Tag Archives: trails

Yellowstone Kelly

Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly

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


Luther Sage Kelly 1878In the March-April issue of Alaskan History Magazine, historian Thomas J. Eley, PhD., who describes himself as an Itinerant Geographer, shares the story of Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly, an Indian scout who contributed greatly to the explorations of territorial Alaska.

Born in New York on July 27, 1849, Luther Kelly lied about his age, joined the Union Army, and fought in the final days of the Civil War, most notably the occupation of Richmond, Virginia. After the war he headed west, to the Yellowstone River Valley where he hunted, trapped, explored and gained fame for his knowledge of the Yellowstone country. This knowledge got him recruited by the Army as a scout, interpreter, guide, dispatch rider, and to conduct special assignments, earning his nickname, “Yellowstone” Kelly, and he was selected Chief of Scouts by Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles.

Figure1

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.]

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, then 49, was assigned to this expedition by General Miles as chief scout and tracker. Eley’s article details Kelly’s travels with the other expedition members, including USGS Geologist Walter Mendenhall, from Portage Bay, across the Portage Glacier, over Crow Pass on what would become known as the Kelly Trail, around Knik Arm to Knik.

The following year, 1899, the wealthy railroad magnate Edward Harriman organized an expedition to explore the coast of Alaska, aboard his own private steamship.  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.  


You can read Dr. Eley’s entire article, with historic photos, in the March-April issue of Alaskan History Magazine.


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Early Alaskan Trails

oie_102620WSyIUI9hFrom the March-April issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

The first trails in Alaska were made by animals, those which came after that showed where the earliest men and women traveled. Then came the explorers, the missionaries, the scientists, the prospectors….

The Yukon, Tanana, & Kuskokwim Rivers

The earliest trails in Alaska were generally those which relied on the frozen rivers, lakes, and streams which crossed the land, the largest rivers being the main thoroughfares, with smaller streams branching off toward destinations, and lakes and ponds providing easy access across sometimes rough country. Most early maps of Alaska include the notations for Winter Trails; in the other three seasons these trails simply did not exist, or they were traveled by rafts, boats or canoes. Still today many trails rely on frozen waterways for part of their length, i.e. the Iditarod Trail on the Yukon River between Ruby and Kaltag. Yukon River mail team

The Native Trails

Native groups traditionally created their own transportation networks, utilizing local paths for subsistence activities, while longer trails were used for hunting, intertribal trade, and occasional raiding trips. These routes usually followed the contours of the land, tracing natural corridors. Exploring Keystone Canyon north of Valdez in 1884, Lt. Abercrombie reported “a deep and well-worn trail up the canyon and across to the Tiekel River in the Copper River valley.” 

Copper River packdogs

Glacier Trails

In the late 1880’s prospectors objecting to foreign control of the Chilkoot and White Pass transportation corridors began seeking an All American route to the Klondike goldfields, but they found only one way across the mighty Chugach mountain range: an exceptionally difficult and dangerous path over the Valdez and Klutina glaciers. In 1898, the army sent Abercrombie back to locate a safer way. Spotting the remains of a Chugach trail leading to the north toward Keystone Canyon, he proceeded to the interior via the Valdez Glacier, and found an Ahtna path leading up the right (or western) bank of the Copper River. Both were eventually utilized by the Valdez Trail. 

Packtrain crossing Russell Glacier

Read more about the early trails in Alaska in the March-April issue of Alaskan History Magazine. Link will open a new window to the Alaskan History Magazine page at Northern Light Media.