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The Story of Donehogawa, First Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs

To deal with corruption within the Office of Indian Affairs, Ulysses S. Grant appointed the first Native American to the position, Ely S. Parker.

The election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 brought about what seemed for a time, an epochal change in the Office of Indian Affairs, although, at first, it did not get off to a good start.

Grant was aware of the pervasive corruption within the Office of Indian Affairs. His initial way of dealing with this was to replace all Indian Agents with military men whom he felt would be immune from the system of political spoils.

On January 23, 1870, Major Eugene M. Baker led a detachment of U.S. Army cavalry out of Fort Ellis, Montana after a band of Piegan Blackfeet who had been stealing horses. A band of Blackfeet were surrounded along the Marias River and massacred.


“Of the 219 Piegans in camp, only 46 escaped to tell the story; 33 men, 90 women, and 50 children were shot to death as they ran from their lodges,” reports Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.

A cover-up was ensued by the Army until about three months later when a Lieutenant William B. Pease, acting agent for the Blackfeet, risked his career by releasing all the facts surrounding this to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, including the fact that all this was brought about by the theft of only a couple of mules from a wagon freighter.

By the time news of this atrocity reached the Office of Indian Affairs, the new Commissioner was not a white man, but a full-blooded Iroquois, by the name of Donehogawa, “Keeper of the Western Door of the Long House of the Iroquois.” His English name was Ely Samuel Parker.

In his youth, working as a stable boy at an Army post, Parker endured racism and harassment over his poor command of the English language. He enrolled himself at a missionary school where he developed an excellent command of language and began working for a New York law firm where his goal was to become a lawyer, which he thought was the most suitable profession in which he could help his people.

Wikipedia/National Archives

Ely S. Parker, a Seneca attorney, engineer, and tribal diplomat, wrote the final draft of the Confederate surrender terms. He later served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold the post.

After a successful three years with the law firm he applied for admission to the bar. He was refused—Indians not wanted. This did not dampen Donehogawa’s determination. He researched what white profession he could pursue without encountering a closed door and found engineering the way to go. He entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and not only mastered, but excelled at all courses in civil engineering. His first job was working on the Erie Canal. By the time he was 29 the United States government enlisted him to supervise the construction of levees and buildings. In 1860 he found himself working in Galena, Illinois where he met and became friends with a disgraced and former Army captain by the name of Ulysses S. Grant who was working in his father’s tannery.

In 1861, when the Civil War began, Parker returned to New York to raise a regiment of Iroquois Indians to fight for the Union, but was turned down by the Governor. Parker then unsuccessfully tried to enter the Union as an engineer and was again refused because of his race. He was told this was a “white man’s war” and “go home, cultivate your farm, and we will settle our troubles without any Indian aid.”

The government refusals did not stop Parker, he let his friend Grant know of the denials. Grant sorely needed engineers and after episodes of red tape with the Union Army, Grant sent orders for his Indian friend to join him in the Vicksburg campaign. Lieutenant Colonel Ely Samuel Parker would remain a close aid to Grant through the Vicksburg campaign, Chattanooga, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, the siege of Petersburg, and finally at Appomattox.

When Robert E. Lee met Grant at the McLean Court House in Appomattox to negotiate the terms of surrender of the Confederacy, both were seated with a group of Union officers overseeing the important surrender event. When General Grant finished the handwritten surrender document he called his senior adjutant to re-copy the letter, but the adjutant said, “too nervous.” Grant then called Colonel Parker to look it over and re-copy it. Parker’s excellent handwriting spelled out the terms of peace for the bloodiest war in America’s history. It seems rather ironic, that Parker, an Indian, should find himself at the vortex of this Great War among the whites.

After all was said, signed, and agreed upon, there was a hand shaking ceremony. As Lee was going down the line and greeting the Union officers, he came to the Indian, Colonel Parker and hesitated. Parker later said, “After Lee had stared at me for a moment, he extended his hand and said, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’ I shook his hand and said, ‘we are all Americans.” This is reported in “To Appomattox” by Burke Davis.


