A lifelong friend and trusted aide of Ulysses S. Grant, Ely Parker rose to the top in two worlds, that of his native Seneca Indian tribe and the white man’s world at large. Through the Civil War and Reconstruction he strove to serve both worlds as best he could.
By Floyd B. Largent, Jr.
When Robert E. Lee met with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on the momentous morning of April 9, 1865, the Union commander insisted on introducing his staff members to Lee individually. The Rebel leader, ever courteous, shook each man’s hand. Among the men in Grant’s entourage was Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian. Lee hesitated upon meeting the swarthy Parker, apparently mistaking him for a freedman or mulatto; however, he quickly realized his error, extending his hand to Parker with the gracious comment, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker accepted the proffered handshake, responding, “We are all Americans.”
After exchanging small talk, the two commanders began the arduous business of drafting the articles of surrender for the Confederate Army. Among his other duties, the 37-year-old Parker served as one of Grant’s military secretaries. Once the generals had agreed on conditions, Parker was directed to copy the articles of surrender into a manifold book, a bound pamphletin which multiple copies could be produced through the use of carbon-paper inserts. This done, he passed the book to Colonel Theodore Bowers, another of Grant’s aides, who was to prepare the final copy in ink for the commanding generals’ signatures. Bowers, however, was so unnerved by the magnitude of the occasion that he was forced to leave the task to the unflappable Parker, who quickly produced the copy in his graceful hand.
When the document was complete, Lee examined it briefly, then had an aide draft a short letter accepting the terms. Grant accepted the letter unopened, and the surrender was complete. Parker casually put a copy of Grant’s original draft in his jacket pocket. Later, signed by President Grant, who attested to the document’s authenticity, it became a favorite heirloom of the Parker family.
Although Ely Parker is best known for his role in drafting the terms of surrender that ended the Civil War, his life’s work was far greater than that single act. This “one real American,” as General Lee referred to him, was born destined for greatness, or so it had been prophesied. In 1828, four months before his birth at the Tonawanda Seneca reservation in Indian Falls, N.Y., Parker’s mother had an unsettling dream in which she beheld a broken rainbow reaching from the home of Indian agent Erastus Granger, in Buffalo, to the reservation. Troubled, Elizabeth Johnson Parker (known to her people as Gaontguttwus) visited a Seneca dream interpreter in an attempt to better understand what she had seen. His translation of her vision was nothing less than spectacular. The dream interpreter told Parker: “A son will be born to you who will be distinguished among his nation as a peacemaker; he will become a white man as well as an Indian, with great learning; he will be a warrior for the palefaces; he will be a wise white man, but will never desert his Indian people or ‘lay down his horns as a great Iroquois chief’; his name will reach from the East to the West–the North to the South, as great among his Indian family and the palefaces. His sun will rise on Indian land and set on the white man’s land. Yet the land of his ancestors will fold him in death.”
As it happened, the prophesy came true.
Hasanoanda, or Leading Name, was born in 1828 to Elizabeth Parker and her husband, William, also known as Jonoestowa (Dragon Fly). Shortly thereafter he was bequeathed an English name, Ely Samuel Parker. He acquired his unusual first name (pronounced not “Ee-lye” but “Ee-lee”) from a Baptist missionary, Elder Ely Stone. His surname had been acquired by his grandfather, in honor of a captured British officer eventually adopted into the tribe.
Young Ely was educated at Elder Stone’s Baptist school early in life, but little of this introductory education stuck; even his attempts to learn English failed. After his initial schooling, Parker was sent to an Iroquois settlement in Ontario to learn woodcraft. There he remained from ages 10 to 13, when homesickness led him to strike out for his family’s home in New York. An incident on the way, in which he was ridiculed by British officers because of his poor grasp of English, hardened his resolve to learn the foreign language and the inscrutable ways of his people’s conquerors.
