Ely S. Parker (1828-1895) was the first Native American commissioner of Indian affairs. During the Civil War, Parker, a close friend and colleague of General Ulysses S. Grant, served the Union cause and penned the final copy of the Confederate army's surrender terms at the Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.
Ely Samuel Parker (Ha-sa-no-an-da) was born in 1828 at Indian Falls on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, near Akron, New York, the second of six children of a distinguished Seneca family. His mother was Elizabeth Johnson (Ga-ont-gwut-ywus, c. 1786-1862), a Seneca Indian and member of the wolf clan. His maternal grandfather, Jimmy Johnson (So-So-Ha'-Wa), was a grandson of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake, one of the major "speakers" and authorities of the Longhouse Religion (Gaiwiio) of the Iroquois. Ely Parker's father, Seneca Chief William Parker (Jo-no-es-do-wa, c. 1793-1864), was a veteran of the War of 1812 and a grandson of Disappearing Smoke (also known as Old King) a prominent figure in the early history of the Seneca.
Parker was also a collateral relative of many major figures in the history of the Iroquois including the tribal leader Cornplanter, Governor Blacksnake, and the great orator Red Jacket. This familial background was a factor which influenced his later role in service to his people. Chief William Parker owned a large farm on the reservation and became a converted member of the newly formed missionary Baptist church. Ely reputedly received his first name from Ely Stone, one of the local founders of the mission. Supposedly the Parker surname derived from a Congregational missionary friend of Chief William Parker, Reverend Samuel Parker (1779-1866), son of a Revolutionary War veteran, who briefly served in western New York until 1812 when he become prominent in missionary activities in the West. According to Arthur C. Parker in a biography, William Parker, his two brothers, and Elizabeth Johnson, Ely's mother, had migrated to Tonawanda from the Allegany Reservation at the same time that Handsome Lake was driven from Allegany to Tonawanda.
Ely Parker received his preliminary formal education at the Baptist boarding school which was associated with the mission church on the Tonawanda Reservation. Leaving the mission school at ten years of age, Parker had only a rudimentary knowledge of English, being able to understand but not speak the language. He was taken to Canada for several years where he was taught to hunt and fish, returning to the Tonawanda Reservation at the age of twelve resolved to learn English and to further his formal education. He eventually was assigned the job of interpreter for the school and the church.
Recognizing Parker's abilities in his early teens, the Seneca chiefs designated him to assist the numerous Seneca tribal delegations to Albany and Washington, D.C. He served in the vital role of translator and intermediary, accompanying his father and other Seneca chiefs on official trips. It was during one of these trips to Washington that Ely was to attend a dinner in the White House at the invitation of President James K. Polk. The experience of direct involvement in Seneca and Iroquois political and diplomatic affairs was to provide Parker with a valuable and practical educational foundation and stand him in good stead later in life.
Later, he attended Yates Academy from 1843 to 1845 and Cayuga Academy from the fall of 1845 to 1846, where he received the typical classical education of the time, leaving school at the age of eighteen. Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), who had previously attended Cayuga Academy in Aurora, New York, assisted Parker in being admitted to the institution. Parker ultimately left Cayuga Academy to, once again, accompany another Seneca delegation to Washington. Parker's early role during this period was critical in the fight by the Tonawanda Seneca to regain the title to their reservation which had been taken from them in the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1832, which should have been null and void since the Tonawanda Seneca chiefs had not signed or participated in the treaty. The Tonawanda Reservation had not been restored to the Seneca in the so-called "Compromise" Treaty of Buffalo Creek of 1842 and occupied the diplomatic and legal attention of the Tonawanda Seneca for many years. A portion of their former reservation was finally purchased in 1857, following a treaty of that year.
Parker met Morgan during one of his visits to Albany in 1844, in the company of his maternal grandfather Sachem Jimmy Johnson and Chief John Blacksmith. This meeting with the Seneca delegation provided the initial opportunity for Morgan to begin the collection of data on the Seneca, with Parker serving as interpreter. Their friendship was to last for the rest of their lives. Parker became the major informant for the continuing anthropological data that provided the ethnographic basis of Morgan's famous League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851), considered to be the first and one of the finest ethnographies of an American Indian group. Morgan acknowledged his great debt to the young Parker and his collaboration by dedicating this major scientific publication to him when Parker was still a teenager.
Parker's value to the Seneca was formally recognized by his tribespeople and further enhanced in 1852 when he was designated to fill the vacant Seneca chief's wolf clan title of Do-ne-ho-ga-wa (Keeper of the Western Door), one of the major titles in the Iroquois Confederacy. This title had previously been held by the venerable Chief John Blacksmith who had died in 1851. At that time Parker received the Red Jacket medal that had been given to Red Jacket by President George Washington in 1792 and inherited by Jimmy Johnson, Parker's grandfather. Parker retained his title and the medal for the remainder of his life.
