Ordway: An unprincipled man who disgraced public service

Ordway: An unprincipled man who disgraced public service
By the time I emerged from the bedroom for breakfast, Phyllis had watched the CNN news on television, and she was MAD!

I told her that she should have been around in Dakota Territory in Gov. Nehemiah G. Ordway's time. Then she would have had something to be incensed about.

Apparently he was a petty politician who had served for a dozen years as sergeant-at-arms for the U.S. Congress before his appointment by President Rutherford B. Hayes. He was called "a moral monstrosity" by one newspaper editor; and he was involved in numerous shenanigans designed to make him lots of money.


However, he wasn't always that way.

When he first came to Dakota in 1880, replacing William A. Howard who had died suddenly on a trip to Washington, D.C., he made friends of the locals by touring the entire Territory which was lauded as a genuine show of interest and concern for the welfare of all the settlers.

He made further points when he had a railroad baggage car filled with the products of Dakota fields and orchards which he personally accompanied on a tour of the East. This traveling agricultural exhibit was also praised as a shrewd bit of salesmanship on behalf of the struggling region.

But on his return, he began to undo all of those positive attributes.

First, he became involved in nepotism by having his son appointed territorial auditor. Then the two of them conspired to organize counties (26 in 1883) and name county seats where they had financial interests. The governor was indicted by a grand jury for these shady practices.

That wasn't all he did, though. He had the territorial capital moved from Yankton; and it was said that he had greased the wheels to have the new village of Ordway in Brown County take its place. It was rumored that the unprincipled man controlled the land on which the capitol would be built. (At the same time, he and his son held property in Pierre, just in case that town would be chosen.)

Instead, Bismarck was selected � but Ordway was prepared for that, too. He served as governor there until he was replaced by Gilbert A. Pierce in 1884. he then became a lobbyist for the Northern Pacific Railroad. He was also a cofounder of the Capital National Bank with a group of his cronies known as "a partnership of villains."

He was vilified throughout southern Dakota, and that may have been one of the reasons � however slight � why there are two states instead of one.

In his territorial history, George Kingsbury, a contemporary, called Ordway "pernicious." And Richard F. Pettigrew, Dakota's Delegate to Congress, wrote that he was "one of the most corrupt and unprincipled men that has ever disgraced and degraded the public service of this country."

That would have made Phyllis angry if she'd been there. Needless to say, he made today's politicians small potatoes by comparison. As far as graft goes, I mean.

One of the things which my research showed was that Ordway even established his own newspaper � the Dakota Outlook � to promote his nefarious schemes. The editor was L.G. Johnson, the governor's secretary, who showed up as a smooth-talking boomer in the village of Ordway. It was just one more tie-in with the chief executive of the Territory.

I don't blame Phyllis for getting her dander up these days, but she should have experienced the Ordway administration. Then she could have been mad at him with the other southern Dakota pioneers.

� 2006 Robert F. Karolevitz

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