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The scout was in the hopper for 40 years.

Research can sometimes become a quagmire, as any historical writer will tell you. In the first place you may not be able to devote as much time to a project as you would like;in the second,you may not be able to locate materials you know should exist.Colorado historian Jerry Keenan—author of two encyclopedias (one on the American Indian Wars and another on the Spanish American War) and countless articles and books on a variety of Indian wars and other military subjects—knows firsthand how research can take you in unexpected directions.

His latest book,The Life of Yellowstone Kelly (University of New Mexico Pess,Albuquerque,2006,$29.95),is the hardback evidence of 40 years of research into the life of an authentic Western character. Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly (1849-1928), who was born in Geneva, N.Y., had a role in the final subjugation of the northern Plains Indians before venturing farther north as a member of two Alaskan expeditions;he then served in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War and in Arizona as Indian agent at the San Carlos Reservation. He tried his hand at prospecting in Nevada before becoming a California orchardist.

The official names of Keenan’s encyclopedias are Encyclopedia of American Indians Wars 1492-1890 and Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. A longtime member of Western Writers of America and longtime contributor to Wild West Magazine, Keenan has also written The Great Sioux Uprising: Rebellion on the Plains August-September 1862; and The Wagon Box Fight: An Episode of Red Cloud’s War.He recently took the time to answer questions for Wild West.

How did you become interested in Luther Kelly?

What attracted me to him in the first place was when I walked into a bookstore in Napa, Calif., and picked up a novel about Kelly by Clay Fisher, read it and was hooked. I was 25 years old at the time and thought I was pretty well read in Western history, but here was a name that had managed to escape me. When you are 25 you think you’ve learned most of what life has to teach; in fact you are just beginning to learn. At any rate, I then read his memoirs, but little else was available. The more I looked, the less I could find, so I felt that here was a story that needed telling. I started my research in the 1960s; it wasn’t a full-blown effort at that time, but I began collecting information. I made contact with his brother’s family. (He never had any children of his own.) The information gradually began to build up. I wrote an article for Montana: The Magazine of Western History that appeared in the summer 1990 issue. The next spring, I got called to say I’d won a Western Heritage Award [from the Oklahoma City organization now known as the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum] for this article.

So your interest escalated after that?

Well, the enthusiasm was always there, but the responsibilities of my job and family made for slow and erratic progress until I left Pruett Publishing in 1990 and retired. At that point I was able to devote full time to the project and finally finished it in 2004. The project had been in the hopper for 40 years.

Did you find all the resources you wanted?

At the time of his death, his last will and testament stated his manuscript on Alaska and the Philippines was to go to his nephew, whose name was also Luther Kelly. I found the nephew living in Charlotte, N.C., and he said he remembered the manuscript but had no idea what happened to it. I always held out hope that it would turn up someday, but I pretty much resigned myself that it had gotten tossed out.

Did you find it?

When the book was under consideration for publication I had a call from an antiquarian book dealer friend who said he had seen the Alaska-Philippines manuscript at an auction someplace in California. From that lead I was able, eventually, to get a copy of the manuscript in time to use it in my biography. It was a very exciting development, indeed almost miraculous and added another dimension to my work.

You have done extensive military research. Why did you write a book about the August 2,1867,Wagon Box Fight,near today’s Story,Wyo.?

From the time I was about 10 years old, I had an interest in history, particularly Western history, the Indian wars and the Civil War. I had read everything about the Little Bighorn battle I could find. Then in 1957, following a camping trip out in the Tetons, I made my first visit to the Little Bighorn, Fort Phil Kearny and Wagon Box. A few years after that, I began corresponding with J.W. Vaughn, one of the first to combine work in library stacks with archaeological fieldwork to try to marry the two and present a fuller picture of an event. Vaughn wrote several studies of the Indian wars and I was impressed with his work, so I started writing to him. I asked him about the Wagon Box Fight, and he suggested that someone ought to write the whole story of the battle and that was my cue.

So you began researching, then writing about the battle?

I went to work for Pruett Publishing in the fall of 1969. A year or so later I learned of an Indian wars issue then being put together for Journal of the West and offered to do a piece on the Wagon Box Fight. Later Pruett published a hardcover edition of that issue. Later on, a separate edition of the Wagon Box Fight was issued, and since then the book has gone through four or five editions with different publishers. The last one included all of the archaeological fieldwork that the state of Wyoming did at the site [five miles northwest of Fort Phil Kearny].

How much of your research is on the ground, rather than archival?

Well, clearly it is always an advantage when an author can actually walk over the ground where an historical event took place; it really helps the writer to make the area come alive for the reader. Sometimes of course it’s not possible to visit a site, but I try to do so whenever I can. When I did the story of the Minnesota Uprising, I made two different trips to that area, and I’ve spent many hours at the site of the Wagon Box Fight. Straight back from the Wagon Box marker, about 75 yards or so, there is a dropoff that is mentioned in all the contemporary accounts of the fight, but which can’t be seen from the marker itself. One of the last concerted efforts on behalf of the Indians was a foot charge. They were able to sneak up under cover of this drop-off. A warrior crawling on his belly could get pretty close to where we think the actual corral was located. So being there and actually going over the terrain did make it a lot easier for me to understand how this could happen.

From a research standpoint have you had unexpected things occur because you visit the sites?

When one reads about a battle, for example, the mind creates a visual image of that place. My experience has always been that when you visit the place, it’s much more expansive, in reality, than the image that your mind created, as though the mind can’t quite visualize terrain of that scope. The drop-off at Wagon Box is a good example of what I’m talking about here.

Has your on-the-ground research in the West ever refuted the archival research?

Yes, often. Contemporary accounts describe terrain that has changed in the years since the event. For example, accounts of the Beecher Island fight talk about a small island where Forsyth’s scouts defended themselves, but no such island exists today.

What was Crazy Horse’s role at the Fetterman Fight?

That’s a wonderful question. Recent research will, I think, eventually paint a quite different picture of the Fetterman Fight. Crazy Horse was probably physically present, but I think it’s very questionable whether or not he played the prominent role that some historians have attributed to him. There is no solid evidence of which I am aware that puts Crazy Horse in a position of any real authority. In 1866 he was still an up-and-coming young warrior. His reputation had not yet reached its zenith.

What prompted you to start writing about the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars?

Over the years my interest in military history has broadened. I knew Kelly had been involved in the Philippine-American War, and that served to whet my appetite. But I was very intrigued with the whole Spanish-American War period. I found it absolutely fascinating. I found myself thinking, that gee, my grandparents were 25, 30 years old at that time, and I wondered what they thought about it. Did they approve [President William] McKinley’s acquisition of the Philippines? A great-uncle participated in that war. I have the flag that covered his coffin, too, so there was a personal connection to the conflict.

What are you working on?

I was born in northeastern Iowa. My great-grandfather was one of the very early settlers in that part of the country, and I am working on a novel based on the history of that area. And of course there will always be Indian wars projects of one sort or another.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here