Ely Parker 1880-1895

The "Snipe" and "Wolf" Correspond

It is difficult to understand the depth and nuances of the relationship between Ely Parker and Harriet Maxwell Converse without reading their many letters. The majority of that correspondence is held in archives at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Galley -- an organization that does not allow their full transcription. However, copies of the letters can be found in the 1919 edition of Arthur C. Parker's book, The Life Of General Ely S. Parker, published by the Buffalo Historical Society.

Ely Parker once described his wife Minnie as "the one woman in all the world for me," yet another would find a way into his heart. Harriet Maxwell Converse and her husband Frank lived on 42nd Street in New York, not far from the Parker home. In 1881, the two couples met and became friends, but the deepest bond was forged between Ely and Harriet. Converse was then a published magazine reporter and poet, and Parker reawakened her long-standing interest in researching and writing about the Haudenosaunee. Correspondence between the two began on that formal basis, with Parker answering questions about Six Nations traditions, and reviewing notes Converse took during her visits to Haudenosaunee reservations.

But as time passed and the friendship flourished, the tenor of the letters changed. Parker's responses grew playful and witty. He began to address Converse by different names: "Snipe," Cousin," or "Gayanshaoh," all referring to her adoption into the Snipe Clan of the Senecas. And he often called himself the "wolf," referring to his membership in the Wolf Clan. "I am delighted to know that the little snipe has returned safely to its cozy nest," Parker wrote. "I have heard its piping notes for a male to come nestle in its downy nest." He wondered if the "smoldering embers" of the Snipe's lodge fire had been "revivified into a cheerful blaze by the fitful glimpse of a prowling wolf down the distant valley."

Other letters contained different surprises. Apparently, Harriet Maxwell Converse was the first to tell Ely Parker about his mother's 1828 dream of prophecy. His response was blunt: he called the dream "beautiful and heavenly divine," but too romantic, incongruous and unhallowed. "Pardon me for using this last word," Parker wrote, "but it seems apropos to my abhorrence of being suspected as a child of fate."

The correspondence lasted 14 years, detailing family traumas, public events, and private victories. And eventually, they revealed Ely Parker's innermost thoughts, his growing depression. In the 1880s he told Converse of his desire to escape to "darkest and most secret wilds…and there to expire silently, happily and forgotten as do birds of the air and beasts of the field." "Do you know, or can you believe," Parker asked, "that sometimes the idea obtrudes itself into my obtuse and lethargic brain, whether it has been well that I have sought civilization?"

    "Harriet Maxwell Converse came into Ely's life at a time of reflection. He hadn't much of a future, and was thinking about the past. And he was starting to think; did he do the right thing? Should he have stayed at Tonawanda and performed his duties as chief? "Did I make mistakes that I regret?" And Harriet helped him through those disappointments. She deeply admired him; she saw him as a young man, the young man he once was; an intellectual, a Seneca Sachem who had helped his people, who had become such a success in so many ways. So she builds his ego, renews his traditional spirit."

Jare Cardinal
Haudenosaunee Liaison: NAGPRA
Rochester Museum & Science Center

    "He went right back to his very first contact with Lewis Henry Morgan and he began to shed some of those ideas. And he began to think that he had been wrong. So long as he said, as Indian people can retain some of their place and some of their religion, and some of their tradition, they can retain some of their identity. The moment they trade this for a mess of Christian pottage, they will lose everything!

    I think through his relationship with Harriet Maxwell Converse, he began to think about what it was that distinguished him from other people. And he never abandoned his pride in having been a General, or having been Grant's aide. Or having so many successes -- six or seven careers in the European world -- but what made him himself, he began to realize, was his clan, his position as a Wolf, his office as Sachem, his post as Keeper of the Western Door. It was those things and not his education, not his military career. So in that sense, he comes full circle."

Stephen Saunders Webb, Ph.D.
Maxwell School, Syracuse University

When Ely Parker died in 1895, Harriet Maxwell Converse is said to have "taken charge" at his funeral, conducting the ancient Haudenosaunee ceremony honoring the passage of a Sachem. And two years later she traveled to western New York to see Do-Ne-Ho-Ga-Wa re-interred in his Seneca homelands. Converse died in 1903. Her collection of essays entitled "Myths and Legends of the New York State Iroquois" was published five years later, edited by Ely Parker's grand-nephew, Arthur C. Parker.