Though well compensated, he didn’t live to tell the story.
Reporter Mark Kellogg needed a break. He landed a big one in Montana Territory in the summer of 1876—but he had to die to get it. WE LEAVE THE ROSEBUD TOMORROW, AND BY THE TIME THIS REACHES YOU, WE WILL HAVE MET AND FOUGHT THE RED DEVILS, WITH WHAT RESULTS REMAIN TO BE SEEN, he telegraphed his publisher on June 21 in the last dispatch filed before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I GO WITH CUSTER AND WILL BE AT THE DEATH.
His wording has overtones of prophecy—though “at the death” is probably an allusion to successful completion of a horseback foxhunt. Kellogg likely didn’t anticipate anything like Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s Last Stand, let alone his own death. But the fact he was killed on June 25, 1876, guaranteed him a footnote of legendary fame—and also accomplished his purpose of providing for his motherless children.
Marcus Henry Kellogg was born on March 31, 1831, in Brighton, Ontario, Canada, the third of 10 children. His family bounced across the border several times before settling in La Crosse, Wis., where his father kept a hotel, the Kellogg House. Mark soon learned to be a telegrapher, first for the Northwestern Telegraph Co. and later for the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Co.
Kellogg married Martha J. Robinson in 1861, and they had two daughters. During the Civil War he wrote for the La Crosse Democrat and continued as a telegrapher. He played shortstop on a town baseball team and ran for the office of city clerk. He wasn’t elected.
Disaster struck in 1867 when Martha died. Mark sent his daughters to live in town with his late wife’s sister Miss Lillie Robinson. Sending money home when he could, Kellogg drifted around the upper Midwest as a reporter-editor and also worked as a stringer for the St. Paul Dispatch, his articles appearing under the pen name “Frontier.” (Western correspondents often wrote for bigger papers back East.) He ran for a seat on the Minnesota Legislature but was not elected.
Kellogg was living in Bismarck, Dakota Territory, in 1873 when he helped Clement A. Lounsberry, a veteran Union officer of the Civil War, found The Bismarck Tribune. Kellogg substituted for Lounsberry as editor in some early editions but remained an “attaché of the Tribune,” in Lounsberry’s words. It was a living, but not enough to care for his two little girls and help out his sister-in-law.
The man called Frontier, whatever his personal opinions, toed the line when it came to championing expansion at the expense of the Indians. When warriors killed a Dakota homesteader outside Fort Abraham Lincoln, Frontier/Kellogg wrote in the August 18, 1875, St. Paul Daily Pioneer Press, “I say, turn the dogs of war loose and drive them off the face of the earth if they do not behave themselves.”
The story goes that when Lounsberry learned Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry would be riding out against the Lakotas and Cheyennes in the spring of 1876, he agreed to go along and cover what everyone expected to be a resounding victory. But at the last minute Lounsberry’s wife took ill, and Kellogg took the assignment. Maybe so, but in March 1876 George and Elizabeth Custer had happened to be on the same westbound Northern Pacific train as Kellogg, who may have been returning from a visit with his daughters and their aunt. The train got stuck in massive snowdrifts. After several days of confinement, someone found a telegraph handset and Kellogg spliced a relay line into the wire beside the track, tapping out a message to Fort Abraham Lincoln. The ever-loyal Captain Tom Custer soon showed up with a sleigh and provisions and whisked brother George and sister-in-law Libbie back to the fort. Kellogg stayed with the train and arrived in Bismarck a week later, but he now had a solid reputation with the Custers. By then his hair was graying, and he wore eyeglasses, and he needed one big story to get his writing career back on track and earn some money for his daughters. Perhaps piggybacking on Custer’s fame, Kellogg obtained an agreement to serve as a correspondent for The NewYork Herald, James Gordon Bennett Jr.’s flamboyant and fabulous exercise in personal journalism. (Bennett had funded ill-fated polar expeditions and the 1871 expedition on which Henry Stanley found Dr. David Livingstone in East Africa.) More to the point, the Herald was possibly the best-paying newspaper in the States.
Custer also had a reputation to repair. His recent indignant testimony about corruption in the appointments of lucrative post traderships at Western forts had implicated President Ulysses S. Grant’s brother Orvil. A furious Grant in turn stripped the colonel of command of the pending expedition against the Lakotas and Cheyennes. Custer had to pull strings with Generals William Tecumseh Sherman, Phil Sheridan and Alfred Terry to lead the 7th Cavalry on the campaign.
Despite an order from Sherman not to take reporters, Custer took Kellogg. The reporter’s glowing coverage reflects his gratitude. On June 21 he wrote, “During the trip no incident occurred except the display of sharp rifle shooting on the part of General Custer, who brought down an antelope at 400 yards and nearly shot off the heads of several sage hens.” The next day brought them to the Little Bighorn.
“Mr. Kellogg, the Herald correspondent …was mounted on a mule, with a pair of canvas saddlebags in which were stored paper and pencil, sugar, coffee and bacon sufficient to last 15 days,” a fellow correspondent later wrote to the Herald. “[He] was full of hope they might during the coming march overhaul the Indians and have a good fight.”
After scouts reported the huge Indian village, Kellogg, mounted on a mule, struggled to keep up with Custer’s command party in advance of the column. He asked friend Fred Gerard—Custer’s civilian interpreter for the Arikara scouts and a sometime news correspondent— for a loan of his spurs to keep the mule moving. Gerard obliged but advised Kellogg to remain with the column—neither Kellogg’s mount nor his horsemanship seemed adequate for what Gerard feared might be in store. Kellogg replied that he was“expecting interesting developments” and would keep up with Custer.
No one knows exactly what happened next. Gerard was one of the survivors who left Custer’s unit before the last ride, but four days after the battle a detail found the body of a civilian in the high grass near the Little Bighorn. Colonel John Gibbon reported, “The clothing was not that of a soldier.” The man had been partially scalped and was missing an ear. A distinctive strap rigged to the instep of one boot convinced some survivors the body was that of Kellogg. In all likelihood the mule skittered at the sound of gunfire, and Kellogg was hit and fell. He had favored long Napoleonic sideburns, which may explain the missing ear.
On July 6 Lounsberry’s Bismarck Tribune, Kellogg’s actual employer, still beat the world to the full story of the “Custer Massacre,” with a front-page takeout that included a casualty list (see image at left). The Bismarck telegraph office then sent a story to Kellogg’s secondary employer, The New York Herald—15,000 words at a cost of $3,000 in 19th-century dollars. The Herald scooped every other paper east of the Mississippi, thanks to Kellogg’s tragic role in the battle, and Bennett remained true to his reputation both for stretching facts and spending money. The publisher declared that Kellogg had actually been the Herald’s correspondent, and he later sent $2,000 to help support Kellogg’s two daughters and their aunt. In the 1920s old-timers in La Crosse recalled that Bennett, as grateful to Kellogg as Kellogg had been to Custer—and perhaps with far better reason—arranged to have Lillie Robinson receive $100 a month for the girls’ care and education and gave each girl $5,000 at maturity. Mark Kellogg may have been in the right place at the wrong time, but in the end he achieved his goal and saved his daughters from a life of poverty. Whatever his role at the Little Bighorn, he was a hero to his family.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.