Way Back When … 1870
The Fairfield Museum recently updated its semi-permanent history exhibition, “Creating Community.” One of the new items on display is a photograph of Ely Parker, a Native American leader, diplomat and trained engineer who lived in Fairfield from the 1870s until his death on August 31, 1895.
Ely Parker was born in 1828 in Indian Falls, New York to Seneca parents who gave him the name Hasanoanda. Parker was the Great Nephew of Red Jacket, the one-time great chief of the Seneca nation. Parker grew up on the reservation until he attended the Yates academy at age 14, and later the Cayuga Academy at age 17. Parker was bilingual and spoke both Seneca and English. He wanted to become a lawyer, but his application to sit for the bar exam was denied because Native Americans at that time were not seen as United States citizens. Instead, Parker studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and worked as a civil engineer for several years.
Parker was a champion for Seneca rights, and in 1852 was granted the title of Sachem, an Iroquois chief, of the Seneca people. He was also given the Seneca name Donehogawa, meaning “Keeper of the Western Door of the Long House of the Iroquois.”
During the Civil War, Parker joined the Union Army as a civil engineer, but was rejected due to his race. Parker later managed to join along with his friend Ulysses S. Grant. Parker was first appointed the chief engineer of General John Eugene Smith’s 7th Division, then became Grant’s adjutant during the Chattanooga Campaign. Parker was present at battles such as the Battle of Chattanooga, the Siege of Pittsburgh, and the Siege of Vicksburg (1862-1863). He also participated in Robert E. Lee’s surrender on behalf of the Confederacy in August of 1865 by helping to draft the surrender documents. Parker continued to serve in the army alongside Grant as his military secretary and key aide with the rank of colonel for several years after the war ended, resigning in 1869.
In March of 1869, Grant appointed Parker as the first Native person to hold the role of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a position Parker held until 1871. Soon after leaving his position as Commissioner, Parker invested in the stock market, only to lose his fortune after the Panic of 1873, an economic depression that affected both North America and Europe.
Parker married 18-year-old Minnie Orton Sackett in 1867. In 1878, they had a daughter named Maud Theresa Parker.
Parker lived in Fairfield on Old Post Road from 1871 to 1887, at which time he sold his house to Oliver B. Jennings, who in turn gave it to his daughter, Annie B. Jennings, who had it torn down to make way for her mansion, built in 1909. Parker would return to Fairfield on numerous occasions, and it was in the home of his friend Arthur Brown, at 200 Unquowa Road (site of present-day Tomlinson Middle School), that he passed away in his sleep.
After his death, Parker’s body was originally buried at Oak Lawn Cemetery (Algonquian territory), but at the request of the Seneca people, he was moved in 1897 and laid to rest next to his ancestor Red Jacket at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.
Special thanks to CT Humanities for its generous and vital support of the important and impactful upgrades to Creating Community.
The Fairfield Museum & History Center and Museum Shop, located at 370 Beach Road, is open seven days a week, 10am-4pm. Members of the Museum and children under 5 are admitted free. For more information, call 203-259-1598 or visit Fairfieldhistory.org.