As the bicentennial of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s journey across the American West approaches, interest in their exploration seems as fresh and vigorous as if the men had just returned to St. Louis last fall. While contemporary fascination with the expedition has expanded to encompass a vast number of specialized areas, research about the enlisted men who accompanied Lewis and Clark remains less prevalent. More can be learned about Sergeant John Ordway, one of the most valued members of the journey, by piecing together the textual fragments about his life and by recognizing the significant insights into his personality that are revealed through his journal writing.
Students studying aspects of the Lewis and Clark journals or the expedition as a whole have been blessed by a generous outpouring of insightful books, articles, interactive compact disks, web sites, and videos. For the researcher wishing to learn more about Corps of Discovery members besides the Captains and Sacagawea, however, there is considerably less material.
Prominent scholars seem acutely aware of this deficiency. As James P. Ronda states in his essay “The Writingest Explorers,” “for all the public interest in the lives of expedition members, the shelf of biographies is indeed short” (321). Paul Cutright agrees, referring to “the scantiness of information” about Lewis and Clark’s enlisted men (133). Cutright notes that only George Drouillard, John Colter, George Shannon, and Sergeant Patrick Gass have had biographies published.1 Ronda expands this list to include what he terms the “numerous, often uncritical” studies about Sacagawea, as well as one biography about York (326). He then comments wryly, “Clark’s slave . . . has done better at the hands of the biographers than either of the captains” (321).2 Eldon G. Chuinard’s Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also mentions a biography of Sergeant Charles Floyd.3
As the biographical shelf for Corps of Discovery members remains small, searching for historical studies about Ordway has uncovered little material. I could not find a single book‑length biography, and only a handful of books and articles which mention him more than briefly. As Cutright says, Ordway “has yet to find a biographer, and most probably never will find one, such is the poverty of data about his early and late years” (133). Milo M. Quaife, the editor of the first publication of Ordway’s journal, also admits “our knowledge of Sergeant Ordway is slight” (The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway 27).
After I mentioned my interest in Ordway to Rebecca Young, Managing and Marketing Director at the Lewis and Clark Foundation in Great Falls, Montana, she checked her list of scholarly experts on expedition members. After looking for Ordway’s name among the scholars’ specialties, she admitted she would need to search for someone to recommend.4 Even Gary E. Moulton, editor of the 13-volume definitive editions of the Lewis and Clark journals, acknowledges, “we know frustratingly little” (9: xiv) about Ordway. Larry E. Morris concurs, noting how “not a single vital record for John Ordway has yet been found—not the date of his birth, marriage, nor the births of his children” (Morris 29).
Squeezing the scanty information for every drop of evidence, scholars have reconstructed a rough sketch of Ordway’s life, albeit with many gaps. Born around 1775 in Dumbarton, New Hampshire, Ordway was one of ten children (where he stood in age or relationship to the other nine, we do not know). In The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804–1904, Olin D. Wheeler traces his ancestry to a James Ordway, who emigrated from either England or Wales to Newbury, Massachusetts, sometime between 1635 and 1640 (1: 92). Accordingly, Wheeler believes Ordway “came of good family,” (1: 92), since his parents, John Ordway and Hannah Morse, were “persons of repute” who “accumulated much property” (1: 92). Wheeler also states that some of Ordway’s siblings moved to Ohio and Kentucky, which a distant relative of Ordway’s, Mrs. Martha Ordway Kibbler, confirms (“Sergeant Ordway” 280).
Thanks to two early examples of Ordway’s skill as a writer, and to Donald Jackson’s thorough research for his Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, we do know the whereabouts of his brother Stephen and his parents from 1803–1804. On September 5, 1803, while stationed in “Kaskaskias, Indian Territory,” Ordway wrote a humorous, teasing letter to his brother Stephen in Hebron, New Hampshire. A little over seven months later, on April 8, 1804, Ordway wrote his parents from Camp du Bois, Missouri, where as a recently recruited sergeant for Lewis and Clark’s expedition, he was busy preparing for the start of the trip the following month. Like the letter to his brother, this letter is also addressed to Hebron, New Hampshire. These surviving letters reveal glimpses into the personality of the man who would quickly become the top sergeant in the Corps of Discovery. To his brother, Ordway comes across playful and dramatic, yet he also reveals his loneliness. He begins by chastising his brother for his lack of letter writing, asking pointedly, “Are you among the living or have you taken your departure for that ‘bourne from whence no traveler returns’? Or have you never received any letters from me?” (Jackson 1: 120).
