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Historical Context: Ely Parker and the Genesee Valley Canal

Laurence Hauptman, SUNY New Paltz

In 1848, Lewis Morgan wrote a letter to Ely Samuel Parker, a young Seneca Indian. Morgan, who is often referred to as the “Father of American Anthropology," had recommended the 20-year-old Parker for a job as assistant engineer on the Genesee Valley Canal. The letter is one of the few existing documents describing assistant engineers and their pay scale. 

Ely Parker had planned to pursue a law career, but he found discrimination against Indians a roadblock in his path. The state bar denied him the right to be licensed as an attorney. Seizing the opportunity Morgan had provided in his letter, Parker joined the Genesee Valley Canal project at Nunda, New York. There he quickly learned the fundamentals of engineering from the other men. Two years later, Morgan helped Parker again by recommending him for another engineering job in the Rochester office of the resident engineer of the entire New York State canal system. Parker got the job and began work in the spring of 1850. 

The Genesee Valley Canal, one of the lateral, or branch, canals promoted by the New York State Board of Canal Commissioners, was in use for only 20 years, from 1858 to 1878. It was built because Rochester, “the water-power city," had emerged as a major boomtown. Nearly nonexistent in 1841, Rochester grew to more than 36,000 people by 1850. Monroe County, which was not organized as a separate entity before the War of 1812, had more than 60,000 residents by 1840. Most of this growth came about because of the Erie Canal. City leaders pushed for the expansion of the canal network southward, hoping to create a Genesee Valley canal to connect Rochester with the Allegheny River and beyond. This would open up the rich agricultural lands that lay south of the city and secure trade as far as Pittsburgh and the Ohio River. 

A sense of urgency gripped Rochester merchants. They feared that the recently opened canal-rail connection between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would threaten their ambitious plans to corner north-south commercial routes to the Ohio River. Greed and “pork-barrel” politics supplanted reality. The canal route chosen in 1836 passed through hilly terrain and had a scant water supply for canal purposes in the highlands near Mount Morris. The construction costs of the venture were ultimately almost $6 million, making it the second most expensive canal project in the history of New York State. It was never profitable. 

Construction of the southern section of the Genesee Valley Canal began in 1839. Because of the Depression of 1837 and the resulting New York State budget crisis, canal construction came to a halt in 1842. Construction resumed in 1846. As a result of the difficult, hilly terrain and the project's excessive cost, completion of the canal was delayed until 1858. (Work on an 11-mile extension spur near Dansville was not completed until 1861.) In the late 1850s through the 1860s, canal engineers raised the height of the spillway near Cuba, New York, creating one of the largest artificial lakes in the state, known today as Cuba Lake. 

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) was born near Aurora, New York. He graduated from Union College in 1840. After studying law, he was admitted to the bar. In April 1844, while browsing in a bookstore in Albany, Morgan met Ely S. Parker, a 16-year-old Seneca schoolboy who was then serving in the state capital as an interpreter for the chiefs of the Tonawanda Seneca tribe. Morgan, who already had a genuine interest in Native Americans, began to question the young man about the basic structure of the Iroquois Confederacy. Soon after, Parker introduced Morgan to his grandfather, Jemmy Johnson. Johnson was the leader of the delegation and also a great disciple of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. As a result of this chance meeting, the Parker-Johnson family invited Morgan to visit them on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation. There, he later witnessed a condolence council, or raising up of chiefs. Morgan continued to visit and collect scientific data. Johnson adopted Morgan into the Hawk clan in 1847. Four years later, Morgan published the book League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, inscribed and credited to Parker. This book is considered the first major scientific work about a Native American community ever published. 

Ely Samuel Parker (1828–1895) was one of the most important Native Americans of the 19th century. Born into a leading Seneca family on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation in 1828, he rose to be one of the 50 sachems of the Iroquois Confederacy. He received the name "Do-ho-ga-wa," literally "Open Door," which refers to his role as keeper of the western door of the Six Nations. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, he worked to reacquire Tonawanda lands that had been taken by the Ogden Land Company in fraudulent treaties in 1826 and 1838. Commissioned as an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, he rose to the rank of brigadier general at war's end. As General Ulysses S. Grant's military secretary, he drew up and transcribed the terms of surrender that Grant offered General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. Parker attended the solemn event in April 1865. When Grant became president of the United States in 1869, he appointed Parker to serve as commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that post. But Parker's career as an engineer, which later took him to canal work in Virginia and North Carolina, began with the Genesee Valley Canal.