Elsdon Best was born at Tawa Flat, New Zealand, on 30 June 1856, the sixth child of William Best, a farmer, and his wife, Hannah Haynes Nibbs. For the first nine years of his life he lived on the family farm, Grassleas, with his four sisters and two brothers. When his father took a position as chief clerk and cashier in the Colonial Treasury in 1865, the family moved to Fernbank, a house on Tinakori Road, Wellington.
After 5½ years of schooling in Wellington Elsdon Best passed the junior civil service examination, and at the age of 17, in deference to his father's wishes, he took a clerical position in the Registrar General's Office. Unable to endure the constraints of office routine for more than a year, he resigned and moved to Poverty Bay, where he worked for three years as a farm labourer, initially on his brother-in-law's property.
In the late 1870s Best experienced months of unemployment in the Poverty Bay district and had to abandon his plans to establish a timber mill. Instead, he joined the Armed Constabulary in Taranaki, which was engaged in facilitating forced surveys and sales of Māori land. Best's company, based at Pungarehu, was called on to arrest groups from the pacifist community at Parihaka led by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, who were resisting the government surveys. Best's sister, Edith, had married Walter Gudgeon, an officer in the Armed Constabulary. With Gudgeon's support Best joined a native contingent, and in November 1881 he took part in the raid on Parihaka involving over 1,500 troops which resulted in the destruction of the settlement and the arrests of Te Whiti, Tohu and hundreds of their supporters. Gudgeon, along with other influential Taranaki settlers, notably Percy Smith and Edward Tregear, also encouraged Best in the study of Māori history and culture. Best's association with these local scholars of Māori society was to prove of lasting significance for his future career.
Towards the end of 1883, after a further period of farm labouring, Best left New Zealand for a three-year working holiday in the United States. On his return in 1886 he entered into partnership with his brother Walter in a sawmilling business near Waikanae. Their modern friction-fed carriage mill, purchased by Elsdon Best in the United States, was in operation for five years before a slump in timber prices forced its closure.
In 1891 Best received a letter which heralded a major turning point in his career. He was invited to Wellington by Percy Smith to discuss the formation of a society to promote the study and recording of Polynesian history and culture. He became a foundation member of the Polynesian Society the following year. An enthusiastic supporter of the society, Best directed his considerable energies into securing new members and travelling in and beyond the Wellington district to interview elders of Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Awa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Kahungunu.
In 1892 and 1893 government survey teams met with hostile opposition from Tūhoe when attempting to survey a road through the Urewera district without the tribe's consent. Concerned that further conflicts might arise, the government agreed to a proposal from Percy Smith, then a senior official in the Department of Lands and Survey, that Elsdon Best be sent to the Urewera as a mediator. Tūhoe had been in contact with Pākehā society for more than 50 years and most of the tribe followed the teachings of the Ringatū church. The government, however, also agreed with Smith that Best's appointment afforded 'civilisation' the last opportunity to gather information about pre-European Māori society, in an area that was still relatively isolated. Elsdon Best was, as a result, to become New Zealand's first professional ethnographer, combining these duties with those of paymaster and storeman.
Best joined the road-making team in 1895. He formed close working relationships with Tūtakangāhau and Paitini Wī Tāpeka of Maungapōhatu, the latter having offered his services to Best as a paid adviser. Through these and other contacts he was drawn into the continuing conflicts over the future of Tūhoe land, becoming involved in disputes over block boundaries. In one case, when a full-scale battle ensued, he was accused by government officials of deliberately stirring up trouble. Best responded by threatening to leave the district, and had it not been for Percy Smith's intervention he might have done so. Smith arranged for Best to be appointed secretary of the Urewera Commission, a body established to subdivide Tūhoe land (the Urewera District Native Reserve) and to compile lists of owners for each of the 34 blocks. In his new position Best was able to record Tūhoe history and genealogy as it was debated before him.
Best's strongly independent character found expression in his sartorial tastes. When walking around the Wellington district he had regularly worn a tartan kilt, and on occasions he wore a cowboy outfit purchased in the United States. His early interest in the American West was not, however, reflected in his horsemanship, and he rarely rode faster than a trot. This handicap became almost a blessing when, after breaking a leg in a heavy fall, he was rescued and cared for by Mary Adelaide Wylie, a teacher who was the daughter of a schoolmaster friend. Elsdon Best and Adelaide Wylie became engaged soon after, and on 2 December 1903 they were married at her father's home in Galatea. After their marriage the couple lived for about a year in a two-roomed cottage built by Best and his friend Paitini Wī Tāpeka at Heipipi. They were to have no children.
Prior to his departure for the Urewera district Best had contributed articles to the Journal of the Polynesian Society on a variety of ethnological topics, including 'The races of the Philippines', 'The coming of Kupe from Hawaiki to New Zealand' and 'The Māori and the moa'. While in the Urewera he maintained an impressive publication record, supplementing his scholarly articles with more popular accounts of episodes from Tūhoe history which were published in the Otago Witness, the Canterbury Times and Rotorua's Hot Lakes Chronicle. By the time he left the Urewera in 1910 he had published well over 100 articles and poems in newspapers and journals.
Between 1904 and 1910 Best and his wife lived at Rūātoki, where Best was employed by the Department of Public Health as a Māori health inspector. During this period he wrote his major work on Tūhoe history: Tūhoe: the children of the mist, published in 1925. Apirana Ngata once said of Best that 'it may be doubted whether he had the gift of condensation'; however, this reluctance to generalise was more than compensated for by the richness of detail, frequent use of personal anecdote and directness of voice that characterised his writing style.
In July 1910, after intense lobbying by Gudgeon, Smith, Tregear and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), a position was established specifically for Best at the Dominion Museum in Wellington. Best's first Dominion Museum bulletin, The stone implements of the Māori, was published two years later. This was a pioneering volume for which, in 1914, Best was awarded the prestigious Hector Memorial Medal and Prize by the New Zealand Institute. Over the next 16 years he would complete a further 10 substantial bulletins on diverse aspects of pre-European Māori social life and material culture, thus establishing a reputation as New Zealand's foremost ethnographer of Māori society. His works remain a valuable record of Māori tradition as recorded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the evolutionary and racial assumptions that informed his theorising detract seriously from their ethnological value. The historical accuracy of his reconstructions of Māori migrations and pre-European Māori society, based as they were on oral tradition and imagination, have also been increasingly questioned by archaeologists.
Following the death of Percy Smith in 1922, Best was elected president of the Polynesian Society and three years later he became a joint editor, with Johannes Andersen, of the society's journal. During his later years he began to receive the official recognition that he felt had been denied him at the Dominion Museum. In part this was due to the support of Apirana Ngata, who, in 1923, successfully pressured the government into establishing the Board of Māori Ethnological Research (later the Māori Purposes Fund Board) to which Best, Ngata and Te Rangi Hiroa were appointed. Between 1924 and 1927 the board assisted with the long-delayed publication of five of Best's Dominion Museum bulletins, and a further two followed in 1929.
Elsdon Best died at Wellington on 9 September 1931, survived by his wife, Adelaide. He had brought a bushman's independence, dry wit and capacity for sheer hard work to the task of preserving the history and culture of a people he thought destined to disappear. He did so as a minor player in that colonial process which threatened to bring about such a fate. By the time of his death, however, Best's work was already taking on a new significance, informing and giving impetus to a Māori cultural renaissance.