Ordway then bemoans being separated “at least 1800 miles” (Jackson I: 120) from his brother, and refers to his “desponding spirits” (120) which have only recently been lifted with the arrival of some troops he knew from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He mentions two women in this letter to his brother, Betsey Crosby and a “Miss Nevens.” The former he first refers to as someone he has exchanged letters with, and then as a woman who could become more than just a correspondent, when he tells Stephen frankly, “not that I wish Betsey to loose an opportunity of enjoying connubial felicity by waiting for my return; but the probability is that if She remains in a State of celibacy till my return I may perhaps join hands with her yet” (120). In his reference to Miss Nevens, Ordway takes an entirely different approach, hotly repudiating rumors of their engagement, by telling his brother, “I positively deny the existence of even the Shadow of such an engagement it having been an absolute calumniatory falsehood” (120).
Ordway’s letter to his parents contains, as one would expect, much more formality, less undisguised raw emotion, and more bravery. He tells his parents, “I am now on an expedition to the westward, with Captain Lewis and Captain Clark” (1: 176). He then explains how he feels “So happy as to be one of them pick’d Men from the armey” (176), if not only for the honor, also for the monetary reward promised upon his return, which he reveals will be “15 dollars pr. month and at least 400 ackers of first Rate land” (1: 177). Should he not live to see the money or land promised, Ordway admits he has left “200 dollars in cash, at Kaskaskias” (177) which he wishes his heirs to receive. He concludes by mentioning receiving a letter from Betsey, but in a telling omission, does not tell his parents of his wish to marry her.
Both of Ordway’s letters, convey the sense of a man full of energy and good humor, even if he admits to occasional loneliness. His exuberance comes through when he tells Stephen, “I enjoy an uninterrupted State of health and retain my usual Spirits with an unusual degree of contentment and vivacity” (120). To his parents, he voices similar sentiments when he says, “I am well thank God, and in high Spirits” (176). Judging from these letters, Ordway seems confident and adventurous; just the man Lewis and Clark would need to rely on.
Moulton’s assessment of why men such as Ordway volunteered to join the Corps rings true, when he surmises that by signing up for the expedition, the enlistees foresaw a “chance of a lifetime . . . [to be] involved in something that would survive them, something greater than their individual contribution” (9:xi‑xii). For all of the Corps’ members—but especially Ordway, thanks to his complete journal—this certainly proved the case.
As evidenced in his letter writing and his journal entries, Ordway clearly had some education before joining the army. Where he attended school, what he studied, and for how long, scholars do not seem to know. They do agree, as Irving W. Anderson states, that he “was one of the few well‑educated men” on the expedition (1). Both Wheeler and Charles G. Clarke also describe Ordway as well educated. In an interesting yet mysterious citation, Wheeler includes an undated letter written to him from an Ordway descendent, Martha Ordway Kibbler, who claims Ordway “was the best educated . . . of all the men who enlisted or volunteered for the expedition” (92).
The mysterious part of this letter is Mrs. Kibbler’s statement, “In an old letter which he [Ordway] wrote just after he returned from the expedition . . . he distinctly stated that the diary he kept and which he wore beneath his shirt, was bought by the commanders of the expedition . . . and he thought the ten dollars they paid him . . . was a good price” (92). What makes this statement peculiar is that other support shows that Lewis and Clark each paid Ordway not $10, but $150 for the three volumes of his journal, for a total of $300. Scholars cite this amount repeatedly, such as Anderson (1), Jackson (I:162), Synder (199), Moulton (9:xvi), and Cutright (129). All of these historians reference, Lewis’ notes in his “Account Book” for April 18, 1807, where he records his payment of $150 for Ordway’s journal. I could not find any other scholar who has noted this confusing monetary citation in Wheeler’s quotation from Mrs. Kibbler’s letter.
