Sergeant John Ordway

Sergeant John Ordway stood out on the expedition for a variety of reasons including the extent of his education, his rank in the military, his uniquely thorough journal, and his geographical origins. Ordway was born in Dumbarton, New Hampshire in 1775 to a family of several children, although his brother Steven is the only one mentioned in Ordway's writings. Ordway was described as having a steady, diligent, and dependable character.

Ordway was the only member of the Corps of Discovery from the east coast, and the only one besides the captains with a thorough education. Little is known of Ordway's life before he joined the Corps of Discovery. He joined Lewis and Clark straight from military service. He was stationed at Kaskaskia, Il, in Captain Russell Bissell's infantry regiment which also contributed a large percentage of the 51 men who embarked on the expedition.

Captains Lewis and Clark immediately appointed Ordway to take charge of the men whenever they were both absent because of his intelligence and rank. He also executed administrative tasks like guard duty assignments, register and record-keeping, and provisions issues. However, the same two characteristics for which the captains respected Ordway inspired contempt among the other party members who were less educated and had less military experience than Ordway. On several occasions, the men under his charge disobeyed his orders and twice threatened his life. Every time they defied Ordway, however, the captains reprimanded them. After a particularly mean-spirited incident, the captains tried two of the privates for mutiny. They begged forgiveness and "promised to doe better in the future."(Nieman, 2003) After that, Ordway mentions several times in his journal how well he worked with one of the privates, John Colter, in particular.

His journal also proved to be a valuable asset for the experiences he had away from the Captains. Ordway's journal provided the first accounts of Lewis, and Nez Perce counties in Idaho. The Corps of Discovery was the first group of white men to traverse that area. He also recorded his experiences hunting for salmon when the party could not find them down the Clearwater River as it had expected. Where he finally found the salmon however, was a lengthy distance, and the fish that the sergeant caught spoiled by the time he got back to camp. Another time, he records his experience commanding the boats from Three Forks to the Great Falls as the captains took an alternate route. Lewis and Clark jointly purchased Ordway's journal after the trip intending to integrate it into theirs, but the original somehow disappeared. It was found and published in 1913.

When the expedition returned to St. Louis in 1806, Ordway received his military discharge and again shunted records that might help historians understand more about his life. He accompanied Captain Lewis to Washington, D.C. with a party of Indians, and then returned to New Hampshire. In 1809, Ordway moved to Missouri to take advantage of the land he earned from the government for his service on the expedition. He married, acquired some wealth through his cultivation of peach and apple orchard plantations built on the land, and enjoyed it for less than 8 years as both Ordway and his wife died in 1817.

Information From:

Clarke, Charles G. The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and a Biographical Roster of the 51 members... Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1970. p.39.

Moulton, Gary, ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, vol 9: The Journals of John Ordway and Charles Floyd. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Neiman, David, Producer. "Sergeant John Ordway" Lewis and Clark: Inside the Corps. Accessed 17 December 2003.