America's First Indian General
Updated: May 11
Seneca Indian Ely S. Parker became one of Grant's most invaluable generals but always kept one foot in his Native world, one foot in the white world.
Many great Native American leaders—male and female—have changed the course of history. But one Native man reached the very highest echelons of white power and, in 1865, penned the final surrender terms of the Civil War presented to the Confederate Army at the Appomattox Courthouse.
Ely Samuel Parker (Ha-sa-no-an-da) 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. Greatness ran in his genes. His mother was Elizabeth Johnson (Ga-ont-gwut-ywus, c. 1786-1862), a 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" 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 Old King Disappearing Smoke, a prominent figure in the early history of the Seneca.
Ely Parker reputedly received his first name from Ely Stone, one of the founders of the local mission, Reverend Samuel Parker (1779-1866), son of a Revolutionary War veteran. Ely got his preliminary formal education at the Baptist boarding school on the Tonawanda Reservation. He had such a proclivity for language, he was made interpreter for the school and the church. Ely was a precocious child and in his early teens, Seneca chiefs selected him to assist with tribal delegations to advocate for Indian rights. He accompanied his father and other Seneca chiefs to Washington D.C. as interpreter and intermediary and attended a White House dinner of President James K. Polk.
Parker had grown into a very tall, muscular young man with a commanding presence. During his formal education at age 16 at the Cayuga Academy in 1844, he met Lewis Henry Morgan, an anthropologist, who, with Parker’s considerable help, produced his famous League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851), considered to be the first and one of the finest ethnographies of an American Indian group. 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. They remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
At age 17, Parker decided to become a lawyer and studied under offices of Angel and Rice in New York state, a firm that had represented the Seneca Indians in several cases. In a bitter irony, however, Parker was denied admittance to the bar in the State of New York on the basis of his race, in that the First Americans were not citizens of the United States until 1924!
Undaunted, Parker turned to civil engineering and in 1857 he was offered a job as a superintendent of several large government projects in Galena, Illinois, on the Mississippi River. It was there that he became friends with Ulysses S. Grant and became lifelong friends.
That same year, at age 29, Parker again joined a Seneca delegation to Washington and his role was critical in the Tonawanda Seneca regaining the title to their reservation which had been taken from them in the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1832.
Parker wanted to enlist in the Civil War, but again his race proved an obstacle. When he requested a release from his engineering responsibilities at Galena and was refused, he resigned. Then he returned to his Tonawanda Reservation to request his father's approval to go to war. But the governor of New York refused him an Army commission and Secretary of War William H. Seward informed Parker that the rebellion would be suppressed by whites, without Indian help. Eventually, Parker was commissioned in early 1863 as captain of engineers. A year later, on August 30, 1864, Parker became Grant's military secretary and was advanced to lieutenant-colonel.
Grant charged Parker with drafting the terms of surrender at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865, and penned the final official copies that ended the Civil War. Parker later wrote that General Robert E. Lee was alarmed at Parker’s presence and prominent position at the surrender, perhaps believing Parker to be black. Upon being informed that Parker was Native American, Lee finally shook his hand and said, "I am glad to see one real American here." Parker replied: "We are all Americans."
It was surely one of history’s richest ironies that a Native American, denied citizenship of the nation that had been built on his native land, would write the terms of surrender for America’s most deadly war that threatened the very foundations of the country. And to free millions of African Americans when he himself was not truly free.
At the end of the war, Parker stayed on as Grant's military secretary. He was also commissioned a brigadier-general of volunteers as of the date of surrender at Appomattox. 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.
In 1867, Parker also shocked the nation and the nation’s capital when the daughter of a prominent Civil War colonel and “one of the most beautiful women in the District,” according to the New York Tribune, announced her engagement to Ely Parker. Minnie Orton Sackett (1850-1932) a stunning 19-year-old high society socialite with high-neck lace collars and brunette ringlets piled atop her head had fallen in love with the 39-year-old Native American general. The announcement of the bi-racial union, technically illegal in all states of the United States, shocked the nation. “It may not be generally known that Parker is a full-blooded Indian,” the Tribune reported. “...and the present Chief of the six nations Cherokees.” One hundred years before the Supreme Court made interracial marriage legal, a white woman was marrying an Indian man.
General and future President Ulysses S. Grant was Parker’s best man and they would be married in Washington’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany. But Parker was a private and very dignified man and when the wedding day came and gawking crowds thronged to witness the spectacle, the bride and Grant stood at the later without the groom! The real story of Parker’s no-show was never known but theories that both white and native camps were violently opposed to the wedding abounded and some believed he was drugged the night before by some nefarious intersession. Whatever the reason, the bride rescheduled her wedding, but when throngs again showed up, they were disappointed. It was announced that the bride and groom had been married the evening before in a quiet Christmas ceremony with General Grant.
When Grant won the Presidency, he appointed Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, on April 13, 1869, the first American Indian to hold the office. Although a strong advocate for assimilation of the American Indian and supporter of Grant's Peace Policy, directed to the improvement of the American Indian, Parker also sought major reform and restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an unpopular policy in many 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 relationship with the Sioux and the implementation of the provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty which he signed in 1868, ending Red Cloud's War of 1866-1868.
His powerful political opponents accused Parker of defrauding the government, but he was completely exonerated by a committee of the House of Representatives. But, feeling the office had been reduced in authority, he resigned.
Parker entered the Wall Street stock market and made a fortune but lost it bailing out his business partner’s defaulted bonds. Later, Parker served the New York City Police Department for many years with distinction. He and his wife Minnie had a daughter with whom he was very close. Ely Samuel Parker died on August 30. 1895, at his home in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he was initially buried. Two years later, his remains were reinterred with his ancestors in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.
In the highly prejudicial and priggish world of the Victorians, Ely Parker was an enigma, a man who had risen to the very top of two worlds—white and native—and revered by both. In another quirk of spectacular fate, it turned out that Ely Parker’s destiny had been predicted before he was even born. In 1828, four months before his birth at the Tonawanda Seneca reservation in Indian Falls, N.Y., Parker’s mother had an unsettling dream: a broken rainbow reaching from the Indian agent’s home to her reservation.
Troubled, Elizabeth Johnson Parker (known as Gaontguttwus) visited a Seneca shaman. His translation of her vision: ‘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.’
The prophesy came true.
“America’s First Indian General” was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on August 31, 2019.
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