The above instance is a good example of the confusing pieces of information which infiltrate our recreation of Ordway’s life. As another example of how much remains unknown, historians leave much unexplained between Ordway’s educational background to his army experience prior to joining the Corps of Discovery. Morris believes Ordway joined the army around 1800 (30), but his exact enlistment date has not been found. We do know the captains recruited Ordway, along with Sergeant Patrick Gass and Private Joseph Whitehouse, from Kaskaskias, Illinois, where all three men served under Captain Russell Bissell’s First Infantry company. What Ordway’s duties were in Bissell’s company, and what activity the infantry engaged in (did they have any contact with Native people, for instance) are all not known. This background information seems vital to understanding Ordway’s success as a sergeant under Lewis and Clark, but without it, one can only guess that he gained valuable army experience under Bissell, and perhaps distinguished himself early as a military leader. In any case, our records about Ordway’s military skills become more reliable after January 1, 1804, when, as Clarke reports, he appears “on Lewis and Clark’s payroll . . . though he was in charge of Camp du Bois much of the time before this date” (40).
Ordway’s reliability and skillful leadership at Camp du Bois soon became obvious to the captains. As Ronda explains, “New Hampshire‑born John Ordway quickly caught the captains’ attention and became the Corps of Discovery’s sergeant major” (Lewis and Clark Among the Indians 15). Lewis and Clark promoted Ordway to “top sergeant” before anyone else in the company, according to Moulton (9:xiv) and Ronda (“Perfect Harmony” 79). George H. Tweney calls Ordway “the senior of all the sergeants” (114), and Gerald S. Synder agrees, by describing him as “next in command” (35), a man who formed part of what Synder terms “the backbone” of the expedition (35).
Scholars resoundingly agree that the captains thought exceptionally highly of Ordway, not only in the beginning months of preparation at Camp du Bois, but throughout the expedition. Clarke believes “he was held in high esteem by his commanders” (40), and Cutright voices a similar opinion, when he states that Lewis and Clark “regarded him as the most valuable and trustworthy” (134) of their officers. Moulton refers to the sergeant’s “steadiness, diligence and dependability” (9: xiv), surmising that Ordway’s general lack of mention in Lewis and Clark’s journals shows “there could be no better evidence that he did his job well” (9: xiv).
Ordway certainly had to be what Ronda calls, “a man of superior ability” (“Perfect Harmony” 78) during the journey across the West, but the sergeant needed this strength of character immediately in the early months of training at Camp du Bois, where life was anything but placid. Men regularly challenged orders before the Corps departed, creating what Ronda terms “an endless round of drinking, fighting, and short‑term desertion” (79). In one notable incident in late February 1804, Lewis and Clark both left the camp, and as usual, placed Ordway in charge. Immediately, problems erupted. Reuben Field refused to stand guard duty, and John Shields encouraged his insubordination. When Ordway tried to calm the men down, John Colter joined sides with Shields, and the two men threatened Ordway’s life. The sergeant somehow managed to keep the rowdy men from firing their loaded guns, and when the captains returned, Stephen E. Ambrose writes, they placed Shields and Colter “on trial for mutiny” (45), but ultimately forgave the privates for their disobedience after they apologized and promised better future behavior.
Once the expedition set off in May 1804, Ordway was in charge of eight privates (William Bratton, John Colter, Moses B. Reed, Alexander Willard, William Warner, Silas Goodrich, John Potts, and Hugh Hall). Moulton phrases Ordway’s overarching daily duty as “perserv[ing] discipline and see[ing] that things ran smoothly” (9: xiv). Beyond keeping his men in line, Lewis’ Detachment Orders reveal Ordway was also in charge of issuing daily food rations, alternating between corn and grease, pork and flour, and Indian meal and pork. In addition to food distribution, Ordway created the guard duty schedule and kept the orderly books. One can see how seriously he took his responsibility in both of these tasks throughout his journal entries. For instance, he repeatedly records how the bitterly cold 1805–6 winter at Fort Mandan affected the men on guard duty. On December 10, 1804, Ordway notes, “The weather Gits colder verry fast So that the sentinel had to be relieved every hour” (9: 102), and on December 18, he recollects how the temperature dropped even lower, causing “the Sentinel . . . to be relieved everry half hour” (9: 105).
