Saturday, September 26, 2015

Geese and Sassafrass

Earlier this month I tuned in on the re-runs of Ken Burns’ Civil War  just at the battle of Appomattox.  And sure enough, there he was, Ely Parker, the Seneca Indian who wrote out the terms of surrender for General Grant.  It took me back to the first time we ever heard about Ely Parker.
 In April 1965 I was out with a station-wagon full of kids, driving through the marshes west of here, looking at migrating Canada geese.  In those days geese all went South for the winter, and on the right day in spring, it was exciting to find huge returning flocks in the fields and ponds.  We’d start early, have a tailgate breakfast and follow the same country roads every year.
It looked like this one.
Then just for a different route home, I swung south on a road that led through the Tonawanda Indian Reservation.  And how could we not stop, at a weathered one-room log cabin, with a sign on the wooden porch.   I don’t remember what it said  – maybe that it was a trading post – at any rate, in we trooped.  I remember buying a cornhusk doll – “Don’t paint a face on it; it’s supposed to be blank” – and a fragrant clump of sassafras.  Dov says he still has a corn-husk mask, out there in Vancouver, and some sassafras with no frangrance left. 
The most fascinating part was the cabin itself, and the man who was there.  He had just returned, he told us, from Appomattox, where he played the role of his ancestor, Ely Parker, in a centennial re-enactment of The Surrender.  And he took us up the ladder to the cabin’s dusky loft, to show us an old trunk with "COL ELY PARKER" painted on it. 
Googling for a picture of the Colonel, I came across this:

The terms of the surrender were recorded in a document hand written by Grant's adjutant Ely S. Parker, a Native American of the Seneca tribe, and completed around 4 p.m., April 9.[18] Lee, upon discovering Parker to be a Seneca remarked "It is good to have one real American here." Parker replied, "Sir, we are all Americans."
Ely Parker fifth from right?


  1. This post rings several bells for me. Finding wild sassafras in the woods (or at least the vanishing fragments of the woods I could get to, as suburban sprawl consumed them) was a highlight of my Tennessee youth.

    And of course I'll always gladly tell the story that the Union charge from Orchard Knob up Missionary Ridge in Nov. 1863 went right across the property where my family lived from 1955 (just before my birth) to 1967. Spending some time as an adult with maps of the last battle for Chattanooga, I figured out that the general leading the troops up our particular sector was one John Turchin, a native of Ukraine who was popularly if inaccurately known as "the Mad Russian." Hearing the various accents among the oncoming Union forces (Ukrainian, German, Irish, etc.), one Confederate officer at the top of the Ridge said to himself, "My God, we are fighting the world!"

  2. Beautiful memory, Edith. It should be possible to identify Col. Parker in the photo by comparing it to this photo from the National Park Service: I wonder if the cabin is still there.

  3. Wonderful story Edith! I don't know if I have ever heard it before. CMS