Ely Samuel Parker was General Ulysses S. Grant’s personal secretary for the last years of the American Civil War. He also served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs during Grant’s presidency.
Just over thirty years before polarization between North and South reached its climax with the outbreak of the American Civil War, in 1828, a Native American child was born on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, which lies just east of Buffalo, New York. Named Hasanoanda by his Seneca parents, the boy also took the English name Ely Samuel Parker. His first name, Ely (pronounced like ‘E. Lee’, not Eli), was taken from a prominent minister who had worked around the reservation. His father, William Parker, was a prominent Seneca warrior who had bravely fought alongside the United States during the War of 1812. His mother, Elizabeth Johnson, was not only the daughter of the Seneca chief but also was related to Red Jacket and Handsome Lake. Red Jacket was a famed Seneca orator who had befriended George Washington after the American Revolution; Handsome Lake was a Seneca prophet whose revitalization movement had encouraged Natives to adopt farming and nuclear families. The young Parker was brought up on the Tonawanda reservation with his parents, five brothers, and one sister.
Parker had been born during a time when most Native Americans were being forcefully relocated to the western side of the Mississippi River. Parker and his family showed their ability to integrate into American life. He was able to obtain an education, first, at the Yates Academy, just north of his childhood home, and eventually going east, into the middle of New York, to attend the Cayuga Academy. Using his newly acquired skills, Parker was able to show his worth by acting as the interpreter between the Seneca chiefs and many United States government officials, including New York Governor William C. Bouck. Despite Parker’s ability to bridge the gap between Anglo and Native American culture, he would show just how indispensible he was to his own people as he continually aided their fight to keep the rights to the Tonawanda reservation.
When Parker was only ten years old, a treaty had been signed by some Iroquois chiefs, which sold a few Seneca reservations to Ogden Land Company. The Natives appealed the treaty, arguing that only some of the Iroquois chiefs had agreed to its terms. In Iroquois culture, it was customary for only unanimous decisions to be adopted for the entire Iroquois Confederacy. The Quakers even came to the aid of the Seneca, claiming that “deception and fraud” had been used to remove the Indians from their land. The Seneca sent young Ely S. Parker to plead their case in front of many state and federal government officials. He arrived in Washington, D.C., in March 1846, and in a short, time he met with notable politicians, including the President of the United States James K. Polk as well as Vice President George M. Dallas. While within the President’s company, Parker made sure to remind Polk of how President Washington had befriended Red Jacket and his people. To further illustrate this friendship, Parker showed his evidence of the relationship--a Peace Medal that Washington gave to the Seneca in 1792--to Polk
During his time in the nation’s capitol, Parker made sure to explain his case to any congressman willing to listen, as the Congress would determine the validity of the treaty, which essentially sold the Indians’ reservation. Ironically, one senator, John C. Calhoun, who not only agreed with the Seneca’s point of view but also supported Parker, was the same man who claimed Congress had little authority to determine where people transported slaves. Unfortunately, the efforts Parker made to the many Senators and politicians was to no avail; the Senate committee that was handing the petition decided that, although the contract had been a scam, it would be too embarrassing to renege on the original decision to ratify the treaty. Despite this decision, the Seneca on the Tonawanda Reservation were eventually able to buy their own land back.
After his return to New York following the failed Senate hearings, Parker moved to Ellicottville in 1847, where he studied law for a short period. It was during this time that Parker became inducted into "Batavia Lodge No. 88, Free and Accepted Masons." He remained an important part within the Freemasons, as well as with other fraternal societies, throughout his life. Years later, while in Galena, Illinois, Parker had a part in creating the "Miners Lodge, No. 273." He served as assigned a master of the lodge. He also became "Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of Illinois." After the outbreak of the American Civil War, Parker returned to the Tonawanda Reservation where he helped establish a Masonic lodge in nearby Akron, New York. He became a master of this new lodge.