Ordway is also the only journal writer who mentions all five of the expedition’s court‑martials: the trials of John Collins and Hugh Hall, on June 29, 1804; Alexander Willard’s trial on July 12, 1804 (perhaps Ordway felt personally responsible for bringing this incident to justice, as he discovered Willard sleeping on guard duty); Moses B. Reed’s trial and punishment on August 18, 1804; John Newman’s trial and conviction on October 13, 1804; and finally, what Moulton calls “the last serious disciplinary problem of the expedition” (9: 114), Thomas P. Howard’s court‑martial on February 10, 1805. (Ordway’s journal is the only mention of this final incident. It does not even appear in the Orderly Book.) From this meticulous recording of all of the Corps’ disciplinary actions, one sees how rigorously Ordway followed army rules. Clearly, he would not have let any disobedience, however small, remain undocumented.
Historians refer to two specific incidents which illustrate how seriously Lewis and Clark relied on Sergeant Ordway. The first occurred from May 27 to June 2, 1806, while the expedition remained at Camp Chopunnish in Idaho, waiting for the snow to melt in the Bitterroot Mountains. With their men short on food, the captains ordered Ordway, along with Privates Wiser and Fraizer, to ride from the Clearwater River to the Snake River, in search of salmon. Even though the salmon Ordway and his men carried back to the camp spoiled on their return journey, Cutright nevertheless emphasizes the importance of this detachment, noting how Ordway, Wiser and Fraizer were “the first white men to traverse portions of Lewis, Idaho and Nez Pierce counties of Idaho” (135). Cutright praises the “conscientious reporting” (132) of Ordway’s journal entries throughout the expedition, but he specifically draws our attention to this incident, noting how “the recorded history of this rugged, fractured region of Idaho begins, quite manifestly, with Ordway’s account” (135).
The second incident on the return trip pointing to Ordway’s expert leadership and dependability occurred when Lewis and Clark separated, Lewis taking a group of men northeast to explore the Maria’s River, and Clark leading the rest of the men south, across land towards the Yellowstone River. On July 13, 1806, Clark sent Ordway and nine men (Collins, Colter, Cruzatte, Howard, Lepage, Potts, Wiser, Whitehouse, and Willard) in canoes down the Missouri from the Three Forks to the Great Falls, where they met up with the rest of the party. As Anderson says, Ordway led this detachment “successfully and without incident” (1). Moulton emphasizes the particular significance of Ordway’s journal entries during this period (July 13–19, 1806), stating that his journal provides our “only source for the events of this detachment” (9: 336), since Whitehouse’s journal detailing this experience has been lost.
Ordway’s leadership role on the expedition is well documented, but after the successful return of the Corps of Discovery in 1806, tracing the rest of the sergeant’s life once again becomes less certain. Clarke says that following the men’s arrival in St. Louis, Ordway “witnessed the sale, on September 29, 1806, of John Collins and Joseph Whitehouse’s land warrants” (40), and then he “purchased the land warrants of . . . William Werner” (40). In late 1806, Ordway accompanied Lewis and Clark, Sergeant Gass, two privates, York, and a group of Mandans and Osages to Washington, D.C., to show the Native Americans the U.S. capital. After this trip, however, the details of Ordway’s life grow vague.
He took his discharge from the army, and then, according to Clarke, “returned to new Hampshire for a time (40). In 1807, Ordway purchased around 320 acres of land (Anderson 1) in southeastern Missouri, in the Tywappity Bottom, near New Madrid. Ordway married at some point. Clarke refers to his wife as Gracey (40), but he provides no other information, such as when they married, the details of Gracey’s background, or any description of their life together. In yet another mystery, Morris notes that Ordway calls his wife Gracey in 1807, but from 1809 on, she appears as “Elizabeth” or “Betsey” in Missouri documents (33). It is unclear if Ordway married twice, or if his wife used two names or if one of the accounts is incorrect. In any case, Morris is quick to point out that this Betsey is not the same Betsey Crosby that Ordway mentioned in the 1803 letter to Stephen, for Miss Crosby married and died before Ordway returned from the expedition.
Historians do agree that as in his army career, Ordway soon distinguished himself in civilian life by becoming a wealthy landowner. As Morris says, he owned “1,000 acres within a year” (31). Both Quaife and Morris quote a letter Ordway wrote to Stephen on November 15, 1807, in which he again begins by humorously berating his brother for his poor correspondence skills. He then tells Stephen about his life as a Missouri landowner, explaining how he has “two plantations under good cultivation, peach and apple orchards, good buildings, etc. etc.” (“Sergeant John Ordway,” 28).
