Skip to main content

A Nineteenth-Century Example of the Deep State

Michaeljon Murphy, Vice Chairman

By: Michaeljon Murphy
Vice Chairman
Constitution Party of Wisconsin



I enjoyed school in my younger years.  Reading and writing were my strong suits, but history bored me.  It wasn’t until my post-college days that I began to appreciate history and find it as entertaining as a good book of literature.  I found Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee a gripping and melancholy look at the era of the American Indians slowly losing their hold on their lands.  However, when reading the history of Indian relations, I caution one to be wary of one-sided accounts.  My own further study on the history has uncovered plenty of barbarism and misunderstanding on both sides of the long struggle.

The Rise and Fall of Ely Parker

Buried in Dee Brown’s nearly 500 pages is a chapter that details the rise and fall of Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian who served the U.S. Government under President Grant.  His story is oddly

Ely S. Parker

Ely S. Parker Photo: Unknown Crop and cleanup: Hal Jespersen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

contemporary in its parallels to the modern machinations of the “Deep State.”  Parker’s story is one of an ambitious young man making a way for himself while battling through the prejudices of his time.  Sadly, what laid him the lowest was nothing more than political corruption and greed.

Born on a Seneca reservation, he was given the name of Hasanoanda, and later baptized as Samuel Parker.  His father was a bi-vocational Baptist pastor.  Parker refined his English (in speech and writing) through a missionary school.  In order to help his people, he desired to practice law.  However, he was not allowed to take the New York bar exam since Native Americans were not recognized as U.S. citizens.  He changed directions and studied engineering at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute.  As an engineer he worked on the Erie Canal and other projects.  Dee Brown tells us that “He later made friends with a clerk in a harness store who was former Army captain Ulysses S. Grant.”  During the Civil War, Parker attempted to be of service to the War Department as an engineer, but was again rebuffed.  Brown remarks that he made good use of his association with Grant.

Parker Joins the Army

He let his friend . . . Grant know that he was having difficulty getting into the Union Army.  Grant needed engineers, and after battling Army red tape for months, he finally managed to have orders sent to his Indian friend, who joined him at Vicksburg.  They campaigned together from Vicksburg to Richmond.  When Lee surrendered at Appomattox [Courthouse], Lieutenant Colonel Ely Parker was there, and because of his excellent penmanship, Grant asked him to write out the terms of surrender.

Mr. Parker Goes to Washington

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant – Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Grant became president in 1869, he tapped his old war secretary to head up the Bureau of Indian Affairs, hopeful that Parker would be a valuable asset in Indian and American relations.  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee explains that Parker found a mess when he assumed his post.

Parker entered upon his new duties with enthusiasm, but found the Indian Office even more corrupt than he had expected.  A clean sweep of the long-entrenched bureaucrats appeared necessary, and with Grant’s support he established a system of appointing agents recommended by various religious bodies of the nation.  Because so many Quakers volunteered to serve as Indian agents, the new plan became known as Grant’s “Quaker policy,” or “peace policy,” for the Indians.

His efforts to “drain the swamp” were met with strident opposition, however.

His reforms had created enemies among political bosses (the so-called Indian Ring) who had long been using the Indian Bureau as a lucrative branch of the spoils system.  His thwarting of the Big Horn mining expedition, a group of white frontiersmen who wanted to open the Sioux treaty lands, created enemies in the West.

The Swamp Fights Back

Some of his enemies in Congress began causing trouble for the bureau chief, blocking funds needed for Indian relief.  Soon Parker started receiving alarming telegrams that the Indians were in sore need and becoming anxious on their reservations.  There were fears that violence would break out.  Parker took decisive action by purchasing supplies on credit and had them shipped to the Indians by spending a little extra, going outside the government contracts.  By trying to cut through the red tape of government, his foes were able to leverage his “disregard” for official government regulations.

The “Deep State” was aided in their attack by a former member of the bureau, “William Welsh, a merchant and part-time missionary to the Indians.”  Welsh had resigned from the bureau in 1870 when he realized that Parker did not share his zeal for converting the Indians.  Welsh betrayed his former associate by writing “a letter for publication in several Washington newspapers.  Welsh charged the commissioner 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,’” words that stung Parker.

Within a week the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations adopted a resolution to inquire into the charges against the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and summoned him to a grilling that continued for days.  Welsh submitted a list of thirteen charges of misconduct, which [Parker] had to prove were unfounded.  At the end of the inquiry, however, the commissioner was exonerated of all charges and was complimented for convincing the Indian tribes “that the government is in earnest, and that it may be trusted,” and thus saving the Treasury millions of dollars by avoiding another war on the Plains.

Though cleared of wrongdoing, his position lost much of its power.  Parker felt he could no longer make a significant difference for the Indian population.

Late in the summer of 1871 he turned in his resignation.  Privately he told his friends that he was leaving because he had become “a rock of offense.” Publicly he said he wanted to go into business to better provide for his family.  As he had foreseen, the press attacked him, intimating that he must have been a member of the “Indian Ring” himself, a Judas to his own people.

The Moral of the Story

The story is not far from the headlines of our day.  An eager newcomer to government tries to purge the bureaucracy of corruption and meets fierce opposition.  Confronted with exaggerated allegations, congressional hearings are held, and the press joins the dog pile.  We are mistaken if we believe that the entrenched “Deep State” is a new thing.  Political intrigue and using the power of government to destroy a real or perceived “goody-two-shoes” are not new, because they stem from the darkened heart of man.  The Bible tells us that the sinful nature has been a problem ever since the fall of man.

Light shines into darkness

Jack Delano, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

. . . although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:21

“For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”  John 3:20

The founding fathers understood the fallen nature of man and built in checks and balances to help protect our fragile republic from those who would want to tear it down.  Any governmental reform that does not recognize the sinful nature of man will be a “chasing after the wind.”


All quotes from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; an Indian history of the American West, by Dee Brown, New York : Holt, Rinehart & Winston (1971)

Listen to this blog post as an audio file below.