Today’s Facial Hair Friday is about Donehogawa, otherwise known as Ely S. Parker, the first Native American to be Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Ely S. Parker was born a Seneca Indian in 1828 in Western New York on the then Tonawanda Reservation. Originally called Hasanoanda, he was baptized as Ely Samuel Parker. Educated in missionary schools, Parker spoke both Seneca and English. In 1852, after serving as an interpreter and diplomat for the Seneca chiefs in land right negotiations with the United States, Parker was given the name Donehogawa.
Parker initially pursued a career in law; however, he was unable to take the bar exam because only U.S. citizens were eligible for admittance, and most American Indians were barred from U.S. citizenship. Parker went on to become an engineer.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Parker attempted to join the Army as an engineer but was turned down because his ethnicity. He contacted his friend, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who he had previously met while doing engineering work in Galena, IL. Grant helped Parker get a commission, and Parker eventually became Grant’s secretary. As a close confidant, Parker was in charge of Grant’s correspondence and had the honor of drafting the final Confederate terms of surrender at Appomattox in 1865. After the war, Parker continued his service, rising to the rank of brevet brigadier general.
When Grant became President in 1869, he appointed Parker as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold the office. As Commissioner, Parker tried to implement Grant’s peace policy to end corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and advance Native American rights. However, Parker faced obstacles from Congress, who opposed the policy, and ended up resigning in 1871 when Congress stripped him of essentially all his power as Commissioner.
It took over 50 more years until Native Americans could become U.S. citizens with the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, and nearly 100 years until the next American Indian became Commissioner of Indian Affairs with the appointment of Robert L. Bennett (Oneida) in 1966.
November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website for resources on related records and how we are commemorating the month.