Ely Parker 1865-1879

The "Real Story" Behind the Marriage of Ely S. Parker and Minnie Orton Sackett

On December 13, 1867, a Washington D.C. newspaper reported that "Col. Ely S. Parker, Chief of the Six Nations, is to be married on Thursday next to a pale faced daughter of the late Col. Sackett. The friends of Col. P. will congratulate him, and wish him success in his new relation."

There are no hard facts, only speculation about how, when, and where Ely and Minnie first met. It is known that in 1864, Minnie's mother Anna visited General Grant's headquarters to ascertain the whereabouts of her husband, a Union soldier who had been wounded in a Civil War battle (she later learned Colonel William Sackett had died). It is also known that Anna and Minnie were prominent members of Washington D.C.'s social elite; Minnie was said to be one of that city's more beautiful belles, tall, slim and vivacious, with brilliant eyes and dark brown hair. She could have met Ely at one of many soirees hosted at the Sackett home, but apparently few knew of the liaison, for the announcement of their betrothal stunned the city.

    "It was a big surprise to everyone. He was a 39-year-old bachelor, and the announcement was that he would marry this 18-year-old socialite, who was white. Minnie's father had been killed in the war, and because she had no one to give her away, General Grant was going to do the honors; quite an affair!"

William Armstrong
Parker Biographer

Minnie's wedding gown was the creation of Madame Demorest's salon on Pennsylvania Avenue, and Ely Parker borrowed a military sash from General Grant to embellish his wedding suit. The nuptials were scheduled for Tuesday, December 17, at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, and although hundreds showed up to watch, Ely Parker wasn't one of them. The would-be bride was said to be in tears and her mother in a passion, and news of the scandal quickly spread to national newspapers.

From The New York Times 12/18/1867:

    The city is startled tonight with a thousand conflicting rumors regarding the disappearance of Col. ELY PARKER, of General GRANT's staff, who was to have been married this morning at 10:30 o'clock to MISS MINNIE SACKETT, of this city. It seems that Col. PARKER had made every preparation for the event, even to the issuing of reception cards for his friends in New York at the Metropolitan Hotel, and at his residence in Washington after his return from the expected bridal tour. He had purchased his wedding suit, and on Saturday evening went to General GRANT's house, where he borrowed from Mrs. GRANT one of the General's military sashes to wear at the wedding. After remaining an hour or two, at 8:30 he bid the family goodnight, since which time he has not been seen in the city. At the appointed hour this morning the bride's mother, who is a widow, General GRANT and staff, and a large number of friends and distinguished guests were assembled at the Church of the Epiphany. The bride was in readiness, and General GRANT was prepared to give her away in accordance with the arrangements made at Col. PARKER's request. The groomsman, however, failed to make his appearance. His fellow-officers of the staff had arranged to make the bride an elegant present, and other friends were ready to make appropriate wedding gifts. The scene which ensued when it became known that Col. PARKER could not be found, can be faintly imagined, but the pen fails to describe it fitly. Messengers were dispatched to the usual resorts of the missing one, and when the report came that all search was in vain, the audience quietly dispersed with many heartfelt prayers for the lady so cruelly deserted. All search to-day has proved fruitless, but up to a late hour to-night no tidings of Col. PARKER have been received. Meantime there are rumors current that he was seen in Baltimore this morning; that his body had been found under the ice in the Potomac, and, again, that he was married to another person in Buffalo this day. Miss SACKETT's friends are doing everything in their power to console her terrible affliction, and express a hope that the mystery may yet be cleared up in a satisfactory manner. The sympathy of the entire community is enlisted in the lady's behalf."
    "There were all kinds of reports in the newspapers about what happened to this poor man. Parker's sister Carrie even telegramed from New York State asking, "Has anything been heard from my brother?" Then two days later he turned up, and the story that he has was that one of the New York Indians had met him before the wedding, and invited him in for a drink, and when Ely woke up, the fellow told him that he (Ely) was sick, and gave him some medicine. But in fact his friend drugged him. One of the traditional teachings of Handsome Lake (19th century Haudenosaunee prophet) was that there should not be intermarriages with other races. So it's conceivable that someone in fact opposed this marriage."

William Armstrong
Parker Biographer

Parker's Civil War compatriots had a different theory. Horace Porter wrote that, "Parker has disgraced us more than usual. He was to have been married to Miss Minnie Sackett…but instead of appearing, he went on his habitual four days drunk…" Another friend asked if anyone had yet "caught and bottled up the Indians that captured Parker?"

    "Well, he came back, he never really apologized or explained, except I assume, to Minnie, and maybe Minnie's mother. They rescheduled the wedding. It was going to be again, at the Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. Tremendous interest now, some 3-thousand people gathered, saw the decorations going up, but when the people asked, the church attendants said, oh no, we're decorating for mass tomorrow, that marriage took place last night. It was done privately, Grant did give Minnie away, then she and Ely left for New York City and Rochester for a honeymoon."

William Armstrong
Parker Biographer

    "They were a happy couple, but they never escaped social scrutiny in Washington. Ely and Minnie were the subject of all kinds of gossip; one woman was even quoted to have said that the only thing that came out of their marriage was the fact that they had yet to produce an "half breeds." Society really objected to this interracial marriage, and Minnie at one time responded by saying that she was deeply in love with Ely. She didn't marry him because he was an Indian, in fact she didn't really like Indians."

Jare Cardinal
Rochester Museum & Science Center