Lt. Colonel Ely Parker, First Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs
Lt. Colonel Ely S. Parker was the first Native American to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1871, and the first Native American to be appointed to a cabinet level position in the United States. During the Civil War he served as Grant’s adjutant and transcribed the terms of surrender for Lee to sign. After the Civil War, he embarked on a career that benefited Native Americans and helped solidify their position in a country that had long denied them their freedom.
Ely Parker Succeeds in Seneca Indian and White World
Born in 1828 on the Tonawanda Reservation near Buffalo, New York, Ely Parker's family heritage seemed to guarantee that he would accomplish great deeds in his life. His mother was descended from great Seneca leaders like Red Jacket and Handsome Lake and according to Seneca tradition a dream interpreter told her that her son would be both a peacemaker and a warrior. She divided his early life between learning the Seneca ways and the ways of the white man.
At first Ely refused to learn English, but soon he realized that he would have to master the English language to succeed in both worlds. In 1842, he entered Yates Academy in New York and soon earned a reputation for his academic skills. He graduated from Yates and in 1845 entered Cayuga Academy in Aurora, New York where he honed his debating skills and gained friends in the Grand Order of the Iroquois, a society of white people sympathetic of the cause of Native Americans in New York. Ely convinced them to form a delegation to travel to meet with President James K. Polk in Washington D.C. and he accompanied the delegation as a translator.
He spoke personally to the president and President James K. Polk assured the delegation that the Senate would review the treaty. During his service with delegation, Parker against met with President Polk and made some valuable connections in Washington D.C. After his delegation prevailed for the time being in preserving their land, Parker decided to return to school. During the next few years he studied law and worked as an Indian agent in the Office of Indian Affairs.
Ely Parker Fights for Indian Rights and the United States
In December 1848, a political shakeup in the office of Indian Affairs threw Ely Parker out of work and under federal law he could not be admitted to the New York bar. Indians were not American citizens and there were no legal provisions to naturalize them. Over the next decade he studied engineering and once again worked with the Tonawanda Seneca. While he worked on a construction project in Galena, Illinois, during the summer of 1860, Parker met Ulysses S Grant. Through his friendship with Grant, Parker obtained a position as superintendent of a construction project in Dubuque, Iowa, until Abraham Lincoln was elected president and replaced Parker with a Republican engineer.
When the Civil War broke out, Parker wanted to fight for the United States as his father had done during the War of 1812. The New York militia denied him a commission and in Washington D.C. Secretary of State William Seward told him that the United States did not need Indian help to fight its battles. Parker petitioned Congress to become a citizen so he could serve in the armed forces, but Congress said that it did not have the authority to give him citizenship. Parker returned to his family farm and worked once again in the Iroquois Confederacy.
Eventually, Native Americans served in military units on both the Union and Confederate sides. Newton Parker, Ely’s brother managed to enlist and earn the rank of sergeant, before the Governor of New York had his unit discharged. Under the sponsorship of Union Colonel John Fisk, Ely Parker assisted in recruiting Native Americans into the Union Army and soon other units sprang up around the country.
In 1863, Ely Parker finally received his commission as a captain in the United States Volunteers. Eli Parker’s old friend General Ulysses S. Grant greeted him at Vicksburg on July 7, 1863, and soon Parker had a post as army engineer and later assistant adjutant general for General Grant. Ely Parker prepared the paperwork for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and wrote the official copy of the surrender for both men to sign. Grant and Parker boarded a steamer for Washington to tell President Lincoln about the surrender.
Ely Parker Becomes Commissioner of Indian Affairs
In the years after the assassination of President Lincoln, Ely Parker received a commission as ambassador to assist the Office of Indian affairs in restoring peaceful relations with the tribes that had sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. As a representative of the United States, Parker asked all the western Indian tribes to lay down their arms and restore their relations with the Union.
He told the Union representatives that these tribes should be guaranteed lands in the west to settle and that they should receive proper payment for the lands they had to vacate. State and government officials throughout the United States consulted Parker about Indian affairs.
When General U.S. Grant won the presidential election in 1868 he appointed Ely S. Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. When questions over the legality of his appointment because he was not a citizen arose, President Grant consulted with the Attorney General and they both agreed that although Parker wasn’t a citizen he was a taxpayer and had previous offices of trust under the government. The United States Senate confirmed his nomination by a vote of 3 to 12.
For his first task as Commissioner, Parker vowed to clear the Office of Indian Affairs of the corrupt agents that had soured the relations between the United States and Native Americans. Since the Office of Indian Affairs operated under the authority of the Department of the Interior, Parker went to see Interior Secretary Cox. He explained to Cox that he felt the only way to improve the status of the Native American was to provide him with a proper liaison to redress grievances. Parker resolved to be that liaison.
Ely Parker Improves Relations Between the Indians and the United States
From his first day in office, Parker met with delegations representing nations throughout the United States. He sought help in supervising new agents from the Quakers and filled vacant posts with tried and true army officers from the Civil War. By these means, Parker greatly improved relations between the Indian nations and the United States.
Parker’s efforts to clean up the Office of Indian Affairs had alienated powerful politicians and a congressional committee probing for corruption in the Grant administration investigated him. The committee insisted that Parker had violated procedure by not consulting the entire Commission on Indian Affairs when he purchased emergency supplies for starving western tribes.
As Parker saw it, the congressional bureaucracy moved too slow and the natives were starving. He couldn’t let them starve so he purchased the supplies on his own and sent them out. His enemies in Congress publicly humiliated Parker and he resigned as Commissioner of Indian Affairs on August 1, 1871.
Parker continued to serve the interests of both Indians and whites for the rest of his life. He kept close ties with President Grant and visited him several times while he suffered with throat cancer. When former President Grant died, Parker was among the dignitaries in Grant’s funeral procession and defended his reputation in years after his death.
After years of serving on the New York Board of Commissioners, Ely Parker
died in August 1895, a true American. although still not an American citizen.
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