Mr. Ayer's Community Service: The Creation and Use of a Great Collection

Scott Manning Stevens (D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies)

Almost every scholar or researcher immersed in the archives of American Indian and indigenous studies will be familiar with references to the Ayer Collection housed at the Newberry Library, but not everyone will have heard of the man that created what has been referred to as “perhaps the finest gathering of materials on American Indians in the world.” Edward Everett Ayer (1841-1927) was in many ways typical of the great collectors and philanthropists of the late nineteenth century, if such figures can be considered types.[1] His story appears to be one of a self-made man, whose instincts and industry allowed him to rise to be one of the leading citizens of Chicago at the turn of the century, and one of this country’s great collectors of rare books, artifacts, and antiquities. He was one of the original benefactors of the Newberry Library and of the Field Museum of Natural History, for which he served as the first president. In one version of his life we learn that he was born in Southport (later renamed Kenosha), in Wisconsin Territory in 1841. His family moved to Illinois when he was a child and he had no formal education past grade school; setting out to make his fortune in the West when he turned nineteen. There he would fail in his mining endeavors, move to California and work at a lumberyard, and then join the Union Army when the Civil War began. He was stationed in southern Arizona for much of the war and returned to Illinois at its conclusion still not having begun to make his fortune. In his hometown he worked with his father at the family dry goods store and soon began to invest in timber to supply the growing railroad industry. Within several years he would become one of the leading lumber suppliers in the United States; the basis of his great fortune. With these funds he became an established collector and one of Chicago’s legendary boosters and philanthropists.

While the above sketch of Ayer’s life is accurate in the main it might be told from a different angle as well. Ayer was in fact the descendant of one of the oldest families of New England. His ancestors having settled along the Merrimac River in Massachusetts in 1636, though not among the elites, did well enough that by the early nineteenth century Ayer’s paternal grandfather owned a small woolen mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Edward Ayer’s parents did set out with little money to the recently opened Wisconsin Territory in 1836 to make their own fortune and eventually owned a number of dry goods stores supplying the ever-growing population of the region. It was to the running of one of these stores that Edward Ayer would return after his Civil War military service and it was with the profits made through his business acumen that Ayer would begin to buy up stands of timber. During his time in the military, which was largely spent with a small army company assigned to keep a silver mine in southern Arizona out of Confederate hands, Ayer discovered the pleasures of reading, more specifically, reading history. As he tells us in a note titled “How I Bought My First Book,” which he wrote on the flyleaves of his copy of that book: “We were sent to Lower California in October and stayed there until April, 1862, when we went south over the Colorado desert into Arizona and on to Tucson. I was sent from Tucson south 60 miles to the Cerro Colorado mine, in charge of 14 men to guard the mine. Here I found a small library furnished by the owners, the first one I had ever seen, and in it I discovered Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico. I suppose being only eight miles from the Mexican border influenced me in selecting it to read. I read it through twice and was astonished to find that history could be so interesting.”[2] The small library had been donated by the gun manufacturer, Samuel Colt, and was meant to edify the men working the mine. It would be Prescott’s magisterial 1842 account of the Aztecs and conquistadors that opened Ayer’s eyes to the importance of history and sparked his life-long interest in the contest between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the European settlers invading our homelands.