Parker returned to the Baptist school, where his diligence and intelligence eventually won him tuition-free admission to Yates Academy, a noted school in nearby Orleans County. There he quickly mastered the English language in both its spoken and written forms, and became noted for his oratorical abilities. His stay at Yates Academy was a busy one: He had an active social life, and at various times was called upon by his tribal elders to represent the reservation in Washington regarding several treaty disputes with the United States government. Involved in these disputes from the age of 15, Parker acquitted himself well against a variety of miscreants who were attempting to use two illicit treaties, signed by puppet chiefs in 1838 and 1842, to take the Senecas’ lands. He so impressed Washington society that he was invited to dine with President and Mrs. James K. Polk at the White House when he was only 18 years old.
Two years earlier, a chance encounter with noted anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan led to Parker’s collaboration on the landmark 1851 treatise League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, widely recognized as the first scientific study of an Indian people ever published. Parker and his family supplied Morgan with much of his information, and in the frontispiece of the book Morgan acknowledged his debt with the inscription: “To Ha-sa-no-an-da (Ely S. Parker), A Seneca Indian, this work, the materials of which are the fruit of our joint researches, is inscribed: in acknowledgement of the obligations, and in testimony of the friendship of the author.”
Later, with Morgan’s help, Parker matriculated in the prestigious Cayuga Academy in Aurora, Ontario. His stay was mostly a pleasant one; again he was socially active and became involved in the school’s debate club, which stimulated his interest in the law. An attempt to get into Harvard in 1847 failed. Undeterred, Parker became a law student under district attorney and Indian subagent William P. Angel in Ellicottville, N.Y. Parker’s career as a lawyer was unfor-tunately curtailed when his patron fell out of favor with the ruling Democratic Party; shortly thereafter, Parker was declared ineligible for the bar because he was not an American citizen. But despite being shunned by the legal community, Parker did find a place in society where he was welcome throughout his life. In 1847, Parker became a member of the Batavia Lodge Number 88, and remained a Mason until the day he died.
Following his thwarted attempts to practice law, Parker elected instead to become an engineer. He may have briefly attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, acquiring an education in civil engineering; however, the school has no record of his attendance, and the story may be apocryphal. Whatever the case, in 1849 Parker accepted an engineering position on the nearby Genesee River. He began as second assistant engineer in a project to extend the Genesee Valley Canal toward the Allegheny River; in 1851 he was promoted to first assistant engineer, a position he would hold for four years. During this time, he also worked on improvements to the Erie Canal.
Also in 1851, the Iroquois bestowed upon Parker their greatest honor in recognition of his tireless service: He became Grand Sachem of the Six Nations, and was asked to serve as mentor and intermediary for his people. With this title the 23-year-old also acquired the sacred name of Donehogawa, Keeper of the Western Door of the Iroquois Longhouse. In 1853, the governor of New York formally recognized Parker as the chief representative of the Iroquois confederacy, and the state government treated him as the head chief in any dealings with the confederacy.
The next few years were busy ones in both the worlds that Ely Parker served. The Seneca kept him active in his ceremonial and secular duties, requiring him to go to Washington and to the New York Legislature numerous times to argue their case in ongoing treaty negotiations. His success was limited, but his efforts enabled the Tonawanda Seneca to eventually save three-fifths of their reservation from the Federal government. For this feat, Parker was awarded 50 acres to add to his personal farm.
Parker’s star continued to rise in the white man’s world as well. He assumed the mantle of Knight Templar in the Royal Arch of the Masonic Order, became a captain of engineers in the 54th Regiment of the New York state militia, and rose rapidly through the state’s engineering ranks. Parker was highly regarded for his capabilities in the construction of levees, buildings and canals, and in 1857 he was appointed superintendent of lighthouse construction on the upper Great Lakes.
