General Eli Samuel Parker
General Parker reached the height of his military career when he wrote up the terms of surrender for Gen. Robert E. Lee to sign at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Parker was born in 1828 in Genesee County, New York, as a Seneca of noble lineage, although much of his life was spent straddling two cultures.
Parker was not Red Jacket's grandson, even though you often see that in print. Ely's mother was Elizabeth Johnson (c1800-1862) of the wolf clan. Her mother was the sister of Jemmy Johnson, another famous chief at Tonawanda (1774-1856) and the chosen successor to Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet. Jemmy and his sister were the children of Red Jacket's sister. All of them were also members of the wolf clan, which means that Ely was Red Jacket's great-grandnephew. In Seneca tradition, however, granduncles (peers of your grandparents or great grandparents) are called "grandfathers". Therein lies the confusion.
Ely became a condoled chief in 1852 upon the death of John Blacksmith (chief of the wolf clan at Tonawanda). In the Haudenosaunee (6 Nations, Iroquois) world, there are 50 chiefs, each having their own (condoled) name. When one chief dies, another one is chosen by the clan mothers and is given the condoled name. So when Ely was chosen chief of the wolf clan at Tonawanda, he was given the name Donehogawa--the name John Blacksmith held before him. That name is still used at Tonawanda today. Ely's Seneca name was Ha sa no an da, meaning "leading name". He took the name Ely (as he said, rhymes with "free-ly") after a well known Baptist minister/teacher in the area. Parker was a name given by a British soldier (named Parker) to the family, as an honor for treating him so well when he was a captive during the Revolutionary War.
He had an encyclopedic mind and enjoyed learning about both the Indian ways and the white man's culture. For example, Parker acquired knowledge of his grandfather's Iroquoian religion, while he was educated by white teachers at the local Baptist school.
At the Cayuga Academy in Aurora, NY, Parker went on to study law, even though New York State would not allow an Indian to have a law practice. The imposing 200 pound Indian then learned engineering on the job while working on the Genesee Valley Canal and became a captain of engineers in the New York State Militia in 1853. While a captain of engineers with the Rochester regiment of the New York State Militia, he was also a "sachem," one of the honored positions in his tribe and active in Tonawnda affairs.
Parker's Iroquois title was "Donehogawa", or "Keeper of the western door", which signified that he dealt with outsiders. When Iroquois tried to enlist in New York to join the Civil War effort, they were denied entry. In March 1862 Parker wrote to the commissioner of Indian affairs about the matter; the next month mustering offices in Buffalo were ordered to accept Indian recruits. After Parker received a captain's commission in May 1863, 600 Seneca Indians gathered to wish him well when he departed for the war.
Ely's military career: he was in the militia prior to the Civil War. He was appointed assistant adjutant-general with rank of captain in June 1863; commissioned first lieutenant, US Cavalry in 1866 (he resigned in 1869); brevitted brigadier-general of volunteers, Apr 9 1865; and captain, major, lieutenant-colonel and brigadier-general, US Army on March 2, 1867.(this is all according to Arthur Parker.) At the age of 14, Ely was first sent to Washington, DC as a messenger/representative for the Tonawanda Senecas who were trying to fight the fraudulent 1842 Compromise Treaty of Buffalo Creek. In that treaty (and in its predecessor, the 1838 Buffalo Creek Treaty), the Tonawanda Senecas lost all of their lands in Western New York. Ely remained a representative and advocate until 1857 when the Senecas were able to buy back part of that land.
Parker was described by contemporaries as having a muscular, imposing physical presence. Despite being barred from practicing law and receiving an initial rejection from military service because of his race, Parker rose to General Ulysses S. Grant's staff. He had met Grant before the war and now became known as "Grant's Indian". In 1863, with Grant's support, he was commissioned as a staff officer for Brig. Gen. John E. Smith.
Parker was a division engineer before he was assigned to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's personal military staff as a military secretary in September 1863. Although he was highly educated and spoke perfect English, enlisted men and officers referred to him as "the Indian" or "Grant's Indian" or "Big Indian." He served with Grant from Chattanooga to Appomattox, where he wrote in duplicate the terms of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender.
Grant was a prolific writer and Eli Parker had to re-write everything Grant wrote, in terms of actually inscribing it. He was a very good man, very dark in complexion and when Lee surrendered at Appomattox he went up to Grant’s other officers and shake their hands and so forth. Lee was dressed in sartorial elegance for the surrender while Grant, of course in a great American way, came in from the field all muddy with crap on his boots. When Lee reaches this darker man Eli Parker, he says to him "Well, at least there is one American among us." In which Eli Parker looks him square in the eye and says "General, we are all Americans." He later received a promotion to brigadier general that was backdated to April 9, 1865, the surrender date.
After the war, Parker remained Grant's secretary and used his military fame to advance his post-war career. Grant served as his best man when Parker married Minnie Sackett, a white woman in 1867. Parker continued to serve on Grant's staff until 1869, when President Grant appointed him as the first non-Caucasian commissioner of Indian Affairs, amid considerable controversy.
Parker became Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, not because of his efforts in the Civil War, but because of his friendship with General Ulysses S. Grant. Because of his association with him, Parker had the "ear" of many politicians in Washington both during and after the war who were wrestling with the "Indian Problem". Grant appointed him commissioner in 1868. (Grant appointed many of his former Civil War staff to important positions after he was elected president). Parker was the first Native American to hold a federal office. It was Ely Parker's ideas that were associated with the Grant administration's "Peace Plan" which abolished the treaty system and advocated "assimilate, educate and Christianize". He also stated that if you wanted the Indians to remain peaceful, the government had to deliver what it had promised when they had made treaties with them. (This is why, he thought, the treaty system should be abolished. It just didn't work, and it made the Native Peoples in the US angry, unsettled, and distrustful of the US government).
Corrupt profiteers and overzealous religious leaders led to his political downfall, instigating an investigation by the House of Representatives. Although he was exonerated from accusations of fraud, illegal contracts and numerous violations of law, but in June 1871 he resigned his post and retired to private business in Connecticut. Having lost his financial gains in the Panic of 1873, he survived in his final years through favors and handouts from former military colleagues. Ely died on August 30, 1895 from complications from diabetes. He was buried first at Oak Lawn Cemetery in Fairfield, Conn, where he, his wife and his daughter lived. Parker was reburied in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY on January 20, 1897 near the graves of several other Senecas, including Red Jacket.
At the time of his death in August, 1895, Parker was impoverished, leaving his widow with only a carbon copy of the document he had written at Appomatto