From this point forward, Morris seems to be the only scholar who has extensively researched Ordway’s life. He describes the sergeant’s busy activities from 1809–11 as “well chronicled in public records” (31). During this period, Ordway bought and sold land, became a constable in New Madrid for a short time, and frequently appeared in court as a plaintiff and a defendant.
Among the scholars I consulted, Morris places considerable emphasis on the year 1811 in Ordway’s life. On December 16, 1811, what Morris calls “three of the most powerful earthquakes to ever strike North America” (31) hit New Madrid. These initial quakes were followed by two more in the following six weeks, and Morris estimates the magnitude of all five to be between 8.0 and 8.8 on the Richter scale (31). Such severe quakes had immense impact on the residents of this small Missouri town. Morris explains that as “the ground itself ripp[led] in waves” (31), people poured from their homes, barely believing their eyes as the Mississippi River flowed upstream. Between 500 and 1,000 people lost their lives in these earthquakes.
While Ordway and his family somehow managed to survive, Morris contends that the sergeant “like most of the area’s residents . . . must have lost virtually everything” (31). Morris believes the earthquakes, the ensuing war of 1812, and “the year without a summer” (32) in 1816 all explain the lack of records detailing Ordway’s life from November 30, 1811, to February 5, 1818, when he finally appears as “deceased” on a Missouri court record. In a well‑argued thesis, Morris suggests that “it is conceivable that a man as prosperous before the earthquake as John Ordway could live on the edge of poverty afterwards (and thus have little reason to be listed in the public record)” (32). It still seems strange that not a single document has been found referencing Ordway’s life between late 1811 and early 1818, given his previously consistent writing habits and activities in the New Madrid area, but Morris’s theory seems plausible. The answer to this absence of records, like the many other unexplained events in Ordway’s life, seem to lie buried with the sergeant himself.
Like his final years, Ordway’s death has also not been documented. As Cutright comments, Ordway “enjoyed his prosperity—and his apples and peaches—but briefly” (135), for he died c. 1817. Interestingly, Quaife, Clarke, and Cutright all believe Ordway and his wife died in 1817, leaving no children. Morris disputes this, quoting a document signed by Ordway’s wife Elizabeth in 1818, which affirms the couple’s two children, John and Hannah, as the “only heirs and legal representatives of John Ordway, Deceased” (32). Whether he died with his wife or alone, Ordway would have been about 42. The cause and exact date of his death are unknown, as is the place of his burial. This seems a sadly undocumented end to one of America’s least recognized, yet most important sergeants.
Although the majority of our bibliographical data about Sergeant Ordway remains sketchy, he did leave us three complete volumes of his observations as a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. In the fascinating publication history of the expedition’s six surviving journals, Ordway’s journal has played a remarkable disappearing and reappearing act. After Lewis died suddenly in 1809, leaving not a single written line of his planned book project on the expedition, Clark asked Philadelphia lawyer Nicholas Biddle for his help in editing and publishing a record of the journey. After interviewing Clark, Ordway and Shannon, and reportedly consulting Ordway’s journal extensively (Quaife, “Notes and Documents,” 110; Moulton 9: xvi), Biddle published his History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark in 1814.
Whether owing to forgetfulness or a conscious decision, Biddle never returned Ordway’s journal to Clark or the American Philosophical Society, even after repeated requests from Clark. In 1913, nearly 100 years after the publication of Biddle’s edition of the journals, his grandsons, Charles and Edward Biddle, finally discovered the three volumes of the sergeant’s journal among their grandfather’s papers.
News of the resurfacing of Ordway’s journal quickly caught the eye of Milo M. Quaife, superintendent and editor of Wisconsin’s State Historical Society. He requested permission to edit and publish Ordway’s journal, which the Biddle grandsons granted. In 1916, The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway appeared for the first time, edited by Quaife, and published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
The critical importance of Sergeant Ordway’s journal has received its deserved recognition since 1916. Not surprisingly, Quaife stands at the forefront of praise for the sergeant’s observation and writing skills. As he explains, “in Ordway’s journal we have for the first time a complete daily record of the expedition from start to finish written by one man” (The Journals 27). Morris describes Ordway’s commitment to his journal writing succinctly as “an obedience that became devotion” (30). In his review of volumes nine, ten, and eleven of Moulton’s editions of the journals (Ordway and Floyd’s journals, Gass’s journal, and Whitehouse’s journal), George H. Tweney agrees with Quaife and Morris’ assessments, when he describes Ordway’s journal as “the most extensive of the enlisted men’s records . . . on several occasions even Captain Clark found it necessary to refer to Ordway’s journal, and for several entries, his is the only known account” (114).
