Caroline Parker’s Friendship with Lewis Henry Morgan

Morgan’s initial response to meeting Caroline Parker in 1845 during a visit to the Tonawanda Reservation suggests an attraction that would develop into a lifelong friendship.  He described her as “the prettiest Indian maiden in the council” and somewhat shy.  But he found her “modesty and diffidence . . . really quite engaging.”  Morgan also observed that Caroline Parker had been converted and was attending school at Brockport Collegiate Institute, circumstances that “did not little increase the interest her beauty was calculated to awake.”

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As he had done earlier for her brother Ely, Morgan arranged for Caroline to attend Cayuga Academy.  He also helped to arrange and finance the education of Caroline Parker, her friend Sarah Spring, and her brothers Nicholson and Isaac Newton at the State Normal School in Albany.  Caroline Parker earned a teaching certificate in 1850.

In 1851, Morgan drafted a will which indicates that Caroline Parker was one of the three most important women in his life, the other two being his mother and Mary Elizabeth Steele, whose hand in marriage Morgan sought.  In the will, Morgan bequeaths to Mary Steele daguerreotypes of his mother and of Caroline Parker, along with a pair of moccasins that Caroline Parker had made and presented to Morgan.  The significance of the bequest remains obscure, although it is possible that Mary Steele had met and befriended Caroline Parker in Albany, Steele’s hometown.

Morgan renewed his relationship with Parker in 1858 and revisited the Tonawanda Reservation after what seems to be a hiatus of several years.  In 1875, Morgan visited Parker, now Caroline Parker Mountpleasant, and her husband, Tuscarora chief John Mountpleasant, at their home on the Tuscarora Reservation.  Herman ten Kate, a Dutch anthropologist who visited the Mountpleasant home in December 1882, referred to Caroline Parker Mountpleasant as “an expert on the history, traditions and customs of her people.”  He noticed that her bookcase included “Morgan’s ethnological works.”

Caroline Parker’s youthful beauty left a lasting impression not only on Morgan but also on Isaac Hurd, a member of Morgan’s fraternity, the Grand Order of the Iroquois, who accompanied Morgan on the trip to Tonawanda in 1845.  Hurd wrote to Morgan in 1875, asking that Morgan convey his regards to Caroline Parker, whom Hurd thought “must be a very matronly looking woman now.”  It is fair to ask whether Caroline Parker represented to Morgan the ideal of Indian assimilation to an educated Christian white settler society that he imagines in concluding League of the Iroquois. Parker’s own view was perhaps less sanguine.  In an 1885 letter to Ten Kate, she wrote: “In vain does my spirit wander across mountains, lakes and rushing streams to find anyone who is familiar with the old oral traditions of the Iroquois, but all have departed. Their council fires have died out and turned to cold ash and will never blaze again.  Oh, worthy brother, forgive me for dwelling on a subject that always saddens me. It makes me sad to know that my people are vanishing, like the summer passes into the stormy winter.”

Authored by:Robert J. Foster

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