Ely Parker Biography
A Time of Crisis
Ely's "white world" education became paramount when crisis struck Tonawanda: the 1838 and subsequent 1842 Treaties of Buffalo Creek threatened to remove the Senecas to Kansas. As elders planned state and federal appeals, a series of fateful events would place Ely in a leadership role. The first was a brush with English soldiers who mocked Ely's broken attempts at English. The proud young Seneca vowed never to be mocked again, and in 1842 began attending Yates Academy where he mastered the English language in all its forms. Seneca elders had been watching the 14-year-old's progress, and appointed him as their translator, scribe, and interpreter for crucial correspondence and meetings with government leaders.
The Open Door
In 1846, Parker went to Washington, D.C. as the Senecas' "voice" in their fight for the Tonawanda reservation. For a year he lobbied at the White House and Capitol, but his efforts ended in a stunning defeat. Despite promises of support, a Senate Committee voted against the Tonawanda petition.
As the Senecas took their campaign to the courts, Parker pursued his personal ambitions. For a time he studied law, but he was derailed by racist New York State policies. Then in 1850, Lewis Henry Morgan found him a position as a civil engineer. That job brought Ely Parker to Rochester, New York, for the expansion of the Erie Canal. His experiences there pulled him further into the white mainstream, and Rochester became the setting for major achievements in his life. In 1851, Parker was promoted in engineering, celebrated the publication of League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois, and was installed as a Sachem of the Six Nations Confederacy. Six years later, Do-ne-ho-ga-wa (Parker's new given name, translated as "Open Door") established his greatest legacy when he led treaty negotiations that allowed the Tonawanda Senecas to buy back about two-thirds of their reservation land.
The next decade marked another turning point for Ely Parker. In 1857 he moved to Galena, Illinois, to supervise construction of a federal customshouse. He was 29 years old, a man in his prime, who would establish a national reputation for his engineering skills. While in Galena, he happened to meet Ulysses S. Grant, who in 1860 was an ex-Army officer languishing as a clerk in his father's store. The bond they forged changed Parker's life. In 1863 he joined the "great captain" in the Civil War, rising to the post of Military Secretary. In the waning hours of that war, Parker left his indelible mark on American history during the surrender at Appomattox.
Hero or Traitor?
Yet as his political power increased in the nation's capital, so did criticism from the Tonawanda Senecas. They accused him of neglect, and his 1867 marriage to a white socialite named Minnie Orton Sackett did little to bridge a widening cultural chasm. Ely Parker was in metamorphosis; he was rejecting Haudenosaunee tradition and aligning himself with white America.
Parker's attitudinal shift became part of national policy in 1869 when President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was the first American Indian to hold that office, and became the administrator of the Peace Policy that was a hallmark of Grant's administration. Parker's support for military force was controversial, but within a year the Indian Wars were reduced to sporadic outbreaks.
Despite early successes, Parker's term as Commissioner was brief, his fall from grace orchestrated by a political foe who accused him of misconduct. An 1871 Congressional committee cleared him of all charges of fraud, but the Commissioner was stripped of his powers. In August 1871 Parker resigned his post, leaving politics and Washington forever.
Ely and Minnie moved on to Fairfield, Connecticut, where they started a new life in a story-book setting. Parker became a businessman, with daily commutes to New York City where he made fortunes on Wall Street. But within five years, the fortunes he made were lost. 1876 found the former Indian Commissioner at loose ends, with few doors of opportunity left open.
The Circle is Complete
In 1876, Parker finally found a steady job as a desk clerk with the New York City Police Department. It was his final career, one with little responsibility and very modest pay, but while in New York Parker joined veterans' organizations and for a time revived his career as a public speaker. When Minnie Parker gave birth to the couple's only child, Maud, in 1878, Ely became a devoted father.
Then another woman entered Parker's life: a poet and student of the Haudenosaunee named Harriet Maxwell Converse. Their deep friendship and Converse's gentle questions revived Parker's interest in his traditional culture. He began to question his life's path, and to assess the price of walking in two worlds. Although he regretted many of his actions, Do-Ne-Ho-Ga-Wa-'s spirit was rekindled.
Parker spent his last years on earth battling kidney disease, diabetes, and a serious of strokes. In 1895, he went to bed early and died in his sleep.
The Haudenosaunee see all of life as a circle, and in death, Ely Parker returned to his beginnings. In 1897 his body was re-interred in Seneca homelands in western New York, next to the grave of the Seneca orator Red Jacket. And with that, the last element of his mother's prophetic dream was fulfilled. The circle was complete.