Quaife echoes Tweney’s sentiments by citing the sergeant’s entry on July 14, 1804, which reads, “Capt Clarks notes & Remarks of 2 days blew Overboard this morning in the Storm, and he was much put to it to Recolect the courses” (9: 25). Without Ordway’s journal, we would not have any record of either Clark’s losing his field notes down the river or the events of this particular day. Quaife next emphasizes the superiority of Ordway’s journal in terms of its length, especially when compared to the other three enlisted men’s journals. Ordway’s journal contains approximately 125,000 words, which stands far above Gass’s 83,000 words, Whitehouse’s 67,000 words, and Floyd’s 12,500 words. One must also remember, Quaife notes, that unlike Ordway’s journal, the other enlisted men’s journals are all fragmented, missing several days or months (“Notes and Documents” 110).
Quaife next pinpoints three Ordway entries which deserve recognition for their length and extensive detail, especially when contrasted to the entries of the other journal writers. The first occurred on August 9, 1804, when the Corps traveled through Harrison County, Iowa; the second took place on August 13–14, 1804, when the captains instructed Ordway, Cruzatte, Shannon, and Carson to find an Omaha village and invite the chiefs to meet Lewis and Clark. While the men returned unable to locate the Natives, Quaife contends Ordway’s descriptions of these two days are more “detailed and authoritative than . . . any of the other journalists,” because they reflect a “first-hand narrative,” (“Notes and Documents” 112). The last detailed entries Quaife draws attention to occurred on August 30 and 31, 1804, where Ordway’s description of the Corps’ conference with the Teton Sioux once again is the longest and most detailed, when compared to the other records of this meeting (Clark’s, Gass’s and Whitehouse’s accounts.)
In short, Quaife believes Ordway’s journal is “more valuable than those of Whitehouse, Gass and Floyd combined” (“Notes and Documents” 112). He characterizes the sergeant’s journal as “written by a man possessed by evident shrewdness and keenness of observation,” and makes a strong case that in certain entries, Ordway’s writing is “superior” to even Clark’s observations. (112)
While it seems probable that the first editor of Ordway’s journal might sound lavish in his praise of the sergeant’s skills as a writer, Quaife is not alone in his commendation of Ordway’s prose. Ronda concurs when he asserts how “Ordway’s importance lies not only in his comprehensive coverage but in his keen eye for detail. The young soldier could capture a scene or event with colorful, memorable language of the sort that often eluded his superiors” (“The Writingest” 318). Moulton adds his similar assessment by complimenting Ordway for his continuous curiosity about the Corps’ encounters with Native Americans, since Ordway is the only journal writer who mentions “Indian terms not noted by Lewis and Clark” (9: x).
In addition to noting certain aspects of the journey the captains failed to record, Moulton also says Ordway’s writing distinguishes itself through its lack of emphasis on scientific terms, courses, and distances. In Moulton’s accurate estimation, Ordway preferred to write about “the events of each day” (9: xv). Notably similar to the other five journals, however, Ordway’s journal lacks any emotional commentary on personal relationships. Moulton again refers to Ordway’s consistently factual and disciplined writing style when he explains how the sergeant wrote with “discretion . . . like the captains, he was writing a public document, not a private record of emotions” (9: xiv).
Moulton’s insight proves astute, as Ordway’s entire journal contains little recording of emotional events. Hence, gleaning insights into the sergeant’s personality, apart from his strict adherence to military rules, becomes difficult.
One controversy of an unusually personal nature occurred during the winter the Corps spent at Fort Mandan. On November 22, 1804, Clark writes about his attempt to mediate between an angry Mandan man and his wife, in what Ronda terms “a nasty marital squabble . . . that had already turned violent” (“So Vast an Enterprise” 20). Through the interpreters Charbonneau and Jusseaume, Clark learns the background of the feud between this Mandan couple, which was caused by a night the woman spent with one of the Fort Mandan men. On November 22, after another fight with her husband, the Mandan woman “much beat, & Stabed in 3 places” (3: 239) fled to the interpreters’ camp for protection.