Back to the massacre in Montana of 1870 of the Piegan Blackfeet—when Donehogawa learned of this, he called for an investigation. As a result, the military appointees as Indian Agents were eliminated and a new policy of appointing religious leaders as agents became known as the “Quaker policy” or “peace policy” for the Indians.

Grant’s new “peace policy” became a three-legged stool. The first leg was a Commissioner of Indian Affairs that was an Indian, Ely Parker (Donehogawa), the second, Indian Agents were appointed by recommendations made by religious bodies such as Whipple’s Episcopalians. The third leg was an independent Board of Commissioners for Indian Affairs that would advise the Office of Indian affairs on policy, oversee individual agencies, and audit financial matters. Donehogawa suggested that this board be made up of whites and Indians but no Indians with political clout could be found so it was made up of only whites. The board members were to be unpaid and all were prominent wealthy members of society. The first elected President of the board was William Welsh, a close confidant and fellow Episcopalian of Bishop Whipple.

From Minnesota to the Pacific, things were at peace and seemed almost too good to be true for the Indian; an Indian Commissioner, seemingly the elimination of the corrupt political appointee system of agents, and an independent board to oversee the administration of the Office of Indian Affairs. But as the saying goes, “if it’s too good to be true, it is.” By the spring of 1870 there were rumors reaching Washington of unrest among the plains Indians. Some of the most worrisome news came from the dissatisfaction on the part of the great Oglala Chief, Red Cloud.

Prior to and leading up to the Dakota Treaty of 1868, Red Cloud’s Dakota warriors had won a war with the whites. The second greatest defeat to any American army came at the hands of Dakota and Cheyenne’s at Fort Kearney where they wiped out an entire unit of 81 men led by Captain Fetterman. Crazy Horse had led and designed the ambush. The Indians burned the Powder River forts along the Bozeman trail and Red Cloud signed a treaty in which he was told that he and his people could stay and hunt the Powder River country rather than move to a reservation far to the east on the Missouri River where game was scarce. The whites said they’d stay out of the Dakota lands and let them be at peace.

Red Cloud began to hear rumors that he’d have to go the Missouri River to trade and that eventually they too would have to permanently move.

Parker knew that war would break out again if he did not act. He sent word to Red Cloud that he wished him to come to Washington. There was no demand, only a suggestion to Red Cloud, which proved a very sagacious manner in which Parker handled the situation. A special military escort was provided for the several dozen Indians making the trip. When in Washington, Parker did not act, as someone telling the Indians what was to be; rather he asked to hear what they had to say of themselves.

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After a tour of Washington and all its extraordinary sites, Parker asked them to pose for the famous photographer, Matthew Brady. He recognized that the Indians were uncomfortable in the white man’s clothing they were wearing and suggested that they put on their native dress for both the photo session and dinner at the White House with President Grant.

From Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, Volume 23

General Grant, Ely S. Parker and other staff officers are seen here at Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1864.

Parker was in an extremely tough spot, between representing the desires of Red Cloud and his people and a bunch of politicians who firmly believe in Manifest Destiny—the notion that white people and their way of life were ordained by God to take all the Red Man’s land, and that the Indian was doomed to extinction. He knew that Red Cloud had been deceived. He knew that the Fort Laramie treaty that Red Cloud had signed had not been fully read or explained to Red Cloud.

Parker met with the President that night and came up with a partial solution for the Dakota. Although the treaty stated that the hunting grounds were outside the reservation, and the reservation was where they had to reside, Parker and Grant conceded that Red Cloud and his people could live and hunt on their beloved Powder River country. This gave the Dakota a much greater land area where they could continue their traditional lifestyle. Red Cloud had won again, but this time instead of Crazy Horse or another Dakota warrior at his side; it was an Iroquois warrior, Donehogawa.

While in New York, Red Cloud spoke to a large audience at the Cooper Institute and got a rousing ovation. For the first time he had an opportunity to talk to the people instead of government officials. Red Cloud said: “We want to keep peace. Will you help us? In 1868 men came out and brought papers. We could not read them, and they did not tell us truly what was in them. We thought the treaty was to remove the forts, and that we should cease from fighting. But they wanted to send us traders on the Missouri. We did not want to go to the Missouri, but wanted traders where we were. When I reached Washington the Great Father explained to me what the treaty was, and showed me that the interpreters had deceived me. All I want is right and just. I have tried to get from the Great Father what is right and just. I have not altogether succeeded.”

