Carl Coke Rister, Texas and Southwest historian, son of Craton and Sarah (Parker) Rister, was born on June 30, 1889, in Hayrick, Coke County, Texas. His father, a Baptist minister, moved his growing family to the new Fisher County settlement of McCaulley while Carl was still a boy. Upon graduating from McCaulley High School, Rister briefly considered a career in professional baseball before deciding instead to attend Simmons College (now Hardin-Simmons University) in Abilene. He worked his way through school as a tailor and received a bachelor's degree in 1915. He married Mattie May of Hamlin, Texas, in June of the following year. They had no children. After a one-year stay in McCaulley, where Rister served as superintendent of schools, he moved to Washington, D.C. There he worked for the United States Treasury Department and attended night classes at George Washington University, where he earned a master's degree in 1920. He spent the next several years teaching classes at Simmons College and attending summer school at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied under Herbert Eugene Bolton. He returned to George Washington University as instructor and student and received his Ph.D. there in 1925. His dissertation, one of the first frontier histories focusing on the Southwest, was published as The Southwestern Frontier in 1928.
Rister returned once again to Abilene to teach at his alma mater. There he was active in the newly formed West Texas Historical Association and served as editor of its Yearbook from 1925 to 1929. In 1929 Rister joined the faculty of Oklahoma University, where he remained for twenty-two years and served as professor of history, chairman of the history department, and research professor of history. He gained a national reputation for his work in southwestern military, Indian, and oil history and often spent his summers teaching at other institutions in order to do research in local archives. In 1951 Rister accepted the position of distinguished professor of history at Texas Technological College.
Rister was a devout Baptist whose faith in the virtue of hard work and the eventual triumph of good over evil affected both his writing and his professional life. He served as president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1949–50 and as a member of its executive board from 1946 to 1955. He was elected a fellow of the Society of American Historians, the Social Science Research Council of New York, the American Philosophical Society, the American Geographical Society, and the Texas State Historical Association. In 1942 Hardin-Simmons University awarded him an honorary LL.D. degree. Between 1925 and 1955 Rister authored or coauthored thirteen books (two published posthumously) and about fifty articles and book reviews. His research focused on what he thought to be the Southwest's inevitable and desirable evolution from wilderness to civilized society. He rarely ventured into analysis or interpretation, but remained a narrative historian who firmly believed that the facts, when presented in a meticulous and orderly fashion, provided all the information necessary for an understanding of the past. His work was criticized by some as repetitious, detailed, and insufficiently documented. Others, however, praised him for using previously ignored historical documents and for humanizing history with his many character sketches. Rister produced one of the first bodies of historical material that focused totally on the American Southwest. His publications laid the groundwork for future historical interpretation by providing the facts upon which others could build. Rister attempted to present an overview of the region's cultural traits and institutions and stressed the importance of including women's contributions in the study of history. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack on April 16, 1955, in Rotan, Texas, and was buried in Tech Memorial Cemetery, Lubbock. His library and papers were sold to Texas Tech and, combined with its ranch records, form the foundation of the Southwest Collection.