When Clark arrived to calm the waters, the furious husband declared, as Clark writes, that “one of our Serjeants Slept with his wife & if he wanted her he would give her to him” (3: 239). Clark goes on to identify the guilty sergeant as Ordway, and explains that in order to pacify the husband and prevent his wife from further harm, “we derected the Serjeant (Ordway) to give the man Some articles” (3: 239).
Ordway makes no mention of this incident or his part therein in his journal entry for November 22. Correspondingly, Quaife’s footnotes about this day in Ordway’s journal also do not mention the turbulent events (The Journals 166–167). Moulton, however, does not let either Ordway is or Quaife’s silence deter him from his conspicuous footnote under this entry, which reads, “Ordway does not mention an episode reported by Clark. It involved the sergeant sleeping with an Indian woman, whose husband was about to kill her” (9: 98).
In a review of Moulton’s volumes nine, ten, and eleven of the Lewis and Clark journals, Carol MacGregor chastises Moulton for not referring to this delicate matter in his introduction to Ordway’s journal. MacGregor comments
Moulton does not always illuminate his introduction with information from the journals about these authors, such as John Ordway’s liaison with a married Indian woman at the Mandan village . . . [Moulton] therefore misses the full historical irony when he refers to Ordway’s letter to his brother Stephen, wherein Ordway indicates he might marry Betsey Crosby “if She remains in a State of celibacy till my return (80).
MacGregor obviously remains fully convinced of the sergeant’s part in the affair with the unnamed Mandan woman. In Ronda’s interpretation, however, blaming Ordway misses a later remark by Clark which seems to clear the sergeant’s name entirely. Ronda explains, “the suspicion that now fell on John Ordway may have been misplaced. Several weeks later, when the still‑fuming husband paid another visit to the interpreters’ camp, Clark recorded that the guilty lover was an interpreter—perhaps either Jusseaume or Charbonneau” (“So Vast an Enterprise” 20). Indeed, as Clark relates less than a month later, on December 21, “the Indian whom I stoped from Commiting Murder on his wife, thru jellosy of one of our interpeters, Came & brought his two wives and Shewed great anxiety to make up with the man with whome his joulussey Sprung” (3: 260). While Clark never specifically says he falsely accused Ordway, I agree with Ronda’s interpretation that this statement points to Ordway’s innocence.
Unfortunately, since Ordway was so silent about personal issues—both his own and his descriptions of the relations between expedition members and the Native Americans the Corps encountered—one cannot determine his view about the incident. His refusal to write about this particularly thorny issue reveals how strongly the sergeant felt about excluding emotional matters from his journal.
While it is indeed regrettable that we know so little of Ordway’s life apart from his leadership in the Corps of Discovery, his journal does provide a crucial contribution to understanding at least some aspects of the sergeant’s personality. In Quaife’s words, Ordway has given us a “portrait he has himself drawn in his journal” (The Journals 27), even though this portrait may not always reveal the personal depths of the man. In addition to revealing Ordway’s persona, his three-volume record of what he describes as “the difficulties and fatigues of this enterprise” (9: 233) carefully captures one sergeant’s perspective of the trials and triumphs which took America’s first steps forward in the journey west.
Two reviewers of Moulton’s editions of the enlisted men’s journals describe them as a refreshing outlook on the Corps’ journey. In Erik L. Holland’s opinion, these journals show us “that without people such as Ordway and Floyd, the accomplishments of the leaders may not have been as significant” (28). Holland goes on to suggest that the journals provide readers with “the opportunity to consider the events from the perspective of the supporting cast [which] is healthy and rare” (28). William L. Lang agrees, noting how reading the enlisted men’s journals enables us to “compare the perceptions of journal writers [which] enhances our appreciation of . . . the nation’s greatest exploring expedition” (206–207). I would add to Holland and Lang’s perceptive comments that out of all the members of the supporting cast, one could perhaps view Ordway, with his most consistent journal entries, as the best supporting actor.
Ambrose, Stephen E. and Sam Abell. Lewis and Clark: Voyage of Discovery. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1998.
Anderson, Irving W. “Sergeant John Ordway.” PBS Online. Lewis and Clark: Inside the Corps. March 18, 2002. Http://www.pbs.org/lewisandclark/insidejordw.html.
Biddle, Nicholas. History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814.
Chuinard, Eldon D. Only One Man Died. The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1979.
Clarke, Charles G. The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1970.
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