Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nehemiah G. Ordway: doubling Dakota

Image from history.nd.gov

The town of Yankton, South Dakota, is one of the southernmost communities in the state. Tucked away near the borders with Nebraska and Iowa, Yankton was also the capital of the Dakota Territory when it existed as one large entity. It was thanks in part to the actions of Nehemiah G. Ordway, a Governor of the territory, that the country has two Dakota states and Yankton has been left not as a state capital but only as the seat of a county bearing its name.

Under Ordway's administration, the territory was swollen with thousands of settlers. Between 1879 and 1884, the population more than doubled. The question wasn't if Dakota would be admitted into the Union, it was whether it would be admitted as a single state or two. The consensus seemed to be that Yankton was located too far south to adequately cater to the vast territory, especially with settlement occurring throughout. But it was also thought that the question of whether the capital should be moved would wait until it was decided how many states would be made out of Dakota.

So it was quite a surprise when Ordway, a single-state advocate, initiated the process for a capital move before the statehood question had been resolved. In 1883, he created a nine-member commission to study the feasibility of moving the government offices elsewhere. Even creating the commission was something of a task. There was enough opposition that Ordway only secured passage in the legislature by threatening to veto consideration of communities whose members did not support the study. Eventually, it came to pass that the requirements for the new capital were pretty basic: a parcel of land, $100,000, and a location more central to Dakota.

As in Idaho, the prospect of the capital leaving its original location was met with a great deal of hostility. In the Dakota case, however, the anger arose from the seemingly transparent graft involved in the effort. Three of the commission members were affiliated with the Northern Pacific Railroad, including Alexander McKenzie, a political agent of the railroad and sheriff of Bismarck. Ordway was further influenced by Henry Villard, the president of the railroad. As the removal process went forward, Bismarck was considered for the new capital, and it just so happened that the town was located right on the Northern Pacific line. Across the territory, newspapers and "indignation meetings" denounced the proceedings as corrupt, with one meeting in Sioux Falls vowing to ask the President or House of Representatives to get rid of Ordway. "Individually, we were in favor of removal of the capital," one newspaper said, "but wanted to see it done honestly and in the interest of the territory."

Twelve different towns made a bid for the capital, but the circumstances (and perhaps some bribery) had essentially determined that the capital would go to Bismarck. The town received the honor after offering $100,000 and 320 acres of land, a cash bid equal to the other towns but a land bid twice as large as most of them. At one point, a meeting had to take place in Yankton as part of the removal process, but citizens there managed to get a court order to prevent it. Ordway and the others involved in the process managed to subvert it by holding the meeting on a rail car passing through the town, achieving the necessary requirements while at the same time not quite violating the order. Ordway established the Capital National Bank in Bismarck and began overseeing the construction of a capitol building in Bismarck, as well as public buildings such as an insane asylum, universities, and schools. The territory's split was foreshadowed by the flat out refusal of some of the government offices to leave Yankton. The treasury and supreme court were among those that stayed, essentially dividing the duties of the territory between two different capitals.

Dakotans in the southern portion of the territory were so disgusted by the removal efforts that they created the Dakota Citizens League, and in September of 1883 they held a constitutional convention in Sioux Falls to create a document exclusively for a South Dakota. The constitution was approved, but only 40 percent of the territory's voters bothered to show up to do so. Congress was not impressed, and didn't approve it. Another attempt in 1885 was made, along with an unsuccessful effort to get the capital moved from Bismarck to the present day South Dakota capital of Pierre. The turnout was similarly light, but the House of Representatives passed the constitution. Afraid that two states would upset the congressional balance by inflating the Republican count, however, the Senate turned it down. Finally, in the 1888 elections, the Republican Party turned the Dakota statehood into a campaign issue. In February of 1889, Congress passed an enabling act and, after further revisions to the constitution, North and South Dakota were admitted into the Union in December. So in his questionable actions regarding the capital removal, Ordway had brought about a result he personally disfavored but his party supported.

As was the case in numerous western territories, the residents also took something of a dislike to Ordway because he'd been brought in from out of the area. Born in Warner, New Hampshire in November of 1828, he was elected sergeant of arms of the New Hampshire house of representatives in 1855. The next year, Ordway was returned to the position and earned another two appointments: assistant clerk to the house and high sheriff of Merrimac County, a position he held for five years. In 1857, he was named marshal and tax collector of Concord. He resigned the office in 1861 after he was appointed postal agent for the New England states. Ordway also pursued financial interests, establishing the Kearsage National and Savings Banks in his hometown.

He was commissioned as a colonel in 1862, and the next year he was elected sergeant of arms for the House of Representatives for the first time. He spent 12 years there, and served several terms in the New Hampshire legislature between 1875 and 1880. Finally, Ordway took part in a constitutional convention that established major changes to the state's tax system.

