Who is Yellowstone Kelly, and Why Does Billings Have a Monument to Him?
I know exactly what people my age are thinking right now; Who's that? That's exactly what I was thinking when I was told to check out the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site that overlooks the Boothill in Billings. And, when you arrive there, it's nothing more than a small monument to a man I'd never heard of. When you look deeper, however, you find out about a man who was a well-respected military veteran and lover of Big Sky Country. Let's take a look at his life.
Why is Yellowstone Kelly important?
Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly grew up in Geneva, New York. In 1865, he decided to enlist in the United States Army, ending up stationed in the Dakota Territory. Kelly served three years before leaving the military and travelling to Canada, where he would begin what the New York Times called, "the most adventurous period of his life." Kelly would travel with miners, other adventurers, and Native Americans through the Yellowstone and Judith Gap valleys and back to the Dakotas.
Kelly's trapping and scouting skills eventually caught the attention of Lt. Col. George Alexander Forsyth, who appointed him as a guide for the Army along the Yellowstone River in 1873. From there, Kelly guided and scouted for the Army in many different locations, going from Prince William Sound in Alaska to Cuba for the Seventh Volunteers and the Philippines for the 40th U.S. Volunteers during the Philippine-American War.
After a long career, Kelly decided to settle in Paradise, California in 1915. The book Violence Was No Stranger by James A. Browning has a quote from Kelly's Last Will and Testament, "I feel my body will rest better in Montana, the scene of my earlier activities, than it would in the vastness of Arlington, where I purposed having it laid." Kelly died on December 17, 1928. After a large funeral procession, his body was buried in what is now known as Swords Park overlooking the Billings cityscape.
Yellowstone Kelly's Legacy
Kelly's gravesite was vandalized many times throughout the years, so the Billings Chamber of Commerce created the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site at the south end of the Chief Black Otter Trail in Swords Park. The Site honors Kelly's legacy as a scout and guide, as well as his love for the country in Montana and the Dakotas. His gravesite also has photos and stories of his life and family.
Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly has a legacy that is still talked about today, and as we approach the anniversary of his passing on the 17th of December, he is someone who should be celebrated. Here's to you, Mr. Kelly.