In 1828, Ely Parker’s Seneca mother had a vision that the child she was carrying would grow up to be known as a peacemaker between his people and that of the whites. She named him “Donehogawa”, which means “Warrior in two worlds”.
He and his people belonged to the Tonawanda Senecas and had already had regular contact with the white society. He was educated in English speaking schools and learned both the spoken language and written word well.
He grew up to be a Seneca Chief on the one hand, and the closest aid to the General of the Union Forces during the Civil War, on the other. So close in fact that it was he who drafted the surrender agreement of Robert E. Lee on behalf behalf of Grant and the North, putting an end to the “unpleasantness” of the war.
He also earned a degree in engineering but because of his ethnic background was unable to get a meaningful job in that field. But he was talented, driven and opportunistic and never gave up trying.
In 1842, a religious sect known as the Quakers represented a good portion of the new white immigrants in the New England states who befriended the Seneca and stood up for them politically and socially. Indian removal policies stripped the Iroquois Confederacy of its homeland and villages. It was with their help the Seneca were able to hang onto three of their villages at Cattaraugus, Allegany and Genesee. But even with their help, the Seneca still lost Tonawanda, and Buffalo Creek to the fledgeling USA.
While still a boy of 10, his mother was aware of how much of her people’s heritage and language were being lost. With the dream still etched in her mind, she sent him to stay with relatives at Six Nations of the Grand River where the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) ceremonies and traditions were still alive at the time. He stayed three years and learned from the Chiefs and the extended family.
To earn a few extra money while at Six Nations, he took a job driving military horses to the garrisons in Brantford. His dark complexion and broken English made him the target of insults in Brantford and after returning to the USA he was determined to get better at his command of the language and began wearing a business suit.
He learned fast not only English, but Latin and Greek and soon began work at around age 16 at the Public Auctions in Tonawanda as an interpreter and translator.
He saw himself as a bridge between the Seneca and the Americans government. It was while working in that capacity that he met and became good friends with Lewis Henry Morgan. Morgan was a scholar with a sense of history and was convinced that the original people of America were going to completely disappear under the wave of European settlers.
His purpose was to record for posterity everything he could find out on the Haudenosaunee, in particular. With Parker’s understanding as a Seneca Chief and as a fluent English speaker and writer, Morgan and he became friends. Morgan learned much under Parker’s tutelage and even earned a mention in the forward of Morgan’s 1851 published book, “The League of the Haudenosaunee.”
While Parker’s work with the white government was earning him a certain amount of success in that world, he was tagged as a sell-out by some of his own people in later years.
At age 25, he was condoled as a Chief by the Seneca Nations and at the same time, was given the amulet that George Washington had presented to Parker’s Grandfather, Red Jacket which he wore with pride on special occasions.
He began working as an unofficial lawyer to help protect his people and in 1857, be was instrumental in the legal fight for Seneca land, and won a limited victory.
It was around that time he joined the Masonic Lodge and the New York Militia.
With all his success came glowing accolades, and the voice of his mother’s predictions still ringing in his ears, as he grew older, Parker was not a humble man and was known as being arrogant and conceited by both Indian and whites.
“A chief is not supposed to get above himself,” says Six Nations historian Rick Hill. “When you start pulling yourself apart.”
He started thinking of himself, ‘I can read, I can write, I can do this or that, that’s when things fall apart. I think that’s what happened to Donehogawa.”
But his greatest achievement was yet to come with a chance meeting at a pub when Parker came to the aid of local shop owner, Ulysses S. Grant, before he joined the Army of the North at the advent of the Civil War. With Parker’s help they won that fight and became close friends.
When Grant went to sign up for the Union, Parker did as well but was refused by the Army because he was Indian.
As Grant moved up the military and political ladder, he brought Parker with him as a uniformed personal aid. Parker can be seen in many pictures of Grant taken during the war.
At the end of the Civil War, when the terms of surrender were signed at the home of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox between Grant and Lee, Parker was not only invited to attend the historic event but was asked to write the terms of the surrender. After the original letter was found to be full of spelling and grammatical errors, Grant asked Parker to write it. It is Parker’s hand that appears on the historical document.
Following the war, Parker was invited to meet with President Abraham Lincoln to show him the Red Jacket medal he was so proud of. He may have been one of the last people to have met with Lincoln. That same day, he attended a play at Fords Theatre where he was assassinated by a faction Southern sympathizers led by actor John Wilkes Booth.
Parker went on the become the first Indian Secretary of Indian Affairs appointed by, President U.S. Grant.
Despite his many successes in both worlds, Parker is still regarded as either a compromisor, or a visionary, but either way, his was an important life.
According to a biography Parker died August 31, 1895. On January 20, 1897, upon the request of his family, his body was exhumed and reinterred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York, next to his ancestor Red Jacket.