Ordway was appointed Governor of the Dakota Territory in 1880 by Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes. Recognizing that Dakota soil was well-suited for growing a diverse variety of crops, Ordway arranged for a rail car of the territory's agricultural products to tour the fairs and locales of the eastern states. He was also faced almost immediately with a crisis, as heavy snows during the winter of 1880 to 1881 led to a massive spring melt and devastating floods. Though he was out of the territory at the time, he sought to raise $100,000 to go toward the ongoing relief efforts. A hefty study entitled History of Dakota Territory was hardly charitable to Ordway, but conceded that he had done well in the appointment of W.H.H. Beadle as territorial superintendent of public instruction. In fact, the authors claimed they could find not one thing amiss with the administration of education in Dakota. They said that in 1884-1885 the territory was spending more on education than 22 states and had a schoolhouse for every 151 residents, a better proportion than 21 states.

The general consensus, unfortunately, was that Ordway was an easily corruptible Governor. He had gotten into office with the support of New Hampshire land speculators, and later gave one of his associates from that state the lucrative contract for a Sioux Falls penitentiary. He gave his son the well-paying position of territorial auditor. He spent a great deal of time outside of Dakota, acting as something of a representative to Washington even though that role was already taken by the territorial delegate to Congress. This delegate, John B. Raymond, refused to introduce a bill for single statehood because he had come to office promising division. In retaliation, Ordway and his supporters managed to get Raymond's nomination overturned at the Republican Territorial Convention. He was also criticized for vetoing dozens of bills for the construction of public buildings during the 1881 legislative session, but letting thousands of bills of questionable importance through in 1883.

By the time Ordway's appointment was coming to a close in May of 1884, petitions had started to pour into the White House begging Republican President Chester A. Arthur to give them a different Governor. Their wishes were soon met by a new, more solid controversy that erupted not long before Arthur had to make up his mind on the appointment. Under territorial law, counties could petition for organization after sending the signatures of fifty residents to the Governor; the Governor could then appoint commissioners. After that point, the commissioners would assume the appointment of county officials and other matters, including where to locate the county seat (a process the Governor was not supposed to have a role in).

Several accusations about shoddy practices in the process came to light. It became apparent that the organization of counties was largely corrupt, with people forced to give cash or land to influence the appointment of commissioners who would favor their town for the county seat. Ordway was said to have rescinded the appointment of a commissioner in Hyde County upon realizing that the man wouldn't fall in line in a vote on where to place the county seat. In another incident in Potter County in 1883, the commissioners for Potter County held a meeting about where the county seat would be located. One of the commissioners was shut out, and by the time he arrived he discovered that the seat and county officers had already been chosen. He immediately wrote to a judge, accusing one of the other commissioners of bribing Ordway to receive his appointment.

A federal investigation began, and Ordway was indicted for taking bribes to influence the appointment of commissioners in Faulk County. During the criminal proceedings, Ordway ceased to be Governor and Arthur removed him from office, naming Chicago writer Gilbert A. Pierce as the next Governor. United States Attorney Hugh Campbell sought to capture Ordway in a wide net of corrupt practices. He said the Governor had delayed the organization in Faulk County for about a year despite receiving petitions. At that point, an acquaintance of Ordway's had come to Dakota and approached the authorities in two towns hoping to receive the county seat. Both towns were told they could receive the seat if they were found to be favorable, and so they each raised land and funds for that goal. Eventually, LaFoon Townsite Company was chosen after giving half of their 440 acres and some cash to help Ordway make up his mind.

The defense employed a loophole, arguing that Ordway couldn't be punished in a criminal court because of his authority. The only punishment he could receive would be removal from office by the President, something that had already happened. The prosecution fired back that Ordway was the subject to the same criminal laws as everyone else and removal alone was insufficient. The judge agreed with Ordway's defenders, and the indictment was quashed. The acquittal did nothing to save Ordway's reputation. History of Dakota said it was unfortunate that a Governor such as Ordway was in office when such strides were being made by the territory's inhabitants. "He did little for Dakota except to stir up strife and spread abroad scandalous reports regarding the integrity of the people," the publication said.

Ordway returned east to take up business pursuits and agriculture, establishing an estate of 400 to 500 acres. He also joined his friends at the Northern Pacific Railroad, becoming a special agent with the company and leading their Washington lobby. Though it was reported that Ordway's health had been seriously impaired by his efforts in Dakota, the reports were exaggerated or he managed to recover. He survived until July of 1907, when he passed away in Boston.

Sources: The State Historical Society of North Dakota, "A Dakota Bribery Case" in the New York Times on Dec. 30 1883, History of Dakota Territory Vol. 2 by George Washington Kingsbury and George Martin Smith, North Dakota Magazine Vol. 2 Issue 2, The United States: Louisiana to Ohio by Benjamin F. Shearer, South Dakota: A Bicentennial History by John R. Milton, The WPA Guide to South Dakota, A Shovel of Stars: The Making of the American West 1800 to Present by Ted Morgan, Men of Progress by Richard Herndon