Ely Parker

A Seneca Life

By: Patricia C. Galez

On April 9, 1865, a small group of men met in the sitting room of a home in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On that day and in that place, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Armies, accepted the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Although other Confederate forces continued to exist and fought on until early June of 1865, the events of that April afternoon essentially brought to an end the bloodiest conflict ever to have taken place on American soil. The Civil War saw the death of more than 618,000 former fellow Americans: Northerners who fought to preserve the Union and Southerners who believed that the rights of the individual states superseded those of the government in Washington.

Among the small group of men who witnessed this momentous event were staff members of Lieutenant General Grant; Colonel Charles Marshall, military secretary to General Lee; and Ely S. Parker, adjutant to General Grant and member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. Ely Parker’s rise to national prominence speaks to the determination of one extraordinary man to succeed in a world other than his own.

The year 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the war’s end. The sesquicentennial will be marked at cemeteries where the remains of Civil War dead are interred and at museums and battle sites in both the North and the South. Reenactments will bring to life numerous battles of the war, commemorating those epic events that ultimately decided the outcome of the conflict. As the entire nation – and, indeed, the world – looks back on the events of 1861 to 1865, it is fitting to turn one’s attention to a man whose name is unknown to many, but whose accomplishments before, during, and after the war were significant and unique.

Ely Samuel Parker was born in 1828 on the Tonawanda Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians near Indian Falls in Western New York State. The exact date of his birth is unknown. His name was Ha-sa-no-an-da, which means “Leading Name” in the Seneca language. The name Ely was conferred on him by the Reverend Ely Stone, a minister at the Baptist Mission School that Ely attended as a boy.

Ely’s father was William Parker, who had fought on the side of the United States in the War of 1812. The family acquired the surname Parker from a British officer who had been captured during the Revolutionary War and subsequently lived among the Seneca for a time. Before returning to Canada, the officer gave his name to the family with whom he had lived. The patriarch of that family was William Parker’s father.

Ely’s mother was Elizabeth Johnson, a member of the Wolf Clan. Elizabeth was from an illustrious lineage. Her father, James Johnson, was a Seneca Chief and successor to Handsome Lake, the Seneca leader credited with bringing back traditional religious beliefs to his people. Elizabeth’s uncle was Cornplanter, Seneca War Chief who fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution; her great-uncle was the legendary orator Red Jacket.

The story is told of a dream that Elizabeth had before the birth of her son. In her dream, the winter skies opened up to reveal a rainbow, which split in two. On one end of the rainbow were signs with letters resembling those on the signs of white business establishments. The dream was understood to be a prophecy about her soon-to-be-born son: “…he will become a white man as well as an Indian…His sun will rise on Indian land and set on white man’s land.” The dream was, indeed, prophetic.

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At the age of ten Ely traveled to Canada, to the Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford in southwestern Ontario. During this time, he reached a momentous decision. Ely was traveling with a group of military officers who passed the time with banter that they expected Ely would not understand.  Ely was distressed by his lack of fluency in English, and the incident caused the young boy to resolve to become fluent in the English language. To accomplish his goal, Ely returned to Indian Falls and renewed his studies, first locally and then at the Cayuga Academy in New York State’s Finger Lakes Region.

By this time Ely Parker was coming of age, utilizing his talents for the good of his people. The Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1832 and the Compromise Treaty of 1842 provided for the sale of Seneca lands to the Ogden Land Company and removal of the Seneca people to the Territory of Kansas. Parker’s skills in both the English language and diplomacy put him at the forefront of efforts to help the people of the Seneca Nation escape the dire consequences that the treaties sought to bring about.

Although there is no record of Parker attending college, he continued his education by studying with individuals who recognized his considerable intellectual abilities. In the late 1840s he studied law with an attorney in Ellicottville, New York. Unfortunately, his career as an attorney was brief: New York State law stipulated that only a citizen could be admitted to the bar, a status not accorded to members of Native Nations until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act.

Parker turned to engineering and proved to be an apt student, learning from the engineers with whom he worked on a project to extend the Genesee Valley Canal in Central New York State. In an effort to secure a position with the federal government, Parker applied to the U.S. Treasury Department, which appointed him construction superintendent for a project at Galena in northwestern Illinois.

Parker’s work for the Tonawanda Seneca continued even as he pursued his engineering career. In recognition of his tireless work for his people, he was proclaimed Grand Sachem of the Six Nations of Indians and given a new name: Do-ne-ho-ga-wa, which means “Open Door.”  As a sachem, Parker was a member of the governing body of the Iroquois Confederacy, an affiliation of the six Native Nations of Western and Central New York State: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Although all sachems were, in theory, equal in power and influence, Parker’s exceptional ability and accomplishments on behalf of his people caused him to emerge as the “first among equals,” the leading sachem of the Six Nations. He was twenty-three years of age.

Parker’s influence was most definitely felt in negotiations for the treaty ratified in 1858. This treaty provided for a maximum of $256,000 for the Tonawanda Seneca to purchase acreage from the Holland Land Company. Although they were only able to purchase 60% of the land they had lost, what they did purchase was theirs and would not be taken from them. For his efforts in securing the Tonawanda homeland, Ely Parker was given fifty acres of the newly acquired property.

