Deerskin and Eagle Buttons: Ely Parker and his Two Worlds

The roar of the waterfall drowned out any noise of the crying child cuddled in his mother’s arms. He was born in a simple log cabin built to overlook the falls of Tonawanda Creek on the Tonawanda Seneca reservation. Within the cabin walls lived Elizabeth Parker and her husband William, members of the Seneca tribe. It was all an inauspicious beginning for their son Ely Samuel Parker.

Ely S. Parker in his Civil War uniform

Before Parker’s birth, his mother beheld her son’s future greatness. A vision struck her. It showed a rainbow broken in the middle with its landed ends reaching from the reservation to the home of the local Indian agent. Curious about her vision, Elizabeth visited a Seneca dream interpreter. The interpreter told Elizabeth of her son’s preeminence. He would bridge the gap between the white man and the Indians, predicted the interpreter. “His sun will rise on Indian land and set on the white man’s land.”

That bold interpretation seemed far from the truth in Parker’s youth. He struggled to learn the English language and was derisively teased because of it. This only drove Parker harder to master it. But while he dabbled in the world of the white man, Parker never forgot about his Seneca roots. He was still in his teens when he fought the United States government in land disputes on behalf of the Seneca Nation. His efforts earned him a dinner invitation to the White House with President and Mrs. Polk at the age of 18.

Ely’s success in the bar prompted him to try for a law degree. Multiple roadblocks forced him to set his sights on engineering, an endeavor that carried him across his native New York state and eventually across the United States. Between all of this, Parker also became the Grand Sachem of the Six Iroquois Nations and received the “Red Jacket Medal,” a symbol of peace given to the tribe by President George Washington in 1792.

Parker’s success in two worlds surely could not exclude him from the biggest event of the mid 19th century. When he tried to offer his and the Iroquois’ services to the United States in 1861, various obstacles blocked his intentions. Secretary of State William Seward rebuffed Parker once: “The fight must be settled by the white men alone. Go home, cultivate your farm, and we will settle our troubles without any Indian aid,” said Seward. Parker was hardly a man to take “no” for an answer but the constant refusal of his offer gave him no other choice. He settled on his farm while still vying to serve the United States.

Fortunately for Ely Parker, he made the acquaintance of Ulysses S. Grant in Galena, Illinois on the eve of the Civil War. Grant and Parker became close friends. When Grant needed engineering help, he called on the capable Parker to be a part of his field staff. Known as “Grant’s Indian,” the general soon placed enough trust in Parker that Ely became his military secretary. In this capacity, Parker drafted the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. William Seward shooed Parker away, claiming the United States did not require “Indian aid.” Yet it was Parker’s hand that scribbled the symbolic end to the Civil War.

After the guns fell silent, Parker’s star did not fade. He continued to serve on Grant’s staff until the latter’s rise to the presidency. The positive relationship between the two only grew closer. At Parker’s wedding in 1867, it was Grant that walked Parker’s bride down the aisle. Unfortunately, this friendship did not symbolize the feelings between their respective groups of people.

In his inaugural address, President Grant vowed a reassessment of national policy towards “the original occupants of this land.” Ely Parker became the tool in Grant’s hand to improve relations. The president appointed Parker to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs during his administration.

Parker prosecuted corruption in the BIA. His honest efforts spawned political enemies. The weight of the position did not prevent him from formulating a peace treaty between Indian nations and the Federal government but it eventually became too heavy to bear. Ely Parker resigned from his post in 1871.

The storied Parker lived until 1895. Eventually, his remains came to their permanent rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. The man born into an unassuming beginning rests underneath a simple headstone that bears Parker’s name, a select list of his accomplishments, and his birth and death dates. Parker’s remains repose in the shadow of a larger monument to one of his Indian ancestors, Red Jacket, who stands tall on a pedestal. In life, Ely Parker achieved those same heights for himself and for the people of his two worlds.

Ely Parker’s simple headstone in Buffalo

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2 Responses to Deerskin and Eagle Buttons: Ely Parker and his Two Worlds

  1. John Foskett says:

    Thanks Kevin. An excellent article (and series). I did not know that Parker was a descendant of Red Jacket. A great tragedy is that his departure from the BIA while trying to clean it up led to decades of corruption that reverberate even today in reservation government, etc.

    • Kevin Pawlak says:

      Thanks, John. There always seems to be a lot more to learn about Ely Parker. He really faded from the limelight after his time with the BIA.

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