NEHEMIAH F. ORDWAY
The name of Nehemiah F. Ordway is indelibly inscribed on the pages of the history of the west, for throughout the period of its development he was an active factor in promoting its interests and is numbered among the honored pioneers who made possible its later-day progress and prosperity. The lot of the pioneer of the west has been a peculiarly hard one. The Indians, driven from their hunting grounds farther east, have cherished the resentment characteristic of the race and have met as foes the brave band of white men who came to the western wilderness to reclaim the lands for purposes of civilization and to garner the riches of nature for themselves and families. Not only were the pioneers met by the hostility of the Indians, but vast stretches of sandy plains and almost impassable mountains separated them from the comforts and conveniences of the east, and their lot was one of danger, difficulty, hardship and toil. A courageous spirit, an unconquerable determination and steadfast purpose, these were the qualities demanded of the pioneers, and such characteristics enabled Mr. Ordway to meet conditions before which many another man would have quailed.
Mr. Ordway resides in Oakdale, Stanislaus County, and is a native of Franklin County, New York, born on the 23rd of July, 1834. He was therefore sixteen years of age at the time of his arrival in California, among the ‘49ers. His ancestors were of English birth and became early settlers of Vermont. His father, Jonathan Ordway, was born, reared and married in the Green Mountain state, Elizabeth Green, also a native of Vermont, becoming his wife. The father was a physician by profession and was also an owner of a farm. He removed to Franklin County, New York, becoming one of the pioneer medical practitioners and farmers of his locality. He attained the age of seventy years, but his good wife passed away previously. They were both consistent members of the Methodist Church and in that faith they reared their five children.
Only two of that number are now living and Mr. Ordway is the only representative of the family in California. His educational privileges were very limited, so that he may be said to be self-educated in the dear school of experience. When but a youth he started for California, making the journey by way of the Isthmus of Panama. His passage and expenses amounted to two hundred and ten dollars, such were the high prices charged at that time. A very severe storm was experienced during the voyage, the waves running “mountain” high. The ship was disabled and the crew and passengers were compelled to work at the pumps night and day to keep the vessel afloat. The water rose so high that the fires were extinguished and the passengers were saved only through the intervention of another ship which towed into harbor the one on which Mr. Ordway had taken passage. The escape was indeed a narrow one. Our subject went direct from San Francisco to the placer mines in Tuolumne County, and was engaged in mining in Jackass Gulch, where he had a little claim, out of which he took considerable gold, securing about six hundred dollars in a month. That mine subsequently yielded fifteen thousand dollars. The food supply among the miners was limited during the following winter and in consequence the prices were very exorbitant. In the spring Mr. Ordway went to Stockton on horseback, and later proceeded to San Francisco, where he boarded a ship bound for Australia, on which were one hundred and sixteen passengers. After they had left the port it was discovered that two of the passengers had smallpox. All of the others were then vaccinated and the progress of the disease was thus impeded. At the equator they were becalmed for two weeks. At the time they reached the Sandwich Islands it was found that their supply of provisions was inadequate and there they purchased hogs and cocoanuts, and soon they were out of food again and this time supplied the deficiency by obtaining crackers from another ship. They subsisted on these, together with some arrowroot which they had on board. Before reaching the harbor the ship was struck by a typhoon and they were in a gale for six weeks, the sea being lashed into great fury. At length the wind changed, blowing from another direction, but that merely added to the roughness of the sea. When the storm subsided they saw near them a ship turned bottom side up and knew that all of its passengers must have been lost. The vessel on which Mr. Ordway sailed had been blown two hundred miles out of its course, but they finally landed at Geelong and there obtained food. The passengers again boarded the ship and at least reach Melbourne in safety after a very stormy voyage of six months.
