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Jensen and the ‘Ricker Tablets’

Beginning in 1903, Nebraska lawyer and newspaper editor Eli S. Ricker began conducting interviews with people who had participated in the Indian wars so that he could include their eyewitness material in a book. First he gathered the stories of Indians, and later he went to area soldiers and settlers. He did interviews until 1919, but no book was produced. In 1927, after Ricker’s death, his interviews became the property of the Nebraska State Historical Society. Scholars occasionally used them for articles and books, but the entire collection of interviews remained unpublished for almost 80 years and inaccessible to the public.

Now, all the primary interviews Ricker conducted are available through the efforts of Richard E. Jensen, who recently retired after 35 years with the Nebraska State Historical Society. Known as the “Ricker Tablets,” these inter views appear in the two-volume Voices of the American West (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2005, $55 each volume). Volume I is called The Indian Interviews of Eli S. Ricker 1903-1919, and Volume II is The Settler and Soldier Interviews of Eli S. Ricker 1903-1919. Ricker—an Illinois Civil War veteran who moved to Chadron, Neb., after the war, and later relocated to Grand Junction, Colo.—interviewed 50 Indians and a like number of settlers and soldiers. Nebraska State Historical Director James Hanson gave Jensen, an archaeologist by training, the assignment of editing the Ricker Tablets for publication. Earlier, Jensen had teamed with fellow staff members R. Eli Paul and John E. Carter in using Ricker documents to write the 1991 book Eyewitness at Wounded Knee. Jensen recently took time to visit with Wild West.

Wild West: How would you summarize your hard work on the Ricker Tablet project?

Jensen: It was fun and frustrating all at the same time.

WW: What is more significant, Ricker’s interviews with settlers or his interviews with Indians?

Jensen: I’d have to say with the Indians, because in the early 1900s, 99 percent of the historians just pushed the Indians away because they felt their stories were too confused, that they weren’t seeing things as clearly as white people. Ricker wasn’t buying that argument.

WW: Which of the interviews are the most compelling?

Jensen: The Indian Wounded Knee interviews were the ones that just jumped out at me. I’d have to put those at the top of the list, particularly the Horn Cloud and the Dewey Beard interviews. Their stories were really something.

WW: Did you get a sense of Ricker’s personality through reading the interviews?

Jensen: He’s not the sort of guy whose office you would have dropped into at 5 o’clock and said, “Let’s go have a beer.” He was always Ricker to my mind. Ricker was just a little bit stern, aloof. I’m surprised he got anybody to talk with him. That is unlike Charles Allen, whose documents I have also worked with when editing From Fort Laramie to Wounded Knee: In the West That Was. To my mind he’s always Charlie.

WW: Were some of the interviews previously published?

Jensen: Some of the Wounded Knee interviews have been published in Nebraska History, so those were pretty well known. I think it was just one of those things, that everybody realized the effort it would take to tackle that whole job of publishing all of the interviews. Scholars have known about the interviews since the Nebraska State Historical Society acquired them in 1927, but nobody had tried to compile all of them. I hope I did a reasonable job. There were dozens of questions I wish I could have answered.

WW: Such as?

Jensen: I’m not going to answer that. Ricker occasionally used shorthand. I did whatever I could to try to find out what brand of shorthand he used, and I never did. One hundred years ago, there were all kinds of shorthand styles. There was one interview that mixed regular writing with shorthand, and I thought I could figure out the shorthand from it, but I didn’t. As a result, there’s still a chunk of [unused] interview and I have no idea what it’s about. Maybe someday somebody will figure it out. Then we’ll have an article in Nebraska History called “Ricker’s Code.”

WW: During the early 1900s, Walter Mason Camp also conducted interviews with Indians and others. How does Ricker’s work compare?

Jensen: I’d have to lean toward Ricker. He might have been just a little more thorough.

WW: Tell us about your forthcoming project involving the letters and diaries of missionaries to the Pawnee Indians.

Jensen: In 1833 a Congregationalist minister in New England heard this crazy story about three Indians coming to St. Louis to learn about the white man’s god. He thought they [Congregationalists] should go out there [to the West] to set up a mission. The Indians were two Nez Perces and a Flathead….That really got the attention of the people in New England. The minister got a church in New England to back sending missionaries out here. Samuel Parker was the one who led them. Parker made it to St. Louis and discovered they were too late in the season to cross the mountains, so he turned around. That left John Dunbar and Samuel Allis, two young, single guys. They went to Bellevue [Neb.] in the fall of 1834, where they met some Pawnees. Much to their surprise, the grand Pawnee chief, who was sort of the head man of the tribe, said John Dunbar could be his guest. The head of the Loup, or Skidi, band said he wanted one of those guys. So the two missionaries were separated. They couldn’t speak the language but went off on the winter hunt with those two groups. They eventually lived with them until 1846.

WW: Where are the original documents?

Jensen: The letters and diaries are with the Presbyterian Historical Society.

WW: What kind of perspective do the documents provide?

Jensen: It really gives you a look at what these early missionaries in Nebraska were doing, how they realized they weren’t accomplishing what they set out to do, but they couldn’t give up and go home and say they failed, so they continued on. One day some Sioux Indians came by and took some pot shots. And then the missionaries left, although Sam Allis stayed with the Pawnees for years.

WW: How did you learn about them?

Jensen: Years ago the Kansas Historical Society published the letters that Dunbar and Allis wrote. There were four footnotes and no introduction. It was information too good to ignore. I started researching them. That was back in my archaeology days. I’d do it after work and on weekends—that was my hobby. That’s been going on for 30 years.

WW: Tell us about the Wounded Knee book.

Jensen: In the late 1980s, I can remember the casual conversation that led to the project. Eli Paul would write the military, I would write the Indians. Our Wounded Knee book had a lot of new stuff in it because we were aware of Ricker, we’d looked at that. At least in my section, the Indians do the talking. It is a different perspective because it wasn’t the interpretation of three historians.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here