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Bill Cole

Bill Cole

Who is buried in Yellowstone Kelly’s tomb?

Hint: Not Ulysses S. Grant.

Where is Yellowstone Kelly’s tomb?

Hint: It is not a tomb, just an inauspicious concrete crypt in Swords Rimrock Park overlooking downtown Billings. To get there, drive to the trail head east of the airport and then walk or drive one mile along the  Rims toward MetraPark. The grave site is on the Heritage Trail, 23 miles of paved paths that snake through Billings.

The Billings Chamber is a key player in developing this trail system that benefits residents and helps attract businesses and tourists.

Unfortunately, the neglected Yellowstone Kelly grave site is an embarrassment to our community and the memory of the veteran buried there. If properly redeveloped, this historic monument could become a must-see destination along the Heritage Trail system. For these reasons the Chamber decided to make the renovation of the grave site a top priority.

Luther Sage Kelly was one of the most famous and fascinating characters to ever call Montana home. In 1959, Warner Brothers released a movie based on his life, and at least four novels were written about his exploits. Born in upstate New York to prosperous parents, young Kelly might have become a businessman had not fate and the Civil War intervened. In 1865, Kelly lied about his age and joined the Union Army, just in time to see the war end. He found himself assigned to a remote fort in Dakota Territory, and it was there that the athletic teenager discovered his love for solitude and the West. When older soldiers refused to carry mail between outposts fearing attack by Sioux warriors, Kelly volunteered. Kelly wandered the river valleys looking for game and hostile Indians.

When his enlistment expired in 1868, Kelly, still a teenager, walked west to explore the region between the Upper Missouri and the Yellowstone, earning a reputation for courage, intelligence and the sobriquet “Yellowstone Kelly.” This was uncharted, dangerous country, and Kelly had more than his share of close calls working as an Army scout, wolfer, trader and guide. He maintained respectful relations with the numerous Indian tribes that traversed the region.

Kelly gained national attention after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. He was the lead scout for Nelson Miles, the army colonel assigned to locate Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, and other Sioux and Cheyenne chiefs and return them to their reservations. In 1878, Kelly and Miles chased Chief Joseph and his followers during their epic trek across four states until the Nez Perce surrendered in the Bear Paw Mountains.

Kelly eventually married and became a rancher and government clerk. In 1898 he explored southern Alaska and escorted 538 Scandinavian reindeer and 113 Lapland herders to rescue destitute miners. On another trip to Alaska, he guided naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs. In 1899 Kelly distinguished himself fighting insurrectionists in the Philippines, where he remained as an administrator. Kelly was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and a member of his “tennis cabinet.” Later Kelly supervised the Apache reservation in San Carlos, Ariz.

Kelly wanted to be buried in Montana, so on June 26, 1929, he was laid to rest with full military honors overlooking the Yellowstone Valley after an impressive funeral procession organized by the Commercial Club, predecessor of the Billings Chamber. In the words of Kelly’s biographer, “If destiny ever decreed a fitting locale for one man’s final resting place, surely this spot was meant for Yellowstone Kelly.”

Bill Cole is chairman of the Chamber Trails Committee. If you would like to get involved with the restoration of Yellowstone Kelly’s grave site contact Bill at bcole@colefirm.com or John Brewer, Chamber President/CEO, at john@billingschamber.com. For more information on Yellowstone Kelly, read The Life of Yellowstone Kelly by Jerry Keenan (2006, New Mexico Press).

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