Seneca Chief Fought Greed, Injustice
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 17, 2000 Ely S. Parker was a 19th- century American Indian of exceptional intellect and ability who admirably served his country, and his people, in war and peace during a period of great change.
Parker, a Seneca-Iroquois Indian, was born in 1828 on the Tonawanda reservation in Indian Falls, N.Y. Before his birth, a tribal prophet told Ely’s (pronounced E-lee) mother that her son would become a distinguished warrior and peacemaker. Parker lived 67 years and achieved widespread recognition as a scholar, tribal leader, Civil- War soldier, and champion of Indian rights.
Parker worked diligently to learn English, and as a young man earned a scholarship to prestigious Yates Academy, in Orleans County in western New York, where he soon became noted for his speaking skill. While he attended the academy, tribal leaders asked him to represent the Senecas in treaty negotiations with the U.S. government in Washington. Parker’s abilities were so evident that at age 18, he was invited to take dinner with President and Mrs. James Polk. He would continue to represent the Seneca and Iroquois people in subsequent treaty talks.
Later, Parker entered Cayuga Academy, Aurora, Ontario, Canada, where he graduated, excelling in debate. Intent upon practicing law, Parker was disappointed when he failed to gain admission into Harvard. He became a law student, but New York political authorities rejected his bid to join the bar because he was not an American citizen. However, Parker redirected his energies into engineering and later worked on projects to improve the Erie Canal.
In 1851, he was recognized for exemplary service to his tribe and named Grand Sachem, or leader, of the Six Nations. Two years later, the governor of New York recognized Parker as the Iroquois’ senior representative. He also became a captain in the New York state militia, and, in 1857, was put in charge of lighthouse construction for the upper Great Lakes region.
He was later posted to engineering positions in Illinois and Iowa. In Galena, Ill., in 1860, he met and became friends with Ulysses S. Grant, a former Army officer.
When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, Parker tried to join the Union forces like his friend Grant, whose West Point and Mexican War experience helped him to secure the rank of colonel in an Illinois volunteer regiment. Unfortunately, Parker’s ethnic heritage initially seemed to thwart his desire to serve his country.
In mid-1861, he offered to raise a New York regiment of Iroquois volunteers, but the governor refused. He then offered his services to the Union Army as an engineer officer, but again was rebuffed.
Grant became a major general in time, and he didn’t forget his friend. In 1863, he secured Parker an appointment as a captain of engineers in the U.S. Army. Later that year, Parker served with Grant at the Union victory at Vicksburg, Miss.
Promoted to lieutenant general in March 1864, Grant was posted east as commander of all Union forces. Parker followed and served as Grant’s aide-de-camp during the 1864-65 campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Parker helped draft the surrender papers Lee signed in April 1865 at Appomattox, Va. Parker eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general.
After the war, Parker served as a government representative with the western Indian tribes. Then, in 1868, Grant became president of the United States.
In 1869, Grant appointed Parker as the first Indian Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For two years, Parker fought fraud and injustice perpetrated against the Indians by corrupt government agents and officials. In so doing, he sought to bridge the divide between a people fighting for their way of life and the remorseless advance of Manifest Destiny.
Parker seemed to recognize the difficulty in reconciling two very different cultures. He once contemplated “whether it has been well that I have sought civilization with its bothersome concomitants and whether it would not be better even now to return to the darkness and most sacred wilds (if any such can be found) of our country and there to vegetate and expire silently, happily, and forgotten as do the birds of the air and the beasts of the field?
“The thought is a happy one, but perhaps impracticable,” he concluded.
Parker’s thoughts reveal him as a sensitive man who realized the inevitability of progress pushed by the dynamics of economic and social change. At the end of the Civil War a burgeoning population and economic considerations would put immense pressure on the government to develop Western territories that had been ceded to the Indians “for all time.”
During his two-year term as Indian commissioner, Parker removed greedy officials bent on lining their pockets at the Indians’ expense. The government promised Plains Indian tribes sufficient food and clothing in exchange for giving up their nomadic lifestyle. Corrupt reservation agents swindled them, delivering rotten food -- or none at all -- and shoddy clothing and other substandard goods.
Parker’s actions earned him many enemies, some in high places. When he tried to cut red tape to expedite the purchase of supplies for starving tribes, he was accused on trumped-up charges of fraudulently using government funds. A congressional investigation exonerated him, but he found his power significantly reduced afterward. He resigned.
The Indian Bureau returned to its corrupt ways upon Parker’s departure. After years more abuse and enduring land grabs by railroad companies and white settlers and prospectors, many reservation Sioux and Cheyenne joined “hostile” leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and went to war in 1876.
Among the first casualties of the war were Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. They were part of an Army expedition sent to collect the hostiles, believed to number about 1,500 warriors. Custer and more than 200 troopers under his immediate command met a far larger force on June 25, 1876, and died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn River in southwestern Montana. The war would conclude with a massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee, S.D., in December 1890.
After leaving the Indian Bureau, Parker became a Wall Street wizard and made a fortune in stocks. Unfortunately, he lost his money during the 1873-1875 economic crash. To support his wife, Minnie, and daughter, Maud, Parker took a clerking job in the New York City police department. He stayed active in the militia and achieved high rank as a Mason.
Debilitated by successive strokes and diabetes, Parker died Aug. 30, 1895, in his country house in Fairfield, Conn. He was buried in Fairfield with full military honors. In 1897, Parker’s body was moved to Buffalo, N.Y., and reburied next to his ancestor Red Jacket, a famous Seneca orator.
A respected scholar, soldier and social activist, Parker had front-row seats during a period of dramatic change in the United States. He witnessed the carnage of the Civil War and the Union triumph that freed millions of African Americans. He observed the relentless march of civilization across the West, and, as Indian commissioner, tried to ensure tribes were treated fairly.
In light of the times in which he lived and the roles he played, Ely Parker probably hasn’t received his just due from historians. His ethnic heritage is undoubtedly a factor in that oversight. Yet what is remembered is that Parker was an American leader who always strove to excel, welcomed responsibility and had the personal courage to do what was right, regardless of the consequences.