When Red Cloud returned home with a partial victory he found that things had not changed in the west. The same developers, ranchers, and land seekers were vigorously opposing the Dakota occupation on these rich and desirable lands that had been promised to him by well intentioned people such as Donehogawa.

Courtesy Wikipedia/Harvard Art Museum

General Ulysses S. Grant and Staff: Ely Samuel Parker left sitting), Adam Badeau, General Grant at table), Orville Elias Babcock, Horace Porter.

Things for Parker took a turn for the worse after Red Cloud’s departure. Mining interests turned on him for his opposition to a mining venture known as the Bighorn Mining Expedition. In the Cheyenne (Wyoming) Daily Leader, March 3, 1870 the Big Horn Mining Association which was formed in Cheyenne was behind this “manifest destiny” verbiage: “The rich and beautiful valleys of Wyoming are destined for the occupancy and sustenance of the Anglo-Saxon race. The wealth that for untold ages has lain hidden beneath the snow-capped summits of our mountains has been placed there by Providence to reward the brave spirits whose lot it is to compose the advance guard of civilization. The Indians must stand aside or be overwhelmed by the ever advancing and ever increasing tide of immigration. The destiny of the aborigines is written in characters not to be mistaken. The same inscrutable Arbiter that decreed the downfall of Rome has pronounced the doom of extinction upon the red men of America.”

So, as today, with the projected pipelines of big oil and other corporate mining ventures, corporate America and their greed for profits from our treasured lands demonstrates that they are not done with taking what’s left to Indian land and culture.

Donehogawa’s enemies tried to embarrass him by delaying annuity and food payments to Indians. When the danger of starvation loomed, Donehogawa purchased the food supplies with credit in order to prevent starvation among the Dakota. But his political enemies among the so-called “Indian Ring,” those who had for decades used the Office of Indian Affairs as a cash cow to line their pockets, and the mining interests in the west, were becoming too much for Donehogawa. Plus, an unexpected and supposed ally joined in the attack.

William Welsh was the first President of the Board of Indian Commissioners, an Episcopalian close to Bishop Whipple, and a wealthy Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist. Welsh wrote in several Washington newspapers charging Donehogawa with “fraud and improvidence in the conduct of Indian affairs” and blamed President Grant for putting into office a man “who is but a remove from barbarism.” When Welsh found that Donehogawa was tolerant of traditional Indian religion, Welsh took a powerful dislike of the “heathen” Indian Commissioner. Welsh, like so many other well-meaning and so-called friends of the Indian, believed that the only way to save the Indian was to Christianize him and any toleration of their culture and religion was absolutely out of the question. Like Whipple, he believed the solution to the plight of the Indian was civilize him with farming, being Christianized, and allotment on reservations.


Welsh’s charges were seized upon by Donehogawa’s enemies and an investigation into the thirteen charges against him was conducted. He was exonerated on all, but the whole affair was agonizing to him, especially the charge by Welsh that he, as an Indian, was “but a remove from barbarism” and not fit to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

On July 18, 1871, Donehogawa tendered his resignation to his good friend, President Grant, stating that “the effect of Congressional legislation, had since I have had the honor to be Commissioner of Indian Affairs, has been to almost wholly divest the Indian Bureau of all its original importance, duties, and proper responsibilities. Under present arraignments the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is nearly a supernumerary officer of the government, his principle duties being simply that of a clerk to a Board of Indian Commissioners, operating wholly outside of and almost independently of the Indian Bureau…”

The seemingly too good to be true course for Indians, was just that. “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told,” said Yellow Wolf of the Nez Perce.

To read more about Parker, check out the sources the author used:

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown

“To Appomattox” by Burke Davis

Letters from the Minnesota Historical Society Files of Rev. H. B. Whipple

This story was originally published November 5, 2016.