In March of 1861 political considerations caused Parker to lose his job at Galena. Barely a month later, hostilities erupted when troops of the newly formed Confederate States fired on Union soldiers garrisoned at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War had begun. Parker attempted to secure a military commission, but his efforts were in vain. He returned to his home and remained there, farming the land, for two years. When an acquaintance from Galena, now a brigadier general, recommended him for an appointment as assistant adjutant general of volunteers, with the rank of captain, Parker’s longtime quest to serve during the war was fulfilled; on June 4, 1863, Parker accepted his commission. On September 18th, he became a member of Ulysses S. Grant’s personal military staff and accompanied the General to Washington. When one of Grant’s military secretaries resigned for reasons of health, Parker was promoted to this position, in which he served for the remainder of the war.

As the war progressed into spring of 1865, the possibility of a Union victory became more and more likely. When General Lee agreed to meet with Grant to discuss terms of surrender, Ely Parker was introduced to Lee as a member of Lieutenant General Grant’s staff. After a brief moment of apparent consternation, Lee shook hands with Parker and said, “I am glad to see one real American here,” to which Parker responded, “We are all Americans.” When Grant’s other military secretary became too flustered to continue recording the articles of surrender, Parker was pressed into service and completed the task. Thus, Ely S. Parker, member of the Seneca Nation of Indians and Captain in the Union army, stepped firmly and for all time into the pages of American history.

The end of the war did not signal the end of Parker’s association with General Grant. He offered counsel to Grant on Indian affairs, not only concerning the Tonawanda Seneca but also Native Nations in other parts of the country. His military career continued on an upward path as well, and he received one commission after another, ultimately reaching the rank of Brevet Brigadier General. The term brevet refers to an honorary rank, often conferred for outstanding service.

Ely Parker’s life was a success by any standard. He had put his prodigious skills to work for the Tonawanda Seneca and for the

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United States and had risen to fame in both of these worlds. His personal life, however, had become one of loss. Parker’s mother, Elizabeth, died in February of 1862 and his father, William, in April of 1864. The passing of his parents, especially his father, left Parker bereft and without the strong ties to family and home that he had always had. All that was to change when, on Christmas Eve in 1867, Ely Parker married Minnie Orton Sackett. The groom was 39 years of age; the bride, from a prominent Washington family, was 18. Ulysses S. Grant continued to play a role in Parker’s life: because Minnie’s father had been killed during the war, the General had the honor of giving the bride away. The Parkers had one child, Maud Theresa, born August 14, 1878.

Parker’s history of public service continued, and on April 26, 1869 he was confirmed by Congress as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold this office. Unfortunately, his tenure as Commissioner was not without controversy: charges were brought against him for defrauding the United States Government while purchasing Indian supplies and, in early 1871, he was put on trial. Although he was not convicted of fraud, Commissioner Parker was criticized for failing to consult the Board of Indian Commissioners regarding Indian purchases. It is ironic that this Board had been created in 1869 at the suggestion of, among others, Ely Parker. When he learned that he would be compelled to submit all expenditures to the Board for review, Parker resigned as Commissioner after serving in this capacity for only two years.

Parker, embittered by the unfortunate outcome of his tenure with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, left government service and embarked upon a career as a businessman and investor. His success was not long-lived, however, and his financial losses became significant.

He soon found that he had been away too long from engineering and that resuming his career in this field was no longer an option. An old friend used his influence as President of the Board of Commissioners of the New York City Police Department to secure a position for Parker with the Committee on Repairs and Supplies of the Police Board of Commissioners. This was a job, not a profession, but it did provide Parker with gainful employment and at least somewhat of an outlet for his active mind. He also continued as an advocate for Native Americans, recognizing education as the key to a better future for members of Native Nations.

The death of his brother Levi in April of 1895 left Ely as the last remaining Parker sibling. The loss of his family, along with worries about his tenuous financial position and declining health, took their toll. On August 30, 1895, Ely Samuel Parker died. He was buried with full military honors in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he and Minnie had made their home for many years. On January 20, 1897, he was reinterred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York, under the statue of Red Jacket, renowned Seneca orator and ancestor of his mother, Elizabeth.

The name of Ely Parker is not widely known outside the Seneca Nation. Yet, for those who are aware of his life, his intelligence, his commitment to his people, and his military and civilian accomplishments in the world that he chose to make his own, he stands as an extraordinary figure. The title of William H. Armstrong’s biography of Parker, Warrior in Two Camps (which provided much of the information that comprises this article), is particularly apt. The notion of two camps is clear: the Seneca world and the larger white world that formed the earlier and later settings of Parker’s life. The idea of a warrior is equally as appropriate. As an army officer, Parker served the Union cause and was rewarded for his service with military honors. As a warrior for his people, he fought with words against a government  that sought to deprive the Tonawanda Seneca of their ancestral home. It has been my privilege and my pleasure to retell, in some small way, the remarkable story of Ely S. Parker.

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