Brigadier General US Army, Ely S. Parker, Seneca
Do-ne-ho-ga-wa (Keeper of the Western Door)

By Roy Cook

November is Native American Indian heritage month. Perhaps the most famous soldier from Western New York was Regular Army Brigadier General Ely Samuel Parker (Ha-sa-no-an-da). He 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, 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's value to the Seneca was formally recognized by his tribes people 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. 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.

Ely Parker received his preliminary formal education at the Baptist boarding school which was associated with the mission church on the Tonawanda Reservation. 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.

Eli Parker became the major informant for the continuing anthropological data that provided the ethnographic basis of Louis Henry Morgan's famous League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851). 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.

Beginning in 1847, Ely Parker continued his education with the thought that he would become a lawyer by "reading of the law". He read the law in the offices of Angel and Rice in Ellicottville, New York.

Parker, however, was denied admittance to the bar in the State of New York on the basis of his race because, ironically, Indians were not citizens of the United States. Citizenship was not recognized until 1924.

Parker then asked what he could do as an Indian person. He turned his attention to the field of civil engineering, attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He obtained a number of important positions, beginning with work on the Genesee Valley Canal in 1849, and later with the Erie Canal. Later he accepted the position of superintendent of construction in Galena, Illinois. 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 asked for release from his engineering responsibilities at Galena but did not receive one. Eventually, Parker was commissioned in 1863 as captain of engineers and was briefly assigned to General J. E. Smith as division engineer of the 7th Division, XVII Corps. Later Parker became Grant's staff officer at Vicksburg. A year later, Parker was advanced to lieutenant-colonel and became Grant's military secretary. It was Parker who 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. Ely and Minnie had a daughter, Maud Theresa Parker (d. 1956), from whom Ely Parker's descendants are derived.

Following 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 also sought major reform and restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an unpopular policy in some corrupt 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 illegal and graft corruption ‘Indian ring’ politicians’. Parkers attempt to honor the governments’ relationship with the Sioux and the implementation of the provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty which had been signed in 1868, ending Red Cloud's War of 1866-1868 was criticized by those corrupt elements.

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.

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.