The Ordway Indictment

Apr 18, 2018


Dakota Territory had a messy few years under Governor Nehemiah Ordway. He was a New Hampshire state legislator who President Hayes appointed as the territorial governor in 1880, after William A. Howard died in office.

Ordway’s four-year term is remembered for corruption and controversy. Friends and family benefited from Ordway in the governor’s seat. He appointed his son to territorial auditor; county seats went to places where Ordway had friends or dealings; and he reportedly bribed legislators or threatened to veto their bills.

Everything boiled over in 1883 when a commission voted to move the territorial capital from Yankton to Bismarck. Corruption allegations flew, involving Ordway, political boss Alexander McKenzie, and even justices of the territorial Supreme Court, who reversed a lower ruling that the relocation commissioners were illegally appointed.

Further corruption allegations would lead to Ordway’s indictment in the spring of 1884. The issue involved a new county in southern Dakota. A grand jury was convened in Yankton to consider Ordway’s involvement in manipulating the new county seats.  Ordway wanted to be heard on the matter, but on this date in 1884, the U.S. Attorney at Yankton wrote Ordway a telegram stating that the governor could not be summoned as a witness “because it is contrary to law.”

The grand jury indicted Ordway for corrupt and criminal practice. But Ordway filed a complaint against the prosecutor, alleging “many acts of wrongdoing in his official capacity.” The Department of Justice investigated, but found no such wrongdoing.

Trial proceedings began in June of 1884 in Yankton. Ordway had a team of attorneys that included a former Minnesota governor who said the federal grand jury had no jurisdiction over the territorial governor, and only the president had the authority to remove him. Meanwhile, the prosecutor argued that Ordway should “pay the penalty of his offense” like any other person. The judge threw out the indictment on the jurisdiction issue.

President Arthur replaced Ordway when his term ended. Ordway had interests in Bismarck and lived there for some years until he went back east. A territorial congressman called Ordway “one of the most corrupt and unprincipled men that has ever disgraced and degraded the public service of this country.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Garry, P.M. (2014). The South Dakota state constitution. Oxford University Press.
Kingsbury, G.W. (1915). History of Dakota Territory, Volume II. S.J. Clarke Publishing Company: Chicago, IL
Lauck, J.K. (2012). Prairie republic: The political culture of Dakota territory, 1879-1889. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK