Friday, October 5, 2012

Ely Parker: Seneca Chieftan, American General

Parker wears his grandfather Red Jacket's medal. President George Washington gave the silver medal to Red Jacket in 1792.Seneca Chieftain, American General
Drafter Of Civil War Surrender Terms
By Dakota Wind
Note: The following article originally appeared in the North Dakota Humanities Council's publication On Second Thought, the Civil War issue. Reuben Fast Horse wrote the original draft, this author edited and expanded upon it. The story of Parker is an amazing one, and shows how far up the chain of command the efforts of Indians who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

Ha-sa-no-an-da (Leading Name) came into this world in 1828 on the Tonawanda Seneca Indian Reservation in upstate New York. He was the sixth child of seven, born to Jo-no-es-sto-wa (Dragonfly) a.k.a. William Parker and Ga-ont-gwut-twus or Ji-gon-sa-seh (Lynx) a.k.a. Elizabeth Parker. Both Dragonfly and Lynx walked with one foot in the Seneca nation and the other in the United States. They immersed their children in the language and heritage of the Seneca Nation and the Iroquois Confederacy. Dragonfly was also a Baptist minister who baptized all his children and gave them Christian names.

When Lynx was pregnant with her son Leading Name, she received a vision about the future of her baby: 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. When Dragonfly baptized Leading Name at Ely Stone’s Baptist church, he gave his son the name “Ely Parker.”

The Grand River Valley as it could have been in 1781. Painting by Michael Swanson. The original is at Laurier’s Carnegie Hall, Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Learn more about this image and the War of 1812.

Parker was educated at Elder Ely Stone’s Baptist School early on in life and was later sent to an Iroquois settlement along the Grand River in Ontario to learn traditional hunting and fishing when he was ten years old. When Ely turned thirteen, he became extremely homesick and left for home in New York. On the road from London to Hamilton in Ontario, some British officers ridiculed him for is his poor speech. Parker could understand what they said but was unable to comprehend the humor at his expense. Parker came away from the experience determined to master English.

Parker’s parents approved of his initiative to learn the English language and sent him to back to the mission school. His studies excelled and he earned a tuition waiver to attend the Yates Academy in Orleans County, NY. At the academy he also studied Greek and Latin, which he also mastered. Parker became so well versed in the studies and proficient in English at the age of fourteen that his people selected him to serve as their interpreter in their exchange with President John Tyler.

Here's a map of where the Tonawanda River (Creek) converges with the Niagara River in New York. The Long House on the map shows viewers where the Tonawanda used to live, which is the city of Tonawanda today.

As a teenager, when young people begin to develop and explore their interests, Parker became heavily involved in drafting and interpreting in their correspondence with the Ogden Land Company. The land company struck a private deal with the Seneca at Cattaraugus and the Seneca at Allegheny. Quaker missionaries advised these other two Seneca bands to sign over the lands of the Seneca at Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda. From 1842 to 1845, the land of the Tonawanda was seized and settled.

Parker finished his studies at Yates Academy and enrolled at the Cayuga Academy in Aurora where he faced some hostility from classmates, though generally he was treated well. In 1846, the Seneca at Tonawanda called him back to defend with words on paper the right for the Seneca to stay at Tonawanda. He was eighteen years old when the Tonawanda Seneca took him with them to appeal their case with President James Polk.

President James K. Polk, whom Parker met when he worked on the Seneca's appeal.

The Tonawanda Seneca appeal took five years to fight, and in the end, Parker was credited with saving 3/5ths of the Tonawanda reservation from the Ogden Land Company and was given fifty acres of land for his personal use.

Parker’s academic pursuits received a boost in motivation when he visited Washington DC in 1847 when he viewed a series of paintings of explorers, traders, and settlers in their meetings with the natives such as the Pilgrims receiving food from the Indians, Captain Smith and Pocahontas, and Daniel Boon fighting Indians. When he went to church, he was asked to remove himself to the seating above.

