The wedding was a shock before it even began. In 1867, the nation’s capital learned that Minnie Sackett, the daughter of a prominent Civil War colonel, was engaged. Sackett was considered to be “one of the most beautiful women in the District,” according to the New York Tribune, with her high-neck lace collars and brunette ringlets piled atop her head.
Her soon-to-be husband, 39-year-old Ely S. Parker, had served in the Union Army as the private secretary to then-Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. It was Parker who drafted the terms of surrender that ended the war in 1865. So close was their friendship that Grant himself planned to escort the bride, whose father had died, down the aisle at Washington’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany.
Why was their betrothal controversial? “It may not be generally known that Col. Parker is a full-blooded Indian,” the Tribune reported. “A near relative to the famous Red Jacket and of the present Chief of the six nations Cherokees.”
One hundred years before the Supreme Court would make interracial marriage legal throughout the country, a white woman was marrying an Indian man.
In other places south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the news might have sparked riots. In Washington, it was high-society gossip.
Parker was already a well-known figure in the capital because of his role in the war and connection to Grant. He was a Seneca Indian on the Tonawanda Reservation in western New York, where he was called Hasanoanda, or “Leading Name.” Hasanoanda grew up to become “an American Indian who chose to live his life in the white man’s world,” biographer William Armstrong wrote. Hasanoanda preferred to go by Ely Parker. He trained in engineering and the law — though the New York Bar wouldn’t admit him — and always dressed in “a fine frock coat."
This earned Parker a level of respect that was not granted to other Native Americans at the time. Newspapers referred to him as the “honorable” or “gallant” Col. Parker. But a few paragraphs later, they would call him “the red man.”
“Parker may have looked like an Indian, but to the viewing public, he certainly did not act like what they expected from one,” historian Joseph Genetin-Pilawa once wrote in the Journal of Women’s History. “While the reporters would continue to romanticize his Indian identity, the tone of their rhetoric was such that it was clear he posed no real threat to the racial hierarchy."
It is unclear where Parker met Minnie Sackett, who was two decades younger. The New York Tribune reported that the couple had been dating for months and “would have been married long ago had it not been for the objections of Miss Sackett’s friends.” The nature of those objections was obvious to any reader.
Washington was not content only to gossip about the wedding. Its residents came to see it for themselves. On Dec. 17, the Church of the Epiphany was crammed with onlookers. Sackett donned her wedding gown, and Grant arrived.
But the groom never showed.
“The great topic of conversation in Washington tonight,” reported the New York Tribune, “to the exclusion of everything else in politics, finance, reconstruction or impeachment, is the disappointment of a fashionable young lady who was to have been wedded this morning in the presence of the crème de la crème of Washington society.”
“The scene which ensued when it became known that Col. Parker could not be found, can be faintly imagined, but the pen fails to describe it fitly,” the New York Times proclaimed. “Messengers were dispatched to the usual resorts of the missing one, and when the report came that all search was in vain, the audience quietly dispersed with many heartfelt prayers for the lady so cruelly deserted. All search to-day has proved fruitless, but up to a late hour to-night no tidings of Col. Parker have been received.”
Rumors abounded: Parker had been found beneath the ice on the Potomac, or maybe he had fled back to New York to marry someone else. A fellow Union army officer suggested that Parker had just gotten too drunk to show up. The Washington Evening Star reported that he had simply caught a bad cold. “He is very much indisposed, and on Sunday was unable to leave his bed,” the paper said.
But other reports revealed a more sinister story. The night before the wedding, Parker went for a walk. “In the course of it, he met an Indian,” the New York Tribune claimed, “The Indian took him to a room, gave him a glass of wine, and sat down to converse upon the important business which he wished to see him about. In a short time Col. Parker began to feel drowsy, and concluded he would lie down on the bed a moment. He did so, and fell into a deep sleep."
The story offered an explanation of why another Indian had come to drug the groom: “Col. Parker’s friends think the Six Nations are opposed to his marrying a white lady, and that they sent an envoy to take care that the wedding should not take place.”
Genetin-Pilawa studied the news coverage of the wedding that wasn’t. He concluded that the newspaper reporter may have been projecting his own “notions of racial difference."
“He could have applied the potential anxieties of the Washington elite onto the Seneca leaders to fabricate this story,” Genetin-Pilawa wrote in 2008.
A few days later, Parker reappeared. The true reason for Parker’s disappearance has never been confirmed. But the explanation he provided must have been satisfactory for his fiancee. To many people’s surprise, the couple rescheduled the wedding. The Evening Star reported that the ceremony was set to take place on the morning of Christmas Eve.
The church, which remains open in Washington, was once again overflowing. “The scene was ludicrous in the extreme,” the New York Herald reported. “Outside thee Epiphany church, on G street, a very promiscuous and very silly looking assemblage was gathered.”
Men and women arrived so early to jostle for front-row seats that, when they sat down, the wedding decorations were still being hung, or so they thought. The crowd was soon informed that the decorations were in fact for Christmas Mass. The Parker-Sackett nuptials had already happened — in a quiet, private ceremony the night before.