On the voyage Mr. Ordway had formed the acquaintance of a little Dutchman and they decided to keep together. They made their way to Bendigo, where Mr. Ordway worked for two days for seven dollars and fifty cents per day, and then got a claim of his own, twelve by twelve feet. He sunk a hole in the middle of this and struck a vein of pure gold which looked like flax seed and was worth nineteen dollars and fifty cents per ounce. He and his partner took out three thousand dollars in a week, worked out the claim and then started for Bendigo. The Dutchman stopped at White Sand Hill, but Mr. Ordway proceeded on his journey and in connection with others he purchased a claim on which a shaft had not as yet been sunk to a depth where gold could be obtained. The new owners, however, worked it out in two days and secured fifteen thousand dollars, the streak of gold only crossing one corner of the claim. Mr. Ordway’s Dutch friend was fortunate in his venture and took out gold to the weight of two hundred pounds from the White Sand Hill. There were many convicts from Van Dieman’s Land and the miners were in constant dread of being killed and robbed. Mr. Ordway had purchased horses and was hauling wood. In this way he made considerable money, but at night his horses had to be fastened with heavy chains in order to keep them from being stolen. One night he awoke and heard talking outside of his tent in the direction of the horses. He fired a shot and the robbers escaped; but not relishing such an existence, he a little later decided to return to Melbourne. It was his intention to buy a stage-coach and engage in running it, as the fare for the passage of sixty miles was fifty dollars; but he could not secure a stage-coach at any price, and accordingly left Australia, taking a ship for South America.
He went to New Zealand and thence to Callao, South America. Desiring to prospect on the Amazon, he obtained a pass from the American consul, for at that time there was a rebellion in the land and there was considerable trouble in getting through the army lines. Mr. Ordway and his companions crossed the mountains that were sixteen thousand and six hundred feet above the sea level. When they were at that altitude the blood burst from their eyelids and the ends of their fingers and they became stupefied. They succeeded, however, in getting to the top of the mountain and to where some Englishmen were working a mine, and there they lay for twenty-four hours not knowing or wanting anything, and their horses were in the same condition! They found gold all through that country on the tributaries of the Amazon River, but they also saw unpleasant sights, for in the jungles there were boa constrictors and wild animals that rendered life unsafe. The Indians, too, were a constant menace, being very hostile, and the lives of the white men were continually endangered. They saw bridges made of hay, rope and sticks, but the monkeys did not have to resort to any such means to cross the rivers, as they would spring across wide streams, one holding the other in his mouth until they formed a chain long enough to bridge the water!
Mr. Ordway and his party returned to Callao, and as there was no passenger ship at the port they asked for passage on an American man-of-war. During the voyage he formed a high opinion of the ability of the American navy, noting the excellent marksmanship and splendid training. At length Mr. Ordway arrived in San Francisco and made his way to Gold Springs, Tuolumne County, where he constructed a water race and again met with success in his mining ventures. Subsequently he came to Stanislaus County, where he purchased two hundred and fifty acres of rich land at Langworth on the river bottom, where he raised melons and pumpkins so large that one could hardly hold them. At first he made a great deal of money, for the products brought good prices. In one season he raised over two hundred tons of wheat, having in the meantime purchased additional tracts of land until he had about one thousand acres. Through adverse circumstances, however, he lost all of this.
On the 31st of December, 1857, Mr. Ordway was united in marriage to Miss Elizabeth H. Kennedy, a native of Pennsylvania, a daughter of John Kennedy, whose ancestors were from the north of Ireland. She came to California in 1857. Seven children were born to their marriage: Walter K., who is the baggage master and car inspector at Oakdale; Clara D., at home; J. Ernest, of Oakdale; William A., who is engaged in railroading; Fanny M., now the wife of William H. Shipman, of Oakdale; and Frank M. and Lizzie, who are still with their parents. Both Mr. and Mrs. Ordway are valued members of the Methodist Church, and several of their children also belong to the same religious body. For years he has been a trustee in the church and is one of the earliest members of the church at Oakdale. During the intervening years he has ever been loyal and true to its teachings, doing all in his power to advance its work. He is a strong temperance man and is a member of the Order of St. Paul, a church society whose members make it a principle of their lives to do good to every one.
Mr. Ordway has had an eventful experience, and if his history should be written in detail it would prove more exciting and interesting than many of the tales of fiction which so enchain the attention of the young. He has endured the hardships of pioneer life, the storms at sea, has faced the robbers of Australia and wild animals of South America, and though never courting danger he has resolutely manifested a fearless spirit that has awakened a high admiration. His life has been honorable and true and of manly principles, and among the worthy pioneers of the state none are deserving of a higher regard than Nehemiah F. Ordway.
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
© 2011 Gerald Iaquinta.