Ely Parker: a snapshot biography.

Ely Parker
Ely Parker

Ely Parker Biography

His parents named him Ha-sa-no-an-da. The world would come to know him as Ely Parker.

Before his successes and fame, Ely was born in 1828 into the Seneca Nation, a Native American tribe. At the time, the Seneca lived on the Tonawanda Reservation in what today is Indian Falls, an area in the western part of upstate New York. The region is of a beautiful charm, with a natural landscape covered in trees that turn shades of majestic reds and mahogany browns during the fall and luscious greens during the summer, while waterfalls sprinkled throughout the deep forests lead into pristine lakes. Many generations of Seneca called the area home, caring for and appreciating the land.

As a tribe, they were known as peaceful people. Though if battles were necessary, the men went to war and fought with much grit and viciousness. And as a community, Seneca society was matrimonial. The mother passed on family legacy and social prominence.

Ely was born into this environment, but his upbringing would span beyond Seneca life. His parents were integrated into communities outside of Native American tribes. And they chose to educate their son at the Baptist Mission School. In school he learned English and spent time with people outside of his Native American world. As a result, the elders of his tribe selected fourteen year old Ely to become a translator, interpreter, and scribe for meetings with government leaders. It would mark the beginning of many experiences for Ely in diplomacy.


As he grew into the beginnings of adulthood, Ely chose engineering as a profession, studying the discipline at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. From college, he went to work as an engineer, where amongst many projects he would work on, Ely was sent to Galena, Illinois, for government projects there. In Galena, Ely met and befriended Ulysses Grant.

The friendship with Ulysses also blossomed into several working relationships. During the U.S. Civil War, Ely attempted to join the Union Army as an engineer but was rejected for being a Native American. Ely reached out to Ulysses, who helped Ely enlist.

Starting as a captain, Ely rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. And as the war came to an end and the surrender terms for the South needed to be drafted, it was Ely who helped write the documents.

In later years, Ulysses Grant, now President of the U.S., appointed Ely as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold this title.

Ely Parker, circa late 1860s
Ely Parker, circa late 1860s

Ely faced much adversity throughout his life. He persevered through each obstacle, taking defeats as opportunities for learning and growth. And through it all, he never wanted to talk about his accomplishments.

“A snapshot biography of Ely Parker” sources:

Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War Personalities and Scenes, National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Ely Parker – Wikipedia / New York Historical Society Museum & Library, PR.011.4