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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 69


This is the grave of Ely Parker.


Born in 1828 on the Seneca Reservation in western New York, Ha-sa-no-an-da, or as he was known in English, Ely Parker, grew up within the declining Seneca elite, with his father a prominent Baptist minister. Parker went to a missionary school and became fluent in English as well as his native Seneca. He grew up in the larger reform world of New York at that time, with people such as John Wesley Powell and Lewis Henry Morgan visiting his parents. He originally attempted to become a lawyer, studying for three years, but then was denied because as an indigenous person, he was not considered to be a U.S. citizen. Instead, he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and then became a civil engineer. He also took a major role in Seneca affairs, serving as an effective diplomat between his people and the U.S. government.

As an engineer, Parker traveled about a good bit. Working in Galena, Illinois before the Civil War, he met Ulysses S. Grant. When the Civil War began, Parker wanted to fight for the Union. He tried to raise a unit of Iroquois but was turned down. He then volunteered as an engineer, but Secretary of War Simon Cameron refused because he was an Indian. But he then contacted Grant, who managed to get him a commission as an engineer. He rose rapidly. He became Grant’s adjutant in late 1863 as he was moving on Chattanooga. He served closely with Grant for the rest of the war, writing much of the general’s correspondence and becoming his military secretary as a rank of lieutenant colonel. The documents the traitor Robert E. Lee signed at Appomattox are in Parker’s handwriting.

Parker continued to work for Grant after the war, not leaving the military until 1869. When Grant became president, he named Parker his Commissioner for Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold the office. He instituted Grant’s “Peace Policy” toward Native Americans in the West, attempting to reduce the violent conflict in that genocidal march of white Americans that had already so reduced Parker’s own Seneca people before his birth. He left government in 1871, invested in the stock market and lost most of it in the Panic of 1873. But his social connections got him a position as a New York police commissioner. He became close friends with the reformer Jacob Riis and provided him with a lot of the police reports that helped him write How the Other Half Lives.

But Parker’s continued poor financial decisions led him toward poverty. He died poor in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1895.

Parker has been featured in a few pieces of popular entertainment. He was played by Asa-Luke Twocrow in Spielberg’s Lincoln. He was also portrayed by Gregory Sierra in two episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Ely Parker is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.

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