It was in 1850 that Parker moved to Rochester, New York, where he found employment as an assistant engineer. Learning from hands on experience, Parker eventually helped with the expansion of the canals throughout New York. Also, during his time in Rochester, Parker was able to help Lewis Henry Morgan finish his 1851 book League of the Iroquois, which was one of the first looks into Native American culture. Morgan dedicated his book to the young Seneca man. Parker also volunteered his service to the local Rochester militia as an engineer.
Shortly after Morgan’s book was released, Parker returned to the Tonawanda Reservation to be a part of a council. The council’s members were to select a new chief for the entire Iroquois Confederacy. After seeing his continued efforts to fight for the rights of his fellow Seneca, Parker was selected to become the new sachem. With his new title, his original Seneca name of Hasanoanda was changed to Donehogawa, which means Open Door.
The new Iroquois sachem had been looking to continually advance his engineering skills. In 1857, the United States Treasury Department gave Parker the opportunity to travel to Galena, Illinois, where he would oversee the construction of several government buildings, including a military hospital. One of Parker’s first tasks was to find suitable material to use for the buildings. Parker decided on limestone found a few hundred miles south of Galena. After examining the limestone remains of the Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, Parker believed that particular limestone was the best choice for the buildings. A quarry was created, and the stone was shipped up the Mississippi River to Galena. The construction was completed in 1859.
One year later, Parker became acquainted with a clerk at a local Galena “harness shop” The clerk, as Parker described him, was "diffident and reticent," an obvious side effect of the clerk’s lack of interest in working in the shop. The clerk was none other than Ulysses S. Grant, who became the Union hero of the American Civil War. Parker commented that Grant’s hard shell was similar to that of other Indians that the Seneca had met and that he had to "break the ice" before the good qualities of Grant could be seen. Their friendship quickly blossomed as they realized how much that they had in common. The two men both had past military experience and a similar education in engineering; Parker once helped Grant during a bar fight, in which both men went "back to back," driving off their attackers.
In less than one year after meeting Grant, the American Civil War erupted. As many of Parker’s friends in Galena answered the President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to reunite the nation, Parker returned to his childhood home of New York, where he offered his service to the New York Militia. Not only was Parker’s service turned down by the militia, but the United States War Department refused to let him serve as well. As Secretary of State William H. Seward explained to Parker, the war was a conflict "between white men and one in which the Indian was not called on to act." Even after repeatedly being turned down for military service, Parker kept trying to figure out a way around the government officials’ disproval of Native American soldiers, especially since his father had assisted the United States during the War of 1812. Parker’s next option was to change his status as a Native American by requesting that Congress grant him citizenship to the United States. Congress, however, denied his request.
After his continued failures of trying to serve in the United States military, Parker’s luck began to change. In late spring 1863, one of Parker’s friends from Galena, Illinois, who had become a brigadier-general, John E. Smith, requested to military command that Parker should be allowed to serve on his staff as a volunteer. After a delayed response to Smith’s letter, another friend from Galena, who was also a general in the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant, sent a letter reaffirming Smith’s request. In Grant’s letter, he spoke kindly of Parker’s abilities and testified that Parker was “eminently qualified for the position” of assistant adjutant general for Smith. Parker was then granted the position and attained the rank of captain. In early July 1863, he was sent to Smith’s location just outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Just a few days into his boat trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Parker and the rest of the men aboard the ship began to hear that the city of Vicksburg had fallen to the Union army under Grant. The men finally reached Vicksburg on July 7, 1863, and to their surprise, the rumors had been true. Three days later, Parker was put in charge of engineering for an entire division. Since the Siege of Vicksburg was finished, Parker had quite a bit of spare time, which he used for “reading, reflection, and observation.” His readings were limited to "military works and such trash as the rebels have left in their deserted houses." After a few months in Vicksburg, Parker’s division was ordered to Chattanooga, Tennessee to assist General William Rosecrans Union army, which was besieged in the city. Parker, however, did not go with his division, as he had been reassigned to General Grant’s staff. He remained with Grant’s staff for the rest of the war.
