Early Dakota marked by negative politics

Early Dakota marked by negative politics by Bob Karolevitz It�s a good thing that they didn�t have television when Nehemiah G. Ordway was territorial governor from 1880 to 1884.

Coverage of his scandalous administration would have made the questionable advertising of the recent election campaigns namby-pamby by comparison.

Ordway was a former banker in his native New Hampshire who had served a dozen years as sargent-at-arms of the U.S. Congress when he was appointed chief executive of Dakota by Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes.

�Jumbo� as he was often described by the press of the time started out popular enough, but soon he got crosswise with many of his constituents when his greed and grasping for power tarnished his career.

For instance, he called the territorial legislature �a crude affair,� and then began a nefarious campaign to remove the capital from Yankton to Bismarck. Immediately the lawmakers were divided into removalists and anti-removalists.

He vetoed bills introduced by the latter and quickly signed those fostered by cooperating legislators. Rumors of payoffs and bribes abounded. He organized 26 new counties in 1883, and with his son, George, and other acquaintances he tampered with the location of county seats where he had financial interests.

But it was the removal question which engendered the most hateful Ordway opposition. In the process he split the territorial newspaper publishers into pro-Bismarck and anti-Yankton camps.

One of the southern editors called him a �moral monstrosity� and urged his removal. The Parker New Era editorialized: �Among all our numerous Dakota exchanges we fail to find one newspaper that upholds N.G. Ordway and [his] corrupt syndicate…� To counter these journalistic attacks, he established his own paper the Dakota Outlook with his secretary in charge to say nice things about him.

The governor envisioned a new territorial capital other than Bismarck; and in anticipation of that, he became involved in the new town of Ordway in Brown County which he hoped would be selected for the honor as he controlled the land there. However, just in case Pierre was chosen, he and his son whom he succeeded in getting named territorial auditor � held property there.

Both his dreams of Ordway as the capital and site of a Methodist college were never fulfilled, but the removal of the territorial government to Bismarck was.

George W. Kingsbury, the historian and former newspaperman, wrote of him as �a meddlesome man� who �did little for Dakota except stir up strife.� And Richard F. Pettigrew, then the delegate to congress, labeled him �one of the most corrupt and unprincipled men that has ever disgraced and degraded the public service of this country.�

A resolution passed by a protest meeting in Sioux Falls cited the �venality and prostitution of the powers of his position.�

Eventually Ordway was indicted by a grand jury for what was called his criminal practices affecting county seats, especially LaFoon in Faulk County. However, he was absolved when his defense attorneys argued successfully that, as governor, he could not be tried in a territorial court.

When he was finally succeeded by Gilbert A. Pierce in 1884, he was well received by the �partnership of villains� in Bismarck where he was one of the founders of the Capital National Bank and became a lobbyist for the Northern Pacific Railroad which just happened to go through the northern city.

There is no evidence that he was ever sorry for his shenanigans. He apparently went on with his life as if nothing had happened.

Yes, he was fortunate that television did not exist during his lifetime. He�d have been a good subject for extended coverage!

� 2002 Robert F. Karolevitz

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