Facial Hair Friday: Donehogawa (Ely S. Parker)

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. 

Ely S. Parker sporting both a mustache and a goatee, ca. 1865. (National Archives Identifier 528267)

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.

One thought on “Facial Hair Friday: Donehogawa (Ely S. Parker)

  1. Thank you for the article on Ely Parker. He was a very important figure.

    There are a few puzzling statements in the article, however.

    —- “… the then Tonawanda Reservation.” The Tonawanda Reservation still exists, as does its federally-recognized tribe, the Tonawanda Band of Seneca (see 84 Fed. Reg. 1200-1205). Was Parker born on land that was then part of the Tonawanda Reservation but is no longer?

    —- “… American Indians were barred from U.S. citizenship.” Indians per se were never barred from U.S. citizenship, by law or policy. They could acquire U.S. citizenship by treaty or statute. Some were already citizens when the Constitution was written, which is why the Constitution specifies that only “Indians not taxed,” not all Indians, are be excluded from the decennial census (Article I, Section 2, clause 3). In Parker’s time, Indians who were citizens of their Indian tribe were excluded from U.S. citizenship (except those naturalized by treaty or statute), but not all Indians. See Felix Cohen’s “Handbook of Federal Indian Law” (DOI, 1941-42), p. 153:

    —- “… Congress, who opposed the [peace] policy….” Congress’ attitude toward the policy was generally accepting until its administrative contradictions (two congressionally-created entities dueling for control of BIA spending and employment) caught up with it. Parker was investigated for alleged corruption by a congressional committee and was exonerated, but resigned in anger. (See “The Great Father” [U. Nebraska Press, 1994], by the late historian F.P. Prucha, the dean of the history of federal Indian policy, chapter 20.)

    —- “It took over 50 more years until Native Americans could become U.S. citizens…. ” Cohen’s Handbook estimated that two-thirds of Indians were already citizens when the Citizenship Act of 1924 was passed (see link above), under various treaties or statutes (including a 1919 act conferring U.S. citizenship on Indian WWI veterans). Prucha in The Great Father says “a majority of the Indians … had achieved citizenship” before the 1924 act, and cites but does not explicitly endorse the two-thirds figure (p. 793). Although no one to my knowledge has done the huge statistical job of calculating how many Indians were U.S. citizens before the 1924 act, I don’t recall seeing challenges to the estimate of at least a majority.

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