Ely Parker 1844-1865

Lewis Henry Morgan's Influence on Ely Parker

Lewis Henry Morgan was born in Aurora, New York in 1818. When Ely Parker met him in 1844, he was a practicing attorney who spent his off-hours pursuing his real passion - the Haudenosaunee. Morgan had founded a fraternal club called "The Grand Order of the Iroquois," whose members celebrated Indian culture in costumed ceremonies and song.
Lewis Henry Morgan
Lewis Henry Morgan
Morgan's ultimate goal was to have his organization's structure exactly mirror that of the Six Nations Confederacy. So, in 1844, he went to Albany, New York, on a research mission, and that's when he spotted Ely Parker in a bookstore. "To sound the war whoop and seize the youth might have been dangerous," Morgan later recalled, "but to let him pass without a parley would have been inexcusable."

    "Morgan had found a treasure. Not only could Parker speak and read English, but he was well educated in the traditional culture of the Haudenosaunee. So he goes back with Ely to Tonawanda and takes his notebooks and fills them with information about traditions and the government. And he gets the entire Parker family involved in gathering cultural articles. Now, there was an urgency to Morgan's work, because he really believed that Indian Nations were disappearing in the United States."

Jare Cardinal
Rochester Museum & Science Center

    "Morgan's position is certainly to record the culture before it disappears. And to use the Parkers and the vast network of kin that they can call on, to record as much of this culture in its traditional forms as can possibly be put down on paper. Morgan believed these people in their traditional form could not survive. They are going to melt into the population, and in that sense, they are a dying race."

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

So began a six-year partnership between Ely Parker and Lewis Henry Morgan, but it involved more than an exchange of physical objects for study. Morgan was a proponent of the mainstream concept of assimilation, the idea that Indians would have to become "civilized, Christianized, and humanized" to be able to survive. He reinforced that concept with Ely Parker, and simultaneously opened new doors to mainstream opportunities.

    "Morgan was awed by Ely's intelligence, his abilities, and I think he felt that Ely would be wasted at Tonawanda. Ely, on the other hand, meets someone who is a mentor to him, who helps expose him to the outside world to a greater degree than he ever would if he stayed back at Tonawanda. Here is someone who is a lawyer, who gets around in white society. Someone who has the ear of powerful politicians in New York States, someone who can get him into elite places of learning. Ely starts meeting and talking with Morgan's close circle, and I think he starts to believe more and more that the way for the future is maybe to move away from some of those traditional things, and be part of the future. And to do that you have to give up certain things.

    So he starts believing that the Senecas, their culture, their traditions, were disappearing. And the only way to save it was for Ely to help Morgan document it. He was going to have to give it to the white people for safekeeping."

Jare Cardinal
Rochester Museum & Science Center

Through interaction with Morgan and his intellectual circle, Parker was exposed to the idea that there were "superior" and "inferior" races. In 1877, Morgan would coalesce his theories in Ancient Society, which classified the cultures of the world into progressive stages of "savagery, barbarism, and civilization." That book would gain the attention of Marx and Engels, who interpreted its evolutionary doctrine as support to their materialistic theory of history.

The depth of Morgan's philosophical influence on Parker is immeasurable, but he was an instrumental figure in Ely's elite education at Cayuga Academy, and his later career as a civil engineer. There is also a physical legacy of their six years of research on Haudenosaunee culture: a collection of artifacts which can be viewed at the Rochester(NY) Museum & Science Center in New York, and writings which were published in The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois, which is considered a landmark study in American anthropology.

This information about Lewis Henry Morgan was made available by generous permission of the Rochester Museum & Science Center.