Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly

An Indian Scout in Alaska, by Thomas J. Eley, PhD., Itinerant Geographer* 

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867—365,039,104 acres for $7.2 million dollars (US). A year later Alaska was designated as the Department of Alaska under the aegis of the U.S. Army as part of the War Department’s Department of the Columbia. The War Department, Congress, and the President did not know what to do with the newly acquired Territory of Alaska as little was even known about it. Alaska sat in benign neglect for over 14 years.

As one unearths the story of Alaska and the American West, you find individuals that played pivotal roles in history at a point-in-time, yet these individuals generally never even garner a footnote about their roles. Once such individual was Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly who played parts in both the Old West and Alaska.

On July 27, 1849, Luther Sage “Kelly was born in Geneva, New York. Instead of going into the seminary as his mother wanted, Kelly’s real interest was in soldiering. The Civil War was raging so he lied about his age and joined the Union Army and fought in the final days of the Civil War, most notably the occupation of Richmond, VA. After the War, Kelly was sent to the Dakota Territory and was discharged later from Fort Ransom.

Like a number of young men of the post-Civil War days, Kelly could not abide the East, and longed for adventures in the West on trails no man had trod before. After being discharged, he ventured north into Canada, joining miners who were going up the Red River of the North. Kelly then returned to his beloved [from his soldiering days] Yellowstone River Valley where he hunted, trapped and explored. He rapidly gained fame for his knowledge of the Yellowstone country.   For his knowledge and experience, he was soon recruited by the Army as a scout, interpreter, guide, dispatch rider, and to conduct special assignments. “Yellowstone” Kelly earned his nickname as a scout in the Yellowstone Country from 1869 to about 1885. During these days he was attacked by two Sioux Indians, who he summarily killed with his Henry rifle. During the skirmish, Kelly took an arrow to the knee and lost the tip of his right little finger to an Indian’s musket ball [the stub of his finger can be seen in many photographs of Kelly].

Kelly was soon selected as Chief of Scouts by Brig. Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles (1839-1925). Miles, who was a legendary general of the Civil War and the leader of nearly all campaigns against the American Indian tribes of the Great Plains and Geronimo in Arizona, was appointed commander of the Department of Columbia, which included Alaska in 1881. “Nelson Appleton Miles may have been the most ambitious soldier ever to wear the uniform of the United States Army… Vain to a fault,” (Keenan 2006:81). He would assume any responsibility, even those not specifically his, which he thought would enhance his career.  

 Miles reported that “Yellowstone Kelly was of a good family, well-educated and fond of good books, as quiet and gentle as he was brave, as kind and generous as he was forceful, a great hunter and an expert rifleman; he explored that extensive northwest country years before serious hostilities occurred and acquired a knowledge of its topography, climate and resources that was extremely valuable. He could quote Shakespeare, skin a bison, and kill Indians when necessary” (Keenan 2006). Kelly’s skills and friendship with Gen. Miles would have a major effect on Kelly’s future. His favorite quote was “Keep not firmly rooted, to briskly venture, briskly roam,” by Goethe, but Kelly used it so often back in the day, many folks thought that it was Kelly’s own quote.

Assuming the command of the Department of Columbia, Miles discovered that the United States had no information on Alaska, and the territory had been totally abandoned by the United States. I’m sure that Miles recognized that Indians lived in Alaska, but no one knew whether they were friendly or unfriendly Indians. He set about to learn more about the United States’ new land. He dispatched a number of exploring expeditions to Alaska to fill the information void without the de facto permission or financial support of Washington, D.C. The Army expeditions basically lived off the land and were rescued from starvation several times by Alaskan Indians.  Table 1 summarizes the expeditions Miles dispatched to Interior Alaska as Commanding General of the Department of Columbia, Commanding General of the Division of the Pacific, and later as Commanding General of the U.S. Army.

In 1898, General Miles dispatched Expedition Number 3, under the command of Capt. Edwin Glenn (1857-1926), with the mission being to explore and map, as well as to find a transportation corridor for a railroad or wagon paths from ice-free ports (Portage Bay [Whittier] and Seward) to the Yukon and Tanana Rivers (Learnard 1900 and Yanert 1900a and 1900b).  Luther Kelly was assigned to this expedition by General Miles as chief scout and tracker. General Miles’ order explicitly details the information that the expedition was to collect. This intelligence included a detailed background on the geography, potential transportation corridors, Native peoples, and economic potential in Alaska. Gen. Miles was intensely interested in all aspects of this new territory. A major reason that Kelly was sent on the 1898 Expedition was because of his field skills and that all the expedition’s officers, except perhaps Glenn, were too young to have been in the Indian Wars.  