Shortly after arriving at his new posting in Detroit, however, Parker was reassigned to supervise the construction of a customhouse and marine hospital in Galena, Ill. His stay there was brief, as he was simultaneously assigned to the construction of similar facilities in Dubuque, Iowa, and made his home there. Nevertheless, he was obliged both by government and Masonic business to visit Galena often. It was there, in 1860, that he struck up a lifelong friendship with a down-and-out former Army officer and harness store clerk, one Hiram Ulysses Grant–the same man who, due to a clerical error at West Point, would become known to history as Ulysses S. Grant.
In early 1861, Parker, like his legal mentor before him, ran afoul of the political machine running New York. It became known that he had backed Stephen Douglas in his failed bid against Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860, and had even stumped for Douglas throughout the state. The newly installed Republican state Legislature moved to discharge Parker from his position and to appoint in his place a less competent but more politically acceptable engineer. Disgusted, Parker went home to Tonawanda and vowed to never again hold any public position.
Then Confederate gunners fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and Parker and his brethren were embroiled in the Civil War. Following the lead of his friend Grant, he attempted to join the Union Army. In mid-1861, he went to Albany and offered to raise a volunteer regiment of Iroquois to fight for the Union. He was flatly refused; the governor made it clear that Indians were not wanted in the New York Volunteers. Later, Parker offered his services to the Federal government as an engineer; again he was rebuffed. Secretary of State William Seward put it to him bluntly: “The fight must be settled by the white men alone. Go home, cultivate your farm, and we will settle our troubles without any Indian aid.” Dispirited, Parker returned home, where for two years he tended his crops, busied himself in Masonic and Seneca activities, and worked behind the scenes to obtain a commission in the Union Army.
In 1863, after slicing through miles of red tape, engineer-hungry Grant fulfilled Parker’s wish, and Parker was breveted as a captain of engineers in the U.S. Army. Although according to Iroquois custom no Grand Sachem could go to war and retain his tribal title, a special dispensation was made for the honored Donehogawa, as this was not a war against another tribe, but between white men.
Beginning as an assistant adjutant general in Brig. Gen. J.E. Smith’s division at Vicksburg, Miss., Parker quickly worked his way up the ladder, proving himself as capable at directing volunteer soldiers as he had been at engineering, public speaking and lobbying for his people. He served with distinction at Grant’s side at Vicksburg, and by mid-1864 had been placed on Grant’s personal staff, where he served as the commander’s de facto personal military secretary. This position was made official in August 1864, when Parker replaced Lt. Col. William Rowley, a longtime colleague of General Grant’s who was forced to retire due to ill health. The promotion brought with it the rank of lieutenant colonel, which, in the view of New York Herald correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader, was merely “a partial reward for invaluable services.”
Much was made of “Grant’s Indian,” as Parker inevitably came to be called. He was something apart from the normal officer, a physically imposing man who, though just 5 feet 8, packed some 200 pounds on a broad-shouldered, well-proportioned frame. His stern countenance–highlighted by a swarthy complexion, drooping mustache, hooded but piercing black eyes and a broad, arched nose–was belied by his nature, which one observer called “gentle and kind as a woman’s.” Fluent in English, he spoke with the peculiar intonation of a man whose mother language did not require the use of the lower lip. He was recognized to be fiercely strong and extraordinarily intelligent, “two hundred pounds of encyclopedia,” one of his Army friends called him. Soft-spoken and polite, he was a positive contribution to Grant’s inner circle. During his service in the war, he struck up numerous friendships with such major figures as Abraham Lincoln and Mathew Brady, the famous photographer.
Parker’s selection to draft the surrender papers at Appomattox was a just recognition of his exquisite penmanship and skill with the English language. After joining Grant’s staff, he took care of most of the general’s personal papers. Once Grant had drafted each day’s orders and correspondence (pushing the papers off the table and onto the floor of the tent as he wrote, to the amazement of his visitors), he would sort them all into a tidy pile and hand them to Parker, who would then make copies as necessary. He typically signed his general’s orders “By Command of Lieut. Gen. Grant, E.S. Parker, Asst. Adj’t Gen’l,” in a clear, elegant hand much beloved by his superiors.
