Fresh out of the Army in 1868, Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly embarked on a 12-year journey through the northern Plains that made him a legend in his own time.
He’s less well-known now for his pivotal role in taming the last frontier. But ongoing efforts to raise money to restore his gravesite high on the Rimrocks overlooking the city have brought him to public attention once again.
Kelly would have been stunned at the sprawling city of more than 100,000 people spread below his lonely crypt. When he first knew this part of the Yellowstone River Valley, its only inhabitants were Native American nomads and a handful of trappers and traders.
He was 18 when he set out to explore the river courses that crossed Montana — the Missouri, Milk, Musselshell, Judith, Yellowstone, Powder and Tongue to name a few. “The scene was exhilarating,” Kelly wrote in his memoirs. “The dark bodies of the buffalos as they moved in clusters or singly; the combative bulls raising a dust cloud as they came together, contrasted with the light-colored antelopes on the outskirts, ready to give alarm at a moment’s notice.”
Well-educated for his day and a voracious reader when he could borrow books from Army officers and friends, the frontiersman’s autobiography — printed in his old age in the 1920s — is a vivid, literary chronicle of his long and adventurous life.
The Geneva, N.Y., native had lied about his age and enlisted in the Army at 15, hoping to see action in the Civil War. But the war ended just as he was prepared to take the field.
By 1866, he was on his way to forts along the Missouri in Dakota Territory. Enchanted by this big, strange country, Kelly left the Army when his three years were up and set off alone to explore. Fort Buford, just across the Montana line, was his base of operations early in his post-Army career — just as Fort Keogh, near Miles City, would be later when he embarked on scouting missions in the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
But long before he began chasing Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Kelly was learning how to survive alone in the wilderness. In a matter of a few years, he knew Eastern Montana and its inhabitants better than anyone who hadn’t been born here.
Among those he encountered in the initial phase of his travels was Sitting Bull, a Lakota chief, and his band of warriors. Kelly guessed the storied war leader to be about 30 years old with “a round, pleasant face, and wore a headscarf of dirty white clothe. I suspected that the stiff leather cases tied to some of the saddles contained war bonnets, as I saw feathers sticking out of the pouches.”
It was a tense encounter, as Sitting Bull and a band of Hunkpapa warriors surrounded the trading party Kelly had joined. Kelly remembered that the warriors were armed with rifles, shotguns and bows and arrows. They boasted that they had just killed a white man at the mouth of the Yellowstone.
Kelly spent the fall and winter at Fort Buford chopping wood and hunting game for the Army. In February 1869 two soldiers carrying mail to Fort Stevenson (now under Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota) and back were late returning and feared dead.
When the post commander at Buford asked for volunteers to carry important messages to Fort Stevenson, none of the soldiers wanted any part of it. Kelly, much to the amusement of more experienced frontier hands, volunteered.
“I was in need of employment,” he wrote.
He set off at dusk alone so that he could travel the most dangerous part of the road at night. The air was frosty, Kelly recalled and snow covered every trail. But he got to Fort Stevenson without encountering any war parties and successfully delivered the mail.
The trip back, however, was no easy walk in the wilderness. He spent the first night at the cabin of tapper Red Mike Welch. Also visiting Welch was an Arikara hunting party that included Bloody Knife, who would later become Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s favorite scout and die with him at the Little Bighorn.
The next day, Kelly headed through the cottonwoods along the Missouri and out into the open plains, where he encountered two Sioux coming from the opposite direction. The warriors dismounted and sat near some large trees, waiting for Kelly to approach.
When he came within 20 yards, “they suddenly rose and fired at me, one with a shotgun and the other armed with a bow and arrow,” he wrote. “About the same instant, I dropped from my horse and fired quickly as the Indian was running for cover.
“He never got a chance to empty the remaining barrel of the gun, for as he ran, I fired at him without taking sight as far as I know, and he dropped.”
Kelly worried that he hadn’t hit the gunman, but turned his attentions to the surviving warrior who had taken a position behind a cottonwood. The warrior didn’t have a gun, but he had a good firing position and was a master of the bow and arrow.
They fired away each time the other exposed himself long enough to get off a shot.
“As I backed away, my course led me where arrows were sticking in the ground on each side of my trail,” Kelly recalled.
He shouted toward his opponent, asking who he was, and the warrior responded “Oglala me.”
