Ely Parker Biography
Ely Samuel Parker was born in 1828 near the Tonawanda Reservation in western New York, where growing up, the scent of the forest and the murmur of the creek were his constant companions. But while he enjoyed these times of play, much pressure was also on him. Ely was the son of a prominent Seneca chief and carried the weight of responsibility for his people’s future.
Proud of his heritage, growing up, Ely was keenly aware of the challenges his tribe faced. The 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek stripped the Seneca of their ancestral lands. Yet, it was also during these years that Ely attended the Baptist Mission School, where he learned English and spent time with people outside of his Native American community. This education would be his passport to a life where he would walk a fine line between the two worlds.
Ely used these learnings in his early teen years when the elders of his tribe appointed him the Tonawanda Seneca’s interpreter in their legal battle with the U.S. government to reclaim their lands. With Ely’s help, the tribe won and successfully renegotiated the 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek.
As he fought for his people, Ely’s life also took on new dimensions. In school, Ely gained a reputation for his sharp intellect and indomitable spirit. He became interested in law and engineering, and as he grew into adulthood, Ely chose engineering as a profession, studying the discipline at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Then he went to work as an engineer, where among many projects he would work on, Ely was sent to Galena, Illinois. And in Galena, Ely met and befriended Ulysses S. Grant.
As the years passed and the storm clouds of the Civil War began to loom large over America, Ely found himself compelled to participate in the fight. His initial application to the Union Army was rejected due to his race. But through his old friend, Ulysses S. Grant, Ely secured a commission as a captain in the 2nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Thus began a military career that would see Ely rise to prominence as General Grant’s military secretary. And then, as the war came to an end and the surrender terms for the South needed drafting, it was Ely who wrote the documents.
While the nation was healing from the war, Ely’s life took another remarkable turn. He was appointed the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs, where Ely would find himself again at the forefront of the struggle for justice and equality. Navigating the murky waters of bureaucracy and politics, he advocated tirelessly for fair treatment of Native American tribes, his passion for their cause undiminished by the challenges he faced.
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 remained humble, never wanting to talk about his accomplishments.
“A snapshot biography of Ely Parker” sources:
Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War Personalities and Scenes, National Archives / A History of Us – Ely Parker / Wikimedia Commons / New York Historical Society Museum & Library, PR.011.4
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- This story was updated on May 2nd, 2023