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History's Yellowstone Kelly celebrated as rare, strong, intelligent early plainsman

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In the 1870s, Montana’s main thoroughfare was the Missouri River. Steamboats headed up to Fort Benton and forts along the river protected them. But when Luther Kelly hung out at those posts, he was always talking about his exploits up the Yellowstone. He preferred the lesser-known, less-navigable river, and apparently someone — Kelly never said who or how — decided to make the river his name.

Actually Kelly’s favorite country was north of the Yellowstone, especially the mountains surrounding the Judith Basin. He often operated out of Carroll, a now-abandoned Missouri River crossing south of Zortman. He frequently visited the Reed and Bowles Trading Post near what is now Lewistown. And he always spoke highly of the terrain drained by the Musselshell River.

He lived in a golden age for the northern plains. The bison herds were thinning but not yet eliminated; the army was pacifying but not yet victorious. Civilization was coming but not yet arrived.

Kelly’s life as a plainsman resembled that of the fur-trading mountain men a generation or two earlier: He hunted and trapped, migrating at will. He often lived alone. In some ways he was rootless and nomadic; in others he was deeply connected to the landscape. In many ways his lifestyle embodied an ideal of freedom that has been much mourned since its passing. And Kelly — daring, handsome, literate and courteous — represented that lifestyle’s noble ideal.

A man of nerve

Raised in Geneva, New York, Kelly enlisted in the Army at age 15 as the Civil War was ending. He finished his three-year hitch on the Minnesota frontier, and then kept heading west, as Jerry Keenan explains in his biography "The Life of Yellowstone Kelly." In February 1869, Kelly was near Fort Buford, the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers by the Montana-North Dakota border. There, Kelly volunteered for an assignment so risky that no active soldier had taken it on.

He would carry mail to Fort Stevenson, more than 150 miles east, through territory filled with marauding Sioux renegades. And he made it. But on his way back, he ran into two men who wished him ill. Kelly was rounding a bend in the trail and saw the two men approaching him on horseback about 40 yards away. They dismounted and moved into the brush. One had a double-barreled shotgun.

After a brief exchange of cautious words, the man with the gun shot and hit Kelly’s horse. Kelly jumped off the writhing animal while holding his Henry repeating rifle. He hit the ground hard. As he started to rise, his opponent, now just a few feet away, charged and fired.

The gun, however, failed to discharge. Kelly fired his own gun and killed the man. The other warrior had by now hidden with his bow and arrows behind a small tree. Although lacking cover, Kelly had the advantage of the 16-shot repeating rifle. Despite a knee injury, Kelly won the duel.

News traveled quickly, and the teenaged tenderfoot gained a reputation for nerve. At 5-feet-10-inches, he had shoulder-length straight black hair and keen dark eyes. His nose was prominent, his cheekbones sharply cut. He had a quiet confidence and poise. The Gros Ventres called him “Little Man with the Strong Heart.”

Plainsman of character

Kelly spent the next several years ranging the Missouri/Yellowstone country. He cut timber to sell to passing steamboats. He poisoned wolves for their pelts — near the Musselshell he once saw 20 of the predators at a single bison carcass. He was quiet, even shy — known as Kelly the Sphinx. But he was cultured and noted for his conversational talents. He read Shakespeare and didn’t do much gambling, drinking, smoking or carousing. He thus became known as a man of character — a desirable companion, partner or employee.

Kelly found increasing success guiding military expeditions. In 1873 he assisted the first steamboat up the Yellowstone, getting as far as the mouth of the Powder River. In 1876, when he heard about Custer’s debacle at the Little Bighorn, he drifted south from the Musselshell and met up with General Nelson Miles.

Miles, who became a lifelong patron, appointed Kelly chief scout of the Yellowstone. During Miles’ 1876-1877 campaigns against the Sioux, Miles was worried that Sitting Bull would return from his self-imposed exile in Canada. So Miles sent Kelly north to scout for the great warrior’s troops. Kelly was also scouting on Miles’ behalf during the 1877 Nez Perce engagement, when Miles surprised Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce band just a few dozen miles short of the Canadian border. Kelly’s scouting also included an 1878 sojourn in Yellowstone National Park to look for Bannocks that were feared to be on the warpath.

Scouting expeditions sometimes required written reports. Kelly’s were not only thorough and useful, but also well-written. Observers seemed puzzled that the vocabulary of someone who spent so much time in untamed country included so few oaths. Thus Kelly also became known as a man of intelligence.

An active life

By 1880 the era of the plainsman was ending. Kelly found the increasingly settled Montana far less wild and free than it had been 10 years previously. He spent a few years bouncing around undeveloped northwest Colorado, especially in the Meeker area, but eventually moved on to a settled life himself. By 1885 he was married and farming in Parachute, on Colorado’s western slope.

Later Kelly took government jobs in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. He participated in two explorations of Alaska. During the Spanish-American War in 1898 he gained a military commission as a captain and spent three years as an administrator in the Philippines. He became an Indian agent in Arizona and then a justice of the peace in Nevada. In 1915 he retired to a 60-acre fruit orchard in Paradise, Calif., 90 miles north of Sacramento. There, although both he and his wife suffered from declining vision and limited income, he wrote his memoirs.

Kelly died in 1928 at age 79. He had known it was coming, was weak and nearly blind. With his distinguished military service, he was eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, but he wasn’t sure that city life was what he wanted in the forever-after. In a letter to state officials, he said, “My body will rest better in Montana.”

A vivid legacy

Kelly’s story differs from that of contemporaries such as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody in that he was never a dime-novel hero. His exploits, little exaggerated during his lifetime, were confirmed when his memoir was published by the esteemed Yale University Press. Thus in 1929 when Billings gave Kelly a funeral parade and sendoff, it was honoring a man who’d gained fame for his character rather than his showmanship.

I. D. O’Donnell, a city father, donated the land he named Kelly Mountain for the grave site — the idea being that solitude-loving Kelly would prefer more elbow room than he could get at the Boot Hill cemetery at the mountain’s base.

But because Kelly’s exploits were at that point so unromanticized, they tended to fade from memory. Within 10 years Kelly’s widow was asking Billings officials why they weren’t maintaining the site at the level they’d promised. Later, in the 1950s, the Rims in general became decrepit, and the grave itself was vandalized.

Hollywood portrayal

Meanwhile, Kelly’s story also became muddled. A 1957 novel and 1959 movie portrayed him as a romantic cowboy hero, fighting Indians. Rumor has it that John Wayne was set to portray Kelly, with John Ford to direct, until another project lured them away. Instead starring a heavily-pomaded Clint Walker, the movie is hard to watch today, with its native characters portrayed by black-haired white folks speaking as woodenly as possible.

But, it kept Kelly’s name alive. So did the ribald 1980s and 90s novels by Livingston’s Peter Bowen, which the publisher describes as “rip-roaring” and “told with an amoral panache.” Although Bowen used the bones of Kelly’s life, his portrayals, like those of the ’50s, tended to say more about the 20th century than about Kelly.

RIP Yellowstone Kelly

Now Kelly’s legacy is coming home.

Using Kelly’s motto “briskly venture, briskly roam” (a quote from Goethe), the Billings Chamber of Commerce seeks to develop Kelly Mountain into an interpretive site linked to the trails in Swords Rimrock Park. With recent donations including $80,000 from Phillips 66 and $50,000 from the City of Billings, the plans are gaining momentum.

From Kelly Mountain, you can look down on the city of Billings and see all that it has become since Kelly’s time. Or you can look up at the Beartooths, the Pryors and the plains — all the glory that it was while Kelly ventured and roamed.

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Managing editor of Magic City Magazine.