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From the Serial Set: Ely S. Parker and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation

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We’ve explored many types of documents in the Serial Set in our monthly series. Today, in honor of National Native American Heritage month, we will identify a Native American whose name appears throughout the Serial Set, and explore the legacy of his nation through the Law Library’s Indigenous Law Resources.

Ely S. Parker was born Hasanoanda, also known as Donehogawa. As a Tonawanda Seneca Native, he became the first Native American Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. During treaty negotiations between the United States and Native American nations, Parker was responsible for interpreting on behalf of Native American leaders and certifying the signatures of Native leaders on official documents.

Photo of last page of S. Doc. 273, showing Ely S. Parker as the Interpreter for the Native American Chiefs and Warriors who submitted the petition.
S. Doc. 273, 29th Cong., 1st Sess., at 6 (1846) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 474. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

In 1846, Parker certified the petition of his tribe, the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, which had demonstrated against land cession treaties – the Buffalo Creek Treaties of 1838 and 1842. The petition states the nation’s resistance to giving up the “peaceful possession of [their] lands” as “guarantied [sic] to us by the United States Government.” (S. Doc. 273, 29th Cong., 1st Sess., at 2 (1846) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 474.)

Photo of the first page of S. Doc. 273, Message from the President of the United States, introducing the petition of the Tanawanda band of Seneca Indians.
S. Doc. 273, 29th Cong., 1st Sess., at 1 (1846) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 474. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

“If we leave Tonawanda we have no homes to go to…[t]he Cattaraugus reservation is small, and much of the land is hilly, and not capable of sustaining any families; [sic] and we believe that those already there can scarcely live.” The Tonawanda Seneca further justified their right to their lands and protested a fate of “famine and death” that forced relocation would bring, stating, “We cling to the land of our birth. We are linked together by the ties of brotherhood and consanguinity; [sic] and we must share a common destiny.” (S. Doc. 273, 29th Cong., 1st Sess., at 3 (1846) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 474.)

The Serial Set document tracking the schedule of treaties (H. Doc. 736 pt. 2, 56th Cong., 1st Sess., at 645 (1900) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4015) is a part of the 18th annual report of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Bureau of American Ethnology. The Bureau reports on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Buffalo Creek Treaties as follows:

“After the conclusion of the [2nd Buffalo Creek Treaty in] 1838, it was found that many of the Seneka [sic] were firm in their determination not to give up the reservations sold to Ogden and Fellows by that treaty. Accordingly a compromise was arranged which resulted in this treaty of 1842 whereby Ogden and Fellows agreed to permit the Seneka to retain the occupancy of the Carraraugas and Alleghany reserves, and the Seneka on their part agreed to give Ogden and Fellows immediate possession of the Buffalo Creek and Tonawanda reserves. This agreement was complied with so far as the Buffalo Creek reservation was concerned, but it became necessary in 1857 to negotiate another [Buffalo Creek treaty with the Tonawanda Seneka to adjust differences concerning the occupancy of that reserve.” (H. Doc. 736 pt. 2, 56th Cong., 1st Sess., at 777 (1900) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4015.)

Using the Law Library’s Indigenous Resources portal, I located a map of New York that shows Native American land claimed by the United States. The Tonawanda Band’s land is the western part of what is now New York. Maps for further learning can be found here.

Color scan of map of the state of New York, indicating physical features, cities, and Native American land claims by the United States as of 1899. Red-violet box drawn around the area of the Seneca nation, in which the Tonawanda Seneca Band resided.
Royce, Charles C, and Cyrus Thomas. Indian land cessions in the United States. 1899. Image. Box for emphasis drawn on by Bailey DeSimone.

Ely S. Parker’s 1862 memorial to Congress, requesting a grant of United States citizenship, is also found in the Serial Set. However, the Committee of the Judiciary recommended that the request be rejected. The grounds for rejection stated that “[a] law providing for the naturalization of a single Indian of a particular tribe could not be deemed to prescribe a uniform rule of naturalization.” (H. Rpt. 84, 37th Cong., 2nd Sess., at 3 (1862) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1144.)

Photo of first page of S. Doc. 273, showing the Committee on the Judiciary's decision regarding the memorial of Ely S. Parker.
S. Doc. 273, 29th Cong., 1st Sess., at 6 (1846) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 474. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

This National Native American Heritage month, the Digital Resources Division is honored to recognize the Native American individuals and nations of America. We encourage you to browse the Indigenous Law Resources to learn more about their legal history as documented by Congress.


  1. Thank you for the interesting post. I love to see the map matched with Serial Set page. Great research!

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