Harvard, an engraving by Paul Revere. While the institution of the 1800s repeatedly turned down Parker's application, its a different story today. Today, Harvard has "The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Developing." Check them out, they focus on why sovereignty matters:

The slights he received and Parker’s own reflections about the injustices of all Indian peoples moved him to become a lawyer. He applied to Harvard, but received no word on his application. Parker applied for a clerkship in Washington DC, but no position opened up for him. Parker applied to take the bar exam in New York, but was denied when he was told he was not a US citizen.

Parker had made become friends with Lewis Morgan who tapped his network to get Parker a job as an engineer on the Genesee Valley Canal project. As he gained work experience as an engineer, he learned to country dance from a fellow’s wife. By 1850, Parker’s contacts, unparalleled work ethic, knowledge of the land and engineering landed him a job in Rochester as a civil engineer on the New York canals.

Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of modern anthropology.

Parker’s friendship with Morgan grew out of Morgan’s keen interest in documenting the changing or disappearing cultural traditions of the Seneca. They worked together and produced Morgan’s League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois which was published in 1851. Morgan’s research and methodology has led many to regard him as the father of American anthropology. Morgan’s book was dedicated to Parker.

Parker’s work with Morgan and legal fight with the Federal court system on behalf of the Seneca came to a head in September, 1851. The council of the Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) met and called on Parker to return, where they installed him as one of the fifty sachems of the Iroquois Confederacy. Parker was then selected as the Grand Sachem of the Six Nations. The new sachem was also given a new name: Do-ne-ho-ga-wa, “Open Door.” The sachem who traditionally carried this name was also the Keeper of the Western Door, the one whom all approaches by other tribes were made. Parker was twenty-three.

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse on Lake Michigan.

Parker applied for a position with the US Treasury Department in hopes of getting an assignment in Chicago, IL, but when he was brought on, he was appointed to work on lighthouses on the Great Lakes in Michigan. His work on lighthouses on the lakes eventually brought him from Detroit, MI to work on a public buildingsl in Galena, IL. There in Galena Parker became friends with Capt. Ulysses Grant.

Politics in Illinois took a turn for the worse for Parker. The locals called him a stranger and resented his assignment there without their consultation. Petitions called for his removal, but his support from congressmen on the east coast and his engineering associates in the canals overwhelmingly supported his work assignment in Illinois. Parker resigned after the construction of the Galena custom house was complete.

The Galena Custom House and Post Office, Galena, Illinois. The building is still there.

Throughout Parker’s engineering career, tensions between the North and the South escalated into impending war. At an appearance in Dubuque, IA Parker was called on to speak about the state of the country. He rendered a short speech about the founding of the country and the beliefs of the founding fathers then Parker reached into his pocket and removed a medal for all to see. The medal was gift to his great-grandfather Red Jacket from President George Washington. Parker’s speech and the medal “awakened the spark of patriotism” of everyone present.

Parker returned to Tonawanda and raised crops while he made every effort to enlist with the Union army. He sought commissions as an engineer, but was repeatedly declined because he was an Indian and not a US citizen despite the dire need for engineers. Several of his tribesmen found ways to enter the service, but Parker wanted a commission because of his education and experience. Parker waited two years.

Brig. Gen. John E. Smith, pictured above, was a Swiss immigrant. His father served under Napoleon Bonaparte. The Smith family moved to the US after Bonaparte's fall.

Brig. Gen. John E. Smith, a friend of Parker’s in Galena, knew of Parker’s desire to enlist as an officer. Smith got an endorsement from General Grant, another of Parker’s friends, and was commissioned as Grant’s staff as Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers with the rank of Captain. The Seneca honored Parker’s commission with a feast and blessing before he went off to serve in the war.

The Battle of orchard Knob, by Kurz and Allison, 1888.

Parker was barely under Grant’s command a few days when he took ill and nearly died, but he recovered after to accompany Grant on the Chattanooga Campaign at the Battle of Orchard Knob and Lookout Mountain. When Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General and went east to Washington, Parker went with him.

