General Parker corrected him. He said, "We are all Americans."
He was born in 1828, in Indian Falls, New York, which was then part of the Tonawanda Reservation. A Seneca, his Indian name was Ha-sa-no-an-da and his white name, Ely Samuel Parker. This represented the bifurcation was his lot in life as he tried to bridge the gap between these two races.
"Before his birth, a tribal prophet told Ely's (pronounced E-lee) mother that her son would become a distinguished warrior and peacemaker," historian Gerry Gilmore wrote.
This prediction likely was based in part on the fact that Ha-sa-no-an-da's father, a miller, and his mother emphasized the education of their seven children at a Baptist missionary school. But they also sent him to Canada where he learned to hunt and fish and other Indian ways, which would prepare Ha-sa-no-an-da to grow up and become Donehogawa, the last Grand Sachem of his tribe at age 24.
Throughout his life, as both Parker and Donehogawa, he would serve in negotiations between white people and Indians, and of course successfully fighting to free black slaves during the Civil War. He represented the Seneca and other Iroquois tribes well. And he was also a lawyer and an engineer.
Harvard rejected his application to law school because it was then a racist institution, which was just as well, given that in the middle of the 19th century, the institution was home to drunken students of white privilege who later threatened to quit the school when Harvard admitted its first black student. Harvard President Edward Everett said, "The admission to Harvard College depends upon examinations; and if this boy passes the examinations, he will be admitted; and if the white students choose to withdraw, all the income of the college will be devoted to his education." Everett would later be the main speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln spoke afterward.
The New York Bar also rejected Ely Parker. But this did not deter him from representing his tribe. He also worked as a civil engineer after attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His peers quickly recognized his abilities and he obtained many important positions, beginning with work on the Genesee Valley Canal in 1849, and later with the Erie Canal.
But politics led to his leaving the Canal Office in Rochester in June 1855. He went on to hold engineering positions in Norfolk, Virginia, and then Detroit. In 1857, Parker became superintendent of projects in Galena, Illinois. This was where he met a store clerk and army veteran named Ulysses Grant. They became lifelong friends, which would lead less than a decade later to their extraordinary success in the Civil War.
The road to that victory began with Parker breaking the color line and joining the Union Army. As an Indian, he was not considered a US. citizen; it would not be until 1924 that Indians were recognized as Americans under civil rights legislation signed into law by President Coolidge. Many people, including Secretary of State William Seward, thought that the white man could win the war without the help of the Indian. General Grant thought otherwise and brought in Parker as his captain of engineers. On September 18, 1863, Grant added Parker to his staff. Grant later made him his military secretary, which is why Lee's surrender is in Parker's handwriting.
One of the terms of the surrender was the confiscation of Lee's estate in Arlington, which the Union fittingly turned into a cemetery for its soldiers who died in the Civil War.
After the war, Parker became a member of the Southern Treaty Commission that renegotiated treaties with Indian Tribes that had sided with the rebels. Upon Grant's election as president, Parker became the first Indian to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"For two years, Parker fought fraud and injustice perpetrated against the Indians by corrupt government agents and officials. In so doing, he sought to bridge the divide between a people fighting for their way of life and the remorseless advance of Manifest Destiny," historian Gerry Gilmore wrote.
But Parker's battle against corruption alienated people and President Grant was forced to pressure his friend to resign. Parker's next career was as a stock investor. He made money early, but lost it all in the Panic of 1873. Other business opportunities also proved unsuccessful. Finally, Parker served with the New York City Police Department as a clerk, a lowly position for a lawyer and engineer.
Parker retired and died on August 31, 1895, at his home in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he was initially buried. At the urging of his family and tribe, two years later he was re-interred at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York, alongside his ancestors and the heroic Red Jacket.
Like many people of all races, Parker's thoughts on the plight of his race were complicated, and he once wrote, "whether it has been well that I have sought civilization with its bothersome concomitants and whether it would not be better even now to return to the darkness and most sacred wilds (if any such can be found) of our country and there to vegetate and expire silently, happily, and forgotten as do the birds of the air and the beasts of the field? The thought is a happy one, but perhaps impracticable."
Ely Parker's presence at Appomattox was symbolic, but he was not token. He earned his place in history. We truly are all Americans.