Beginning in 1847, Ely Parker continued his education with the thought that he would become a lawyer by "reading of the law" in the offices of Angel and Rice in Ellicottville, New York, north of the Allegany Reservation. This firm had represented the Seneca Indians in several cases, and Parker had been previously acquainted with W.P. Angel when he had served as sub-agent from 1846 to 1848 for the New York Indian Agency. The house that Parker occupied during his stay in Ellicottville remains. Parker, however, was denied admittance to the bar in the State of New York on the basis of his race, in that Indians were not citizens of the United States, an event that did not occur until 1924.
Parker turned his attention to the field of civil engineering, attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In this field he quickly became a recognized success, obtaining a number of important positions, beginning with work on the Genesee Valley Canal in 1849, and later with the Erie Canal. After a political difference of opinion, Parker left the Canal Office in Rochester in June, 1855. He moved on to engineering positions in Norfolk, Detroit, and finally, in 1857, he accepted the position of superintendent of construction for a number of government projects in Galena, Illinois, where he resided for a number of years. It was here that Parker initially became acquainted with a store clerk and army veteran, Ulysses S. Grant. They established a lifelong friendship.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Parker tried to obtain a release from his engineering responsibilities at Galena but did not receive one. The decision resulted in his resignation in 1862. Parker then returned to the Tonawanda Reservation to request and gain his father's approval to go to war. Once again, his race proved to be an obstacle to obtaining a army commission from either the governor of New York or from the Secretary of War. In fact, Secretary William H. Seward informed Parker that the rebellion would be suppressed by the whites, without the aid of Indians. Eventually, Parker was commissioned in the early summer of 1863 as captain of engineers and was briefly assigned to General J. E. Smith as division engineer of the 7th Division, XVII Corps. Later that year, on September 18th, Parker became Grant's staff officer at Vicksburg. A year later, on August 30, 1864, Parker was advanced to lieutenant-colonel and became Grant's military secretary. It was Parker who made draft corrections in the terms of surrender at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865, and penned the final official copies that ended the Civil War. Parker later reported that General Robert E. Lee was momentarily taken aback on seeing Parker in such a prominent position at the surrender. Apparently initially believing Parker to be a black man, Lee finally shook hands with Parker and said, "I am glad to see one real American here." Parker replied, "We are all Americans."
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Parker continued as Grant's military secretary. He was also commissioned a brigadier-general of volunteers as of the date of surrender at Appomattox. In addition, two years later, on March 2, 1867, Parker's gallant and meritorious service was recognized through his appointment as first and second lieutenant in the cavalry of the Regular Army, and brevet appointments as captain, major, lieutenant-colonel, colonel, and brigadier-general, also in the Regular Army.
On Christmas Day, 1867, with Ulysses S. Grant as best man, Parker married Miss Minnie Orton Sackett (1850-1932) of Washington, D.C., the stepdaughter of a soldier who had died in the war. In 1878, Ely and Minnie had a daughter, Maud Theresa Parker (d. 1956), from whom Ely Parker's descendants are derived.
Following the election to the presidency, Grant appointed Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, on April 13, 1869, the first American Indian to hold the office. Parker resigned from the army on April 26th. Although a strong advocate for assimilation of the American Indian and supporter of Grant's Peace Policy, directed to the improvement of the American Indian, Parker also sought major reform and restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an unpopular policy in some political quarters. In addition, his humanitarian and just treatment of the hostile western Indians created many influential political enemies in Washington. Especially troublesome was the relationship with the Sioux and the implementation of the provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty which had bee signed in 1868, ending Red Cloud's War of 1866-1868.
Finally, accused of defrauding the government, a committee of the House of Representatives tried Parker in February, 1871. The charges against Parker involved the assignment of contracts at the Spotted Tail Agency (formerly the Whetstone Agency) on the White River. He was completely exonerated of any misconduct, but nevertheless resigned from government service in July feeling that the office of commissioner had been greatly reduced in authority and effectiveness.
Parker entered the stock market on Wall Street and made a fortune which he eventually lost in settling a defaulted bond of his business partner. Other attempts as business opportunities also proved unsuccessful. Later, Parker served with the New York City Police Department. Ely Samuel Parker died on August 31, 1895, at his home in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he was initially buried. In 1897, his remains were reinterred with those of Red Jacket and his ancestors in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.
Armstrong, William H., Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief, Syracuse University Press, 1978.
Morgan, Lewis Henry, League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, Sage and Company, 1851; reprinted, Corinth Books, 1962, 1990.
Olson, James C., Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem, University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Parker, Arthur C., The Life of General Ely S. Parker: Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant's Military Secretary, Buffalo Historical Society Publication, 1919.
Tooker, Elisabeth, "Ely S. Parker, Seneca, ca. 1828-1895, " in American Indian Intellectuals: 1976 Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society, West Publishing Co., 1978, pp. 14-29.
Waltmann, Henry G., "Ely Samuel Parker, 1869-71, " in The Commissioners of Indian Affairs: 1824-1977, edited by Robert M. Kvasnicka and Herman J. Viola, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1979, pp. 123-131.
Yeuell, Donovan, "Ely Samuel Parker, " Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Dumas Malone, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934, pp. 219-220.