Colonel Ely Parker (Donehogawa, Seneca, 1828–1905) was secretary to General Ulysses S. Grant; he wrote the surrender ending the Civil War that General Robert E. Lee signed at Appomattox. After the Civil War, Parker became the United States' first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs after Grant was elected president.
Parker had planned on a legal career, passed the necessary examinations, but was denied certification because he was Indian and therefore not a U.S. citizen. Parker then switched to civil engineering, but he also had a considerable background in ethnology. He helped to inspire Lewis Henry Morgan's pioneering studies of the Iroquois that founded academic anthropology in the United States. Parker became an early member of the Grand Order of the Iroquois, a fraternal society established by Morgan.
Parker's tenure in the Indian Bureau coincided with investigations by Congress under Senator James B. Doolittle regarding corruption on the frontier. The Doolittle report received considerable publicity, finding that, in a large number of cases, Indian wars could be traced to the provocations of European-Americans who had seized Native lands illegally. Parker came into office under the aegis of a Peace Policy initiated by Congress after the publicity attending the Doolittle report, in an attempt to deal honestly with remaining Native American nations.
However, the Indian Rings, whose members had done so much to corrupt the system and profited so handsomely from government contracts for services paid but rarely delivered, made Parker's life miserable and his job impossible. During Parker's tenure as Indian Commissioner, however, he helped orchestrate considerable public outrage over the treatment of Indians nationwide, particularly those on the Plains who were being ruthlessly pursued as he served in the office. After Parker was hounded out of office, he expressed his disgust: "They made their onslaught on my poor, innocent head and made the air foul with their malicious and poisonous accusations. They were defeated, but it was no longer a pleasure to discharge patriotic duties in the face of foul slander and abuse. I gave up a thankless position to enjoy my declining years in peace and quiet" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 281).
Parker had overseen a brief interlude in the destructive Indian policies of the nineteenth century, a time during which Red Cloud and his allies had forced the U.S. Army to dissemble its forts in the Powder River country and sign the Treaty of 1868, guaranteeing the Black Hills to the Lakota. In June 1870, Parker had hosted Red Cloud and a companion chief, Red Dog, as they visited Washington, D.C., and spoke at the Cooper Union.
This was Parker's evaluation of U.S. Indian policies:
The white man has been the chief obstacle in the way of Indian civilization. The benevolent measures attempted by the government for their advancement has been almost uniformly thwarted by the agencies employed to carry them out. The soldiers, sent for their protection, too often carried demoralization and disease into their midst. The agent appointed to be their friend and counselor, business manager, and the [manager] of government bounties, frequently went among them only to enrich himself in the shortest possible time, at the cost of the Indians, and spend the largest available sum of the government money with the least ostensible beneficial result (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 281).
Long before the subject came to the attention of scholars, Parker noted the debt of the U.S. political system to the Iroquois. In an "Address to the New York Historical Society, May 28, 1847," Parker noted the fascination of the U.S. founders with the Iroquois League: "Glad were your forefathers to sit upon the thresholds of the Longhouse[;] rich did they hold themselves in getting the mere sweepings from its door" (Johansen 1999, 147).
During his later years, Parker made a large amount of money playing the stock market but was ruined when he was forced to pay the bond of another man who had defaulted. After retiring from service with the U.S. government, Parker was appointed New York City building superintendent in 1876. He held the post until he died in 1905. Parker is buried in Buffalo, New York, in a common plot with his grandfather, Red Jacket.
Bruce E. Johansen
Armstrong, Virginia Irving. 1971. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Chicago: Swallow Press.; Armstrong, William N. 1978. Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; Johansen, Bruce E. 1999. Native Americans and the Evolution of Democracy: A Supplementary Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.; Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde, Jr. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. New York: Henry Holt.; Nabokov, Peter. 1991. Native Testimony. New York: Viking.; Parker, Arthur C. 1919. The Life of General Ely S. Parker, Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant's Military Secretary. Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Historical Society Publications 23.