Kelly’s party crossing Portage Glacier with Lt. H.G. Learnard in the lead followed by Luther Kelly.       [Photo taken in 1898 by Walter Mendenhall, USGS, and courtesy of the USGS, public domain.]

Yellowstone Kelly’s Alaska Accomplishments

Kelly was deposited in Portage Bay with other expedition members on April 12, 1898. Kelly was paired with a young Quaker, USGS Geologist Walter Mendenhall (1871–1957) who would later become the fifth director of the USGS. The pairing of Kelly, an expert on frontier living, tracking and scouting, and dealing with Indians, with Mendenhall, a field geologist, was a wise one. Luther Kelly, at 49 years-old, was one of the older, if not the oldest member of the Expedition, while Capt. Edwin Forbes Glenn, the expedition’s Commanding Officer, was only 41.  Mendenhall was just 27.

The duo’s first assignment was to find routes from Portage Bay across Portage Glacier, which took more time than expected because of the difficulty getting the team and its gear across the glacier safely. They also discovered that government-issued snowshoes were not satisfactory in Alaska. Kelly ultimately bartered with a group of Indians for two sets of the Indian’s snowshoes for Mendenhall and himself, which worked considerably better.

Their next assignment was to find a trail from Portage Bay to Knik. They spent many days fighting mosquitos, thick brush, incessant rain, fog, bears, exhaustion, forest fire smoke occluding the trail, valley, and hills and exploring dead-end valleys and mountain trails. All these problems aside, Kelly and Mendenhall found two routes over the Chugach Mountains. 

Luther Kelly and party “enjoying” the rain, Portage Bay, AK, 1898. Note that his right little finger is missing. [Photo taken by Walter Mendenhall, USGS, and courtesy of the USGS, public domain.]

Yellowstone Kelly and Walter Mendenhall discovered an “alleged Indian Trail” from Portage Bay to Knik. The route took them from Cabin Creek and up the middle or main fork of Twenty-Mile River to the vicinity of Lake Glenn. The lake was named for Capt. Glenn. They could see Turnagain Arm in the distance. The route up Twenty-Mile River was difficult, and they were plagued with mosquitoes, rain, and fog. They reached mountains which appeared at first impassible, but they found a path through to Winner Creek and then up and over the Crow Creek Pass and down Yukla-hitna (Eagle River) Valley. This trail became known as the Kelly Trail.  Kelly (1899: 292) wrote:

“There does not appear to be any material obstacles in the way of making a practicable trail or wagon route down this river…. I consider the route traversed from Portage Bay to the Knik Arm a practicable one. As to whether the heavy snowfall in winter in the divide will block travel for animals remains to be proven by actual trial, but should a trail once be established, and be kept open by travel I believe it would be all right.”

Remember these comments are from an Army mentality as their vision is for a horse-drawn wagon road over the pass. Mendenhall was not enthralled with the Kelly Trail and Mendenhall wrote in Kelly (1899:292):

“This route appears not to have been known before…and will probably not be much used except by prospectors who wish to reach Raven Creek or the upper reaches of the Yukla. A pack trail could be constructed over it, but not without considerable outlay.”

A second trail across the Chugach Mountains was found after talking with Indians in the area. It started at present day Indian and Indian Creek, which was accessed by following trails along the present-day Alaska Railroad right-of-way, and following Ship Creek to the Eagle River Flats, then along a trail that approximately followed the now Glenn Highway to Knik at the head of Knik Arm. Kelly didn’t much like the trail as it was very muddy and boggy in the summer and passage was difficult. The trail is passible in winter but would have significant avalanche hazards.  On the contrary, Mendenhall preferred this trail and he wrote: 

“…there are at least two routes by land [between Knik and Turnagain Arms]. One, much the shortest, easiest, and best known, is by way of…Indian Creek.” (Mendenhall’s comments in Kelly 1899)

The relationship between the Quaker scientist Mendenhall and the Indian scout Kelly had been a concern of Glenn. Because of their considerably different backgrounds could they work together? It did, however, seem to work as they respected each other’s views even if they didn’t agree. Kelly was impressed with Mendenhall’s physical shape for traveling while lugging a heavy camera and geologist’s tools. They truly worked as a team and became friends as well as colleagues. In his report to the Secretary of War, Kelly (1899:290) wrote: 

“I wish to express my indebtedness to Mr. Mendenhall, of the United States Geological Survey, not only for his excellent sketches of Crow Creek and Yukla-hitna River, but also for his help generally since it made it possible for me to finish this work.”