The drafting of the articles of surrender, literally Parker’s last act in the war, was unquestionably the crowning moment of his military career, and one of the highlights of his life as well. Certainly it provided him with much currency (social and otherwise) later in life. However, the U.S. military wasn’t finished with Parker, or he with it. He stayed on as a member of Grant’s staff until 1869, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general. During his postwar service, Parker occasionally toured military facilities in the occupied South, making recommendations on where he thought the Army could safely cut costs, close facilities and muster out its troops.
Most of Parker’s time, however, was spent as an emissary to Indian tribes in the West. He traveled constantly, especially in Oklahoma and on the Plains, settling differences resulting both from the turbulence of the war and from the nation’s notoriously corrupt Indian policy. He was popular among other Indians, who were gratified that the politicians in Washington would send another Indian to treat with them. Parker’s experiences out West prompted him to submit to the government a four-point plan for establishing a permanent peace with the native Americans, one in which all dealings would be fair and aboveboard. His plan was well received by his superiors, and much of it consequently was adopted as national policy. Ironically, it would later come back to haunt him.
In 1867, Parker finally married. His bride was a young Washington socialite, Minnie Orton Sackett. She was white, the stepdaughter of Lt. Col. William Sackett, a New York Volunteer killed at Trevilian Station in June 1864. They were married on Christmas Eve; Grant stood as best man and gave the bride away in the absence of her father. The mixed marriage caused something of a stir in Washington society, however, and the couple was maltreated on more than one occasion by less-enlightened contemporaries.
The presidential election of 1868 brought an abrupt change in Parker’s career. In November of that year, Civil War hero Lt. Gen. Grant became President-elect Grant, and he soon brought his friends with him into the White House. Parker was appointed commissioner of Indian Affairs, based on his previous experience and on the assumption that no one was better qualified to helm the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Thus Parker became the first Indian to hold the office. On April 26, 1869, after being confirmed by Congress, Parker resigned his Army commission and took his place as head of the BIA. His two-year reign was a tempestuous one; he was too honest, too interested in the cause of justice for his own race, for it to be otherwise.
Parker’s first act was to sweep his agency clean of its entrenched bureaucracy, which was dominated by unscrupulous Indian agents who all too often sold their clients’ supplies and pocketed the profits. This was the established way of doing business in the BIA. Not all the agents were guilty, but enough were to tarnish the agency’s reputation. It was just such corruption that had decimated the Cherokee as they passed along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
Parker set out to change all that. Following the plan he had previously formulated in his postwar days, he cleared the BIA of the old civilian agents and replaced them with reputable Army personnel and Quakers, whom he believed would be less corruptible. Although Parker was somewhat naive in this belief, his actions did serve to quell much of the wheeling and dealing going on at the Indians’ expense. But his changes to the system inevitably earned him powerful enemies who were determined to break him politically.
In the end, it was one of Parker’s own commissioners, a man he had trusted as a friend, who brought him down. William Welsh was a Philadelphia merchant who headed the Board of Indian Commissioners, a body that had been formed at Parker’s recommendation before he left the Army. Variously described as a Quaker and an Episcopalian, Welsh was a pugnacious Indian missionary who placed the blame for all the corruption in the BIA on the shoulders of Ely Parker, whom he considered “but a remove from barbarism.”
In the summer of 1870, Parker toured the American West and personally examined the Indian situation there. It soon became obvious that food shortages along the Missouri River were leading to short tempers on the reservations. In order to keep the Indians on their reservations and away from dangerous confrontations with white settlers, it was necessary to feed them–and quickly. As the governor of the Dakota Territory told Parker, “We must feed or fight the Indians in this superintendency.”
Unfortunately, Parker’s enemies in Congress conspired to delay the appropriations necessary to quickly purchase the needed supplies. In order to forestall Indian attempts to break away from the reservations to fend for themselves, Parker found it necessary to go outside proper channels in order to acquire urgently needed supplies for the desperate Indians. He broke some minor rules in making arrangements on the spot with a local contractor, but in the end probably averted a new Indian war.
