Ely Parker was a man of many talents. He was a U.S. Army officer, a Native American tribal diplomat and a Seneca leader.
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Ely Parker was a man of many talents. He was a U.S. Army officer, a Native American tribal diplomat and a Seneca leader.

Feb 8, 2022

This week a local hero will be minted, literally.

Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca, was one of the most influential people in Western New York history, and Wednesday morning the United States Mint will release a brand new dollar coin bearing his image. Ely Parker was one of 17 finalists for the latest edition of the U.S. Mint's Native American series.

"He's not well known, you know, on the national level, but at the same time, he stands on the national level for his accomplishments," said Al Parker, Ely Parker's descendent.

Al Parker has always been extremely proud of his ancestor's contributions to both worlds, that of the Native American and that of the White man.

"The knowledge is beginning to show. Statues, pictures, and his story," Al Parker said.

Ely Parker was born and raised a Tonawanda Seneca, highly educated and fluent in both the Seneca and English languages. He went to college and studied engineering and law, but for Ely Parker it was a life of contradictions.

"He studies as a lawyer but he can't pass - he can't take the bar because he's held back by his Indigenous heritage. He can't serve in the army until he's appointed by General Grant [Ulysses S. Grant]," said Anthony Greco, director of exhibits and interpretive planning at the Buffalo History Museum.

Greco agrees that Ely Parker was one of the most influential figures in both Seneca and Western New York history.

"So on one hand he's an Indigenous person, he's Tonawanda Seneca, he ends up being the Grand Sachem of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, but on the other hand he's classically educated," Greco said. "He studies as a lawyer, an engineer and he ultimately ends up - and this is the part of his life that creates his legacy - is his services to the U.S. Army under General Grant."

Ely Parker met Grant before the Civil War, while working as an engineer in Illinois and it was that relationship that actually paved Ely Parker's way into the military after he was originally rejected because he was Native American. Grant ultimately appointed him military secretary and Ely Parker played such an important role, he was not only present at General Robert E. Lee's surrender, but even helped draft the surrender documents.

"Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse it actually penned in his handwriting," Greco said.

After the war, Parker was named as the first Native American commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was the chief architect of General Grant's peace policy with Native American tribes. He went on to work for the New York City Police Department and even hit it big in the stock market, only to lose it all and die in poverty. His final resting place is in Forest Lawn Cemetery beside his ancestor the great Seneca leader Red Jacket.

Ely Parker was a man who lived many lives, all of them to the benefit of others. And now his legacy is finally being honored by the U.S. Mint, a new dollar coin featuring Sacagawea on the front and the reverse side, Ely Parker in his army uniform with a quill pen and book along with his graceful signature as symbols of his experience as an expert communicator. The inscriptions "Tonawanda Seneca" and "HA-SA-NO-AN-DA" recognize his home territory and his Seneca name.

"It's definitely long overdue. And this is somebody who is buried a quarter-mile from where we're standing right now, yet so few people even here know who he is - know his story," Greco said.

"I'm pleased that he's reached a level of notoriety that's overdue," said Al Parker.

To coin a term, Ely Parker was a warrior, a role model and a very proud chapter in the Unknown Stories of WNY.


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