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Luther Sage 'Yellowstone' Kelly


On this day in 1849, a boy was born in Geneva, New York. The boy, Luther Sage Kelly, would grow up to become a great Indian scout, soldier and adventurer, living a life, said the Drake Register, “that comes to few men outside story books.”

Kelly first began his adventures as a soldier in the Union Army and it was during his service at the close of the Civil War that he first came to Fort Ransom. Kelly was honorably discharged from the Army in 1868 and then began his adventures alone.

Upon his discharge, Kelly set out on a lone hunting expedition, despite protests from others. Traveling through Sioux country alone would mean sure death, they thought, but Kelly safely made it to Fort Berthold, then Fort Buford before setting out without a horse. He explored areas of Yellowstone that had previously been unexplored. For the next several years, Kelly led a life alone, exploring, hunting and trapping in the Yellowstone and taking a variety of jobs with the U.S. Army. It was his solitude that soon caught the attention of government officials.

In 1870, Kelly was hired to carry dispatches. As the only man willing to do this without an escort, his bravery earned him the respect of whites in the area. When adventure found Kelly on his first message delivery, it also earned him the respect of the area’s Native Americans.

Kelly had successfully made it to Fort Stevenson from Fort Buford on his first trip, but during the return trip, he encountered two hostile Sioux. One of his attackers shot at him with a shotgun, while the other assailed him with arrows. He managed to kill the shooter, and then began fighting with the other. He managed to shatter his opponent’s arrow elbow. Kelly’s duel won him the respect of the Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara Indians, who later hailed him “The Little Man with the Big Heart.” But, it also earned him the respect of the Sioux who were impressed with the man’s “strong medicine.” It was reported that the Sioux were so impressed with the man they called “the man who never lays down his gun” that they never ambushed him again.

After acting as messenger, Kelly returned to Yellowstone and began trapping and hunting. It was his solitude during these years that Kelly became known as both “Lone Wolf” and “Yellowstone Kelly.” Kelly worked alone for several years before he was hired as a scout for expeditions of both General George Forsyth and General Miles. After service with General Miles, he then worked as a scout for federal troops in the Ute country in Colorado.

Kelly also served in Alaska, and then the Philippines during the Philippine Insurrection. Upon his return and adventures in the Philippines, he then worked in the mines of Nevada and as an Indian agent for the San Carlos Apaches before retiring to a fruit ranch in Paradise, California. Kelly reminisced about his many adventures, but said, “The happiest period of my life, was being a scout and plainsman in the region of the Yellowstone.” Kelly’s adventures finally ended with his death at his California ranch in 1929.

By Tessa Sandstrom

Kelly, Luther Sage. Vertical Files. State Historical Society of North Dakota.