Nevertheless, Parker’s actions, which were mild compared to what had transpired before he had taken office, were enough for Welsh and his followers to press charges of fraud against the commissioner. In December 1870, Welsh forwarded a letter to Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, charging that “a few adroit manipulations on contracts and purchases have made at least $250,000” for Parker and his contractor. Parker was also implicitly blamed for all that was wrong with the bureau, despite the fact that much of the trouble had started long before he had taken over as head of the BIA. Parker’s real crime lay in bypassing the Board of Commissioners and ignoring their suggestions–which by law he had every right to do, especially in an emergency situation.
Welsh’s letter was published in the Washington newspapers, and immediately instigated a sensational backlash against the charming head of the BIA. In February, Parker was called before the House of Representatives to answer Welsh’s charges. After a lengthy hearing that stretched into July, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, and was even complimented for averting a major Indian war that might have cost the Treasury millions of dollars to extinguish. However, in its subsequent report, the committee berated Parker for not consulting the Board of Indian Commissioners in this and other matters, and at Welsh’s insistence Congress quickly passed a law that required Parker to consult the board on all matters, in effect relegating him to a figurehead role.
This was too much for the proud Seneca to bear. After several months of soul-searching and testing the new limits of his power, Parker resigned from his position. Although he publicly stated that he was leaving voluntarily to go into business, he privately told his friends that he had resigned because he had become a “rock of offense” for the administration. He was also hurt by Grant’s lack of support, as the president had distanced himself from Parker during the course of the proceedings, lest his administration be tarnished with yet another taint of scandal. Ironically, Parker was probably the most honest of Grant’s appointees–the real scandals were yet to come.
Despite his ignominious downfall, Parker’s accomplishments as head of the BIA were significant. He engineered a peace policy with the Indians for which Grant was to become famous, and he managed to root out (at least temporarily) much of the rot within the system. Furthermore, the simple fact of his being an Indian impressed the tribes under his care and put them at their ease. In addition, he put an end to the treaty-making policy of previous administrations, which had always been strictly to the advantage of the whites. And he could boast that, although some violence had occurred during his tenure, there had been no Indian wars during the two years he was in office. Although his contemporaries were less than fair to him, history has treated Commissioner Parker kindly.
After he left government service, Parker moved to Wall Street and proceeded to make a fortune on the stock market; he lost it just as quickly in the market troubles of 18731875. Thereafter, he made an attempt to re-enter the profession of civil engineering, but found to his dismay that it had “run away from him” during his absence. In 1876, he was forced to take a low-paying job as a clerk in the New York City police department. But Parker still managed to stay active in the militia, various military societies and the Masons, achieving high rank within each organization. Likewise, he and his wife were well respected in New York social circles.
Their only child, a daughter, was born during this less-than-affluent period. Maud Theresa Parker was an engaging little tomboy who was proud of her Indian heritage, and whom Parker fondly referred to as Ahweheeyo, or Beautiful Flower, in his native tongue. She eventually married Arthur Bullard, a member of one of the more prominent old Massachusetts families.
Plagued by strokes and diabetes in his last years, Parker died on August 30, 1895, at his country house in Fairfield, Conn. He was buried with full military honors and much fanfare at Oak Lawn Cemetery in Fairfield. In 1897, he was reinterred next to the remains of his famous ancestor, the Seneca orator Red Jacket, at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, N.Y. This cemetery, which was located much closer to the Tonawanda Reservation, had once been part of the old Granger farm–ultimately fulfilling his mother’s prophetic dream. After successfully carving niches for himself in two dissimilar worlds, Grand Sachem General Ely Parker was at last laid to rest within the comforting bosom of his ancestral homeland.
Floyd B. Largent, Jr., who writes from Plano, Texas, is a frequent contributor to Cowles History Group publications. For further reading, see William Armstrong’s Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief; or Laurence M. Hauptman’s The Iroquois in the Civil War.