Grant’s army soon joined the growing Union forces around Chattanooga, Tennessee. Parker commented on his feelings of Chattanooga in a letter to his sister: "This is the most desolate country, and no human being can realize or comprehend the dreadful devastation and horrors created by war, until they have been in its track." During late 1863, 1864, and early 1865, Grant experienced military success after success. In the end of August, 1864, Parker was promoted to lieutenant colonel of volunteers and became Grant’s military secretary. He personally carried Grant’s paper, ink, and pens, as well as helped the general write his orders and correspondence. President Lincoln visited Grant’s headquarters throughout the war and often talked with Parker.
By early April 1865, the Civil War was drawing to a conclusion, with a Union victory becoming inevitable. On April 7, 1865, General Grant began requesting that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrender his army. The two opposing generals exchanged letters over a two-day period, until coming to a decision to meet to discuss further the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. At the meeting, Parker handed Grant the pen and papers before the general began to personally write the terms of surrender for General Lee’s army. Parker copied Grant’s original writing and added the modifications made as the two generals discussed the terms. "The Indian," as he was called by Grant’s staff, made an official copy of Grant’s terms of surrender, which were given to Lee. With the surrender of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant quickly returned to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Lincoln. Accompanying Grant to meet with the President, Parker had the opportunity to show President Lincoln the Red Jacket medal that demonstrated the bond between the Iroquois and the United States of America. That night, President Lincoln was assassinated.
Upon the Civil War’s termination, Parker still had an obligation to the army. In 1866, Parker was sent into Southern cities to recommend on how to begin downsizing the military, including calling off volunteers. Grant, realizing that Parker would eventually be sent away, as he was a volunteer, commissioned him into the regular army. Parker rose through the ranks becoming a brigadier general. Parker was included as a representative to talk with the various Indian nations in the southwest, some of which had fought alongside the Confederate States of America. Some nations that fought with or allied themselves to the Southern states included, but were not limited to, the Chickasaw, Choctaws, Comanche, Creeks, and Seminoles. Parker also created a plan that he believed would guarantee peace between the various Indians of the West and the United States of America. Parker’s plan gave the different nations their own land and sought a massive restructuring of the government’s offices for Indian affairs.
After General Grant became the President of the United States in 1869, General Parker resigned his position within the military and was appointed, by Grant, to become the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was the first Native American to hold the title. Not only did he introduce a policy of peace between the Native Americans and the United States, but Parker also decided that "the people of the United States owed the Indians," and fought for Indian rights. Despite Parker’s good intentions for his fellow Indians, white Americans still held quite racist views towards Native inhabitants. In 1871, just a few years after taking his role in what became the Bureau of Indian Affairs, other members of the Indian Affairs Board of Commissioners sought to get Parker removed from the department. Using derogatory words and stereotypes as weapons, white members of the board accused Parker of scamming the government, while stating his “barbarism” and his being “wild” as reasons why the government should not trust him. Nevertheless, Parker was acquitted of all charges after no evidence could be found to back up the claims against him. That experience left a bitter taste in Parker’s mouth, and he soon resigned from his position as Commissioner of Indian Affairs and headed home to New York, where he went into business. He remained in the East until his death in 1895.
Ely S. Parker, the boy originally hailing from a reservation in western New York, rose not only within the ranks of his own people, the Iroquois, but also within the ranks of the United States of America, serving both with the military and the government. Compared to a majority of the Native American population within the United States, Parker showed the extreme success capable of an Indian in acculturating to the white customs, and as was predicted about him, "he will be a wise white man, but will never desert his Indian people." Since he had become the personal secretary of General Grant during the Civil War, his name is mentioned, albeit only a few times, in Grant’s memoirs, which were published and sold all throughout the United States of America. Again that was predicted before Parker’s birth when it was said that the boy’s "name will reach from the East to the West—the North to the South." Parker not only established himself as an important figure among his people by becoming a sachem of the Iroquois Confederacy and Commissioner of Indian Affairs but also as an important figure for the United States of America, as he was a participant in the acts which culminated with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant.
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"Ely Samuel Parker." (2021) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved December 4, 2021, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1058