By Derek M. Otto
On Wednesday March 29, 2017, the Civil War Historical Society of Western New York hosted Mr. Al Parker, a historical interpreter depicting his descendant Ely Parker.
By his account, we learned that Ely (pronounced E-Lee) Parker was born on the Tonawanda reservation during a tumultuous time for the Seneca people in 1828. The Ogden Land company had begun to maneuver to abolish Seneca holdings in WNY. Ely’s father, a sachem and Baptist minister, was a leader in the negotiations with NYS and the land companies.
It was here that Ely learned and became proficient in the English language and wrangling of political life. As Parker discussed his life, he noted that his career started with becoming a diplomat and interpreter for the Senecas and was made a sachem himself in 1852.
He was able to get into Rensselaer Polytechnic School, where he studied to be an engineer.
Ely later worked to upgrade and maintain the Erie Canal. Through this work, Ely was able to take on other government jobs, one in particular was in Galena Ill, There, he helped break up a bar brawl and make a new friend in Ulysses S. Grant.
At one time, Parker apprenticed to be a lawyer in Ellicottville. He passed his bar exams, but was not admitted due to the fact he wasn’t a United States citizen. (Native Americans did not receive citizenship until 1924.)
Near the start of the Civil War, Ely Parker tried to raise a regiment of volunteers for the war, and was torn down by the governor of New York. After being turned down by the Army Corps of Engineers, Ely went to Grant, who commissioned him as a captain. Ely would then rise to the ranks of Adjutant General and secretary to Grant.
At the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, it was Ely Parker who transcribed and wrote the conditions of Lee’s surrender. He concluded with giving details of his life after the war.
He was the first Native American to be appointed head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He left position after being accused of fraud in matter. Though exonerated, Ely left Washington for a job with the New York City Police Department.
Near the end of his life, Ely lost a small fortune and died destitute in 1895. He was buried in Fairfield, CT. He was a sachem of the Senecas and was later moved to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY and was reinterred next to Red Jacket in 1897. The G.A.R. erected his headstone.
Al Parker, a Buffalo native, has portrayed Ely in many events and appeared in National Park Service videos depicting the surrender.
The Civil War Historical Society of Western New York will have its next meeting April 26 at 7 p.m. in the Lucy Bensley Center at 23 North Buffalo Street, Springville, NY.
Other upcoming events include:
The Boston Historical Society will host a potluck dinner and how well do you know Boston History at its April 11 meeting. The fun starts at 6:30 p.m. in the community room of the Boston Town Hall, 8500 Boston State Road, Boston.
The Concord Historical Society will hold its regular meeting April 12, 2017 at 7 p.m. at the Lucy Bensley Center. Richard Woolen, director of the Graycliff Estate, will “Bring Frank Lloyd Wright to Springville.” At 23 North Buffalo Street in Springville.
Watch for news and events from the Holland Bicentennial commencing in 2018.