One of Kelly’s final shots broke the warrior’s arrow arm.
“He rushed toward me in furry and despair, attempting meanwhile, to place an arrow on the string of his bow, but I dropped him in his tracks,” Kelly said.
By the time he returned to Fort Buford, the Arikara had already passed on the tale of the duel.
One of his favorite pastimes seemed to be wolfing in the Bear Paw Mountains in north-central Montana. He and a fellow wolf hunter would kill an animal for bait and lace the carcass with strychnine. They would return later and skin the wolves that had succumbed to a deadly feast.
On one of these trips, Kelly spotted a buffalo bull about 30 feet away and decided his carcass would do well as bait.
“But he proved to be a very lively bull, for he sprang to his feet instantly and with head down and tail up, came for me,” he wrote. “I shoot from the left shoulder, but there was no time for that operation so, quickly shifting my little Henry rifle, I held it on that grizzly ornament of his face, the forelock, heavy with sand and matted with burrs, which hung between his eyes, and when he was about 10 feet away, let him have it. He dropped in an instant.”
Kelly knew Eastern Montana so well that he proved a valuable scout as the railroad tried to move west and the Indian wars began to crescendo in the 1870s.
After Custer’s defeat, June 25, 1876, the government reinforced its effort to capture the free-roaming Indians, especially Sitting Bull. Among those sent north for the retribution was Col. Nelson A. Miles. He was to build a fort near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Tongue rivers.
Kelly, who had been in the Judith Basin when the news of Custer’s demise arrived, headed for the Yellowstone and the new military post. As he drew near what would become Fort Keogh near Miles City, he killed a grizzly and cut off one of its giant paws. Kelly described it as “over a foot long without the claws.”
When he learned Miles was in the vicinity, he sent the claw to the colonel as a calling card.
Miles said in the introduction to Kelly’s memoirs that “at the time he was young and strong, as supple as a panther, with an eye like an eagle.”
He was also movie-star handsome, intelligent and quiet, though apparently liked and respected by most he met.
Miles immediately made Kelly chief of scouts and used his knowledge of the country in the search for warrior bands that were believed to be lingering in the Yellowstone country to hunt. The government particularly wanted to capture Sitting Bull before he could cross into Canada.
The scouts worked ahead of Miles’ Fifth Infantry as it marched through fall and a fierce winter to round up the free-roaming bands and send them to reservations in the Dakotas. The thermometer at the fort site sometimes read between 40 and 50 below.
Kelly demonstrated his bravery at the Battle of Wolf Mountain on the Tongue River near Birney. Miles’ troops battled warriors led by Sioux war leader Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Chief Two Moons in a January blizzard in 1877.
Later that year, when Miles marched north and west to capture the Nez Perce under Chief Joseph, Kelly acted as scout. The government feared the Nez Perce were headed to join Sitting Bull in Canada. Kelly was at Chief Joseph’s surrender north of the Bear Paw Mountains near present-day Chinook.
By 1880, Montana and the Dakotas were no longer a great, lonely wilderness. Kelly, now 31, thought it was time to head for other challenges in Colorado. His later adventures took him to Alaska and the Philippines, where he was back in the Army — this time as a captain. After the Spanish-American War, he served as administrator on one of the islands.
Kelly, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, became part of the president’s “tennis cabinet.”
The old scout spent his final years in California, but in his will, he specified where he wanted to be buried.
“I feel my body will rest better in Montana, the scene of my early activities, than it would in the vastness of Arlington,” he wrote.
He wasn’t specific about the site and left that decision to the state Historical Society.
When he died on Dec. 17, 1928, his remains were kept in a mausoleum until June of 1929, when he was buried with much pomp and circumstance in ceremonies arranged by the Chamber’s precursor, the Commercial Club, and the Rotary Club.
Surrounding him were veterans of all the wars he had fought in and those he had hoped to play a part in — the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War and World War I. Montana Gov. J.E. Erickson attended to pay his last respects, as did David Hilger, secretary for the state Historical Society.
“The story of his life reveals the fact that his most heroic services were performed alone and single-handed in what was then a great wilderness,” Hilger orated. “Probably there is no spot on the banks of the Yellowstone more superbly fitted by nature as a monumental burial place for a gallant hero of the frontier than where we now stand.”