Kelly and Mendenhall significantly increased the knowledge of the geology, geography, natural resources and indigenous peoples of Alaska. After working with Kelly, Mendenhall joined other expedition teams and crossed South Central Alaska to the Tanana River and ended up in Kotzebue (Mendenhall 1902 and 1905). Mendenhall also wrote a number of geological reports (Mendenhall and Schrader 1903). He departed Alaska in 1899, never to return. From 1903 to 1911, he was sent to the deserts of SE California and SW Nevada to work on water resources.  He served as the Chief Geologist of the USGS for 8 years and from 1930 to 1943, Mendenhall was the 5th Director of the USGS, guiding the Service through the Great Depression and World War II.

Yellowstone Kelly and the Alaskan Indians

Kelly was very diligent in his efforts to assess the “Indian Situation.” He “talked” with Indians whenever he could, and found them to be knowledgeable, friendly, and certainly not war like. Different from his experiences in the West, he found that Alaskan Indians did not understand sign-language and they couldn’t understand smoke signals. 

Miles was interested in field and combat communications over long distances, and he was a promoter of the heliograph. A heliograph is a wireless telegraph that sends signals of flashes of sunlight reflected by a mirror and sent in Morse code. Kelly was able to send and receive messages to Capt. Glenn across Turnagain Arm.

Interestingly, all the officers left the territory for the winter of 1898-1899, including Kelly. Glenn, however, left all the enlisted soldiers to overwinter at the mouth of the Susitna River with Sgt. Yanert in command (Eley 2002). Having to remain in Alaska over the winter caused considerable consternation among the troops, especially since all the troops wanted to get back to the “proper Army” so they could participate in the Spanish-American War, as promotions come fast in a war. The Expedition resumed in 1899 despite the Spanish-American War’s demand on Army personnel and resources. Kelly, however, elected not to return.

Kelly: 1899 to 1928

In 1899, Edward Harriman, a wealthy railroad magnate, organized an expedition to explore the coast of Alaska for two months with a short detour to Siberia so his wife could put her feet on Siberia. The expedition is often called “The Last Great Exploring Expedition.”  They traveled on the SS George W. Elder, a steamship lavishly refitted for the expedition.  Harriman brought with him a group of noted scientists, artists, photographers, naturalists, hunting guides, chefs, family members and taxidermists to explore and document the Alaskan coast. Harriman’s personal goal for the expedition was to hunt Kodiak bear, and his personal guide was Luther Kelly. At the various stops, Kelly got off the ship and assisted the scientists. Arriving at Kodiak, Yellowstone Kelly guided Harriman on his hunt, and he got his bear.  

Clinton Hart Merriam, the Science Director, decided to leave a party of scientists on Popof Island in the Shumagin Islands to do a more detailed study. The scientists included a geologist, entomologist, biologist, botanist, and Luther Kelly, who was requested by the four scientists. The rest of the expedition went along the Alaskan west coast and then to Siberia, and then homeward with a short stop to pick up Kelly and his scientists. The expedition started on May 31, 1899 so most of the participants were anxious to get home, and they arrived in Seattle on July 30, 1899.

In August, 1899, Kelley was promoted to Captain with the Army’s 40th Volunteers and by November they were in the Philippines doing their part in the Philippine Insurgency. Kelly remained in the Philippines for three years assisting the civilian governor. Tiring of the Philippines, he went home in 1902. He had several jobs when he returned home, including Indian Agent for the San Carlos Indian Reservation in Arizona and a gold miner in Nevada.

Luther and his wife settled in Paradise, California in 1915, and grew fruit. Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly died on December 17, 1928, poor and almost blind. His obituary simply said he was a fruit farmer. He was buried on rimrocks, now called Kelly Mountains, above Billings, Montana, and the Yellowstone River Valley. A permanent exhibit on Yellowstone Kelly was added to the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise, California. Unfortunately, the museum, as well as most of the town, was burned to the ground in the 2018 Camp Fire, and everything was destroyed.  ~•~ 

*Thomas J. Eley, PO. Box 230329, Anchorage, Alaska 99523 •


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Glenn, E.F.  1900.  A trip to the Region of the Tanana.  Pp: 629-648. In Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska.  Committee on Military Affairs, 56th Congress, Washington, D.C.: GPO.

Keenan, J.  2006.  The life of Yellowstone Kelly.  Albuquerque, NM: Univ. New Mexico Press.

Kelly, L.S.  1899. Report of Mr. Luther S. Kelly, submitted by Capt. E.F. Glenn, U.S.A., Commanding Exploring Expedition No. 3. Pp: 289-293, inReports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska (Cooks Inlet Sushitna, Copper, and Tanana Rivers) 1898: Made Under the Direction of the Secretary of War,Capt. E.F. Glenn and Capt. W. R. Abercrombie (eds.), Washington, DC: GPO.

Kelly, L.S. and M.M. Quaife.  1926.  Yellowstone Kelly: The Memoirs of Luther S. Kelly.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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