The Battle of The Wilderness. This image appeared in Harper's Weekly, May 28, 1864. Union soldiers are depicted here charging against Confederate forces.

In General Grant’s move to cross the Rapidan River in Virginia, which precipitated the Battle of the Wilderness, 1864, Parker saved Grant from capture. On May 7, 1864, Grant was heading toward Confederate General Roger Pryor’s line. Parker sensed a trap and led Grant’s command away from Pryor’s line.

Grant used Parker’s engineering skill to plan and dig entrenchments and post batteries. On one occasion a Southern woman refused to vacate her home and told Parker that her husband was in command of nearby Confederate forces, and that he’d never fire on their house. Parker told the woman she could stay and he quickly ordered the line behind her house.

General Grant and his staff of fourteen. Parker is featured in this image, fourth from the right, seated.

In September, 1864, Grant promoted Parker to Lieutenant Colonel and served as Grant’s personal secretary the remainder of the war. After the war, Parker continued to serve General Grant as his personal secretary, retiring in 1869 as Brevet Brigadier General.

One of the most famous and beautiful paintings of Lee's surrender is this Tom Lovell image called "The Surrender at Appomattox," 1987. It currently hangs at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Virginia. Lovell even included General Custer, far right, next to Parker.

On April 7, 1865, General Grant was closing in General Lee’s command. Grant began a correspondence with Lee through Parker’s hand and on April 9, Lee met with Grant at the village of Appomattox Court House to discuss the terms of surrender with Grant who took Parker with him.

This image of the Surrender at Appomattox is by Keith Rocco. Parker stands behind Lee at the surrender desk. General Phil Sheridan purchased the table and gave it to General Custer. It is now at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

Grant’s staff met with Lee’s staff in the parlor of William McLean’s house where both staffs were formally introduced to one another. Lee was said to be courteous and cool, offering no further remark to Grant’s staff other than a salutation. When Parker was introduced to Lee, Lee paused for several seconds, startled, then extended his hand to Parker and said, “I am glad to see one American here.” Parker took Lee’s hand and replied, “We are all Americans.” Grant then had Parker compose the surrender papers, which Lee signed.

Parker as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Parker was President Grant's architect in the new Peace Policy in relation to the Indians in the west. While Parker was the commissioner, and probably because of his friendship with Grant, military actions against Indians were reduced.

After the war Grant appointed Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was the first American Indian to hold this post and resigned from this position in 1871. Parker's initial optimism of reshaping the BIA, one of the most corrupt branches of federal government (and some say it still is), led to a tremendous pressure on him to resign. Parker was faced with false charges of fraud that wouldn't go away.

Mahpiya Luta, Red Cloud.
While Parker was the BIA Commissioner, he initiated contact with the Lakota chief Red Cloud and Spotted Tail to meet President Grant in an effort to bring an end to the conflicts out west, but it was a peace that lasted until the confirmation of gold in the Black Hills.

Although Parker was recognized more for drafting the terms of Surrender at Appomattox, his accomplishments in his life let us know that he was a formidable man, despite his difficulties and heritage he set out to achieve whatever he put his mind to.

Often we hear or read about heroic figures in our past yet we don’t always hear about the person themselves. Who they were, what they were like, why they did what they did, and what remains are the facts left for us to decipher about a person. Parker signifies the change we all have to make at some point in our lives to accept, to adapt, and to overcome not just our obstacles or enemies but ourselves. This is what America is, and to be American is to honor the sacrifices of those who gave and believed in what they so desperately lived, bleed and died for.


  1. I have the utmost respect for Ely S. Parker. What he accomplished and stood for should be celebrated today. He endured so much prejudice yet he persevered. We need examples of fine men to inspire us all in this day and age. Ha-sa-no-an-da is one of those shining beacons from the past that all of us should look to for inspiration.

  2. Mr Parker is a true gentleman. What a life he lived. He never quit, nor stopped learning or living.

    'We are all Americans' - Mr Parker, I don't know if there have been any finer than you.