Nebraska, where Ricker entered law practice. In 1890 he affiliated himself with the Populist movement and was elected to the first of three terms as county judge. He then retired briefly before becoming editor of the Chadron Times, from January 1903 to February 1905. After 1905 he devoted his remaining years to research on the book he hoped to write, to be entitled The Final Conflict Between the Red Man and the Pale Faces. The book was never written because Ricker became engrossed in his research. He spent years in the archives of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and the War Depart-ment, and collected originals and copies of letters, reports, and official documents from many sources. Mechanical recording devices were available when Ricker was taking the depositions of Indians, soldiers, settlers, traders, and other witnesses of frontier history, but unfortunately, they were beyond his means. He relied instead on note pads and pencils to record the interviews.

Ricker died at Grand Junction, Colorado, in 1926. His notebooks and other data pertaining to his research on the Indian wars, as well as voluminous family correspondence, were afterward donated by his family to the Nebraska State Historical Society. The published interviews, Voices of the American West, edited by Richard E. Jensen, are now available in two volumes: The Indian Interviews of Eli S. Ricker, 1903-1919; and the Settler and Soldier Interviews of Eli S. Ricker, 1903-1919.

(January 2006)



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