Chief Fought Greed, Injustice
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON 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.
Ely Samuel Parker was
born a member of the Seneca Indian tribe in 1828; his
first tribal name was Hasanowanda (The Reader).
His family had originally adopted the Parker name for
use when dealing with the white settlers in the area.
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
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,
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
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
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
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.