While working as an engineer overseeing the building of a federal customs house in Galena, Illinois, 29-year-old Ely Parker dropped in to a store and met a dissatisfied ex-military officer, Ulysses S. Grant employed as a clerk by his father and bored out of his skull. The meeting was chance and friendly, but did not promise anything more than friendship to either of them at the time. Yet as with most people who move and strive chance meetings are the reward for hard work and determination.
Let’s go back a ways, though. One day long before Ely was a successful engineer, he was a 14-year-old Seneca boy with a Baptist father who valued classical education. A group of English soldiers mocked young Ely’s stammering attempt at speaking English. Did Ely let this stop him? Of course not. He vowed to learn the language so well he’d shame the Englishmen themselves!
Tribal elders loved his drive and his growing intellect determining one day he would represent them in their relations with the “Americans.” One such American Lewis Henry Morgan romanticized the noble savages and upon meeting Ely by chance in a bookstore begged him to join his fraternity The Grand Order of the Iroquois in which an enthusiastic and idealistic group of young white men planned to model their lives after the Indians. Ely wasn’t offended by Morgan’s silly fraternity. Maybe Ely was bemused by Morgan’s naivete but invited Morgan to the reservation anyway. They fast became friends. Morgan learned much that helped him establish his fledgling career as an anthropological pioneer.
But Morgan wasn’t the type to take, take, take. He helped his friend Ely gain entry into the elite, white Cayuga Academy where despite some bullying he excelled and went on to study engineering at Rensselaer Institute (RPI).
At the start of the Civil War Ely was told as an Indian (a non-citizen) he could not organize a unit to fight for the Union and was rebuffed yet again when he asked to join the Union army as an engineer. As luck would have it U.S. Grant was short engineers and arranged for Ely to be commissioned a captain. Ely eventually worked alongside his friend as his adjutant and then as a lieutenant colonel and Grant’s military secretary writing most correspondence for Grant and taking part in drafting the final documents for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse (in fact the documents are in Ely’s handwriting).
Ely Parker’s life was not without controversy. He married a white woman and took the job of Commissioner of Indian Affairs when Grant became president. Although Grant’s Indian Peace Policy lessened the fighting in the west some Indians unfairly accused Ely of selling out to the white man in marriage and career. This is always the way, isn’t it? Traveling once in Ireland I came across a group of young men who bitterly accused their friends successfully living in America as sell-outs. So be it, I say.
Heroes make lemonade.
Like Grant, Ely made and lost a fortune in the stock market and died with little money, but what a life he led! Ely Parker was a man of two worlds but saw the big picture. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox quipped upon meeting Ely, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Ely shook the defeated general’s hand and replied, “We are all Americans.” (wiki)
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