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An American Story

By February 21, 2014 2 Comments

On Saturday, January 2, 1847, a young Senecan named Ha-sa-no-an-da, or Ely Parker, then just 18 years old, visited the U.S. Capitol on a trip to Washington D. C., to see President Polk, who’d he’d actually met earlier in the company of a couple of highly revered Seneca sachems. He’d gone to plead with Polk to let his people to stay on their New York reservation, to keep what land they still had and not be sent out to the frontier far, far from home. 

Ha-sa-no-an-da had his reasons; they included the normal treaty violations forever a part of any transactions with white people.  A sizable number of New York Native folks had gone out west to visit the Indian territories, 150 in all. What they found was not only disappointing, it was deadly. Eighty of them had died. Meanwhile, powerful Washington voices made it clear that there was more than passing interest in taking the land the Senecas still owned, and that it might well be in the Indians’ own best interest to seek their fortunes out west.

Ely Parker would have none of that. Even though he was only 18 years old, he returned to Washington to plead with senators, representatives, and the President himself, asking only that his Seneca brothers and sisters be allowed to stay in the country where they’d always lived, where there fathers were buried.

On Saturday, no government offices were open, so Ely Parker, by himself, visited the U.S. Capitol, where he found, ironically, a series of pictures of Native Americans, of all things.

Here those pictures are, reassembled, along with Ely Parker’s diary entries from that Saturday visit in January, 1847.  In the Capitol Rotunda, he found this picture of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.

He described this drawing this way:  “They [the pilgrims] are represented as in a starving condition, and being about to land, an Indian has come forward offering them provision of his bounty. Who now of the descendants of those illustrious pilgrims will give one morsel to the dying and starving Indian?. . . May the Great Spirit reward & keep the red man.”

Then, there was this scene featuring William Penn, the illustrious Quaker who made treaties with the Native people of his beloved Pennsylvania.

“What virtue is there now in Indian treaties?” he asked himself. “Methinks Indians are right when they say that letters lie more than the head.”

“Turning round a little more,” he wrote, “we observe another representation, that of the young and beautiful Pocahontas saving Captain Smith at the risk of saving her own life.  Who now among the descendants of those whom she saved will risk his or her life for an Indian?” And then, more universally, he wrote, “How ungrateful is man to his fellow man.”


The next and last portrait young Ely Parker noted was Daniel Boone, “the hero of Kentucky in a mortal contest with an Indian.”  Boone, he noted, had already killed an Indian and “has trampled upon his mangled body. Such is the fate of the poor red man. His contest with the whites is hopeless yet he is not permitted to live even in peace, nor are his last moments given him by his insulting foe to make his peace with his God.” 

And then this:  “Humbly we ask whether justice will always sleep and will not the oppressed go free?”

That was Saturday. On Sunday, Parker, a Christian, determined that what he didn’t find at the Capitol he would find at worship–peace and acceptance.  But the usher, the sexton, refused to seat him in the sanctuary and sent him upstairs. Parker said nothing.  He turned away, walked out the door, and left.

You may have noticed, at the top of the page, Thomas Nast’s “Peace in Union,” Grant and Lee at Appomattox.  What you may not have noticed is the man with dark face, a Senacan, behind Grant, Gen. Ely Parker. 

 Ha-sa-no-wan-da’s story is, in every way, as much an American story as any of those he saw depicted and glorified in the U. S. Capitol one cold January day in 1847.  

Probably more so.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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