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  The Infamous Sam Kelley

by Dave Yanko

Sam Kelley (alias Charles 'Red' Nelson) was one of the wiliest, most dangerous and most wanted outlaws of the Big Muddy. Yet, when he turned himself in to a Montana sheriff in 1904, suddenly, there wasn't enough evidence to convict him of a single crime.

Bad lands for farming, perhaps, but not for hiding
Bad lands for farming, perhaps, but not for hiding.

That's the way things worked in the Big Muddy region of Canada and the U.S. Witnesses got scared, or they disappeared for a while.

Or maybe they just got forgetful. Whatever the case, Kelley used the occasion of this good fortune to take an early retirement from the outlaw trade. And when he died with his boots off in 1937, Debden, Saskatchewan, lost one of her most, umm, colourful homesteaders.

Kelley was born in Nova Scotia and came west to Montana for reasons unknown—much of the Sam Kelley story is sketchy. One of his earliest documented escapades occurred in 1895, when he and an accomplice broke two men out of a jailhouse in Glasgow, Montana.

The jail break occurred on May 25, one day after Deputy Sheriff 'Hoke' Smith left town in search of Kelley with a posse armed to the teeth. Kelley and his partner hid within view of the jail, waiting for Sheriff Sid Willis to leave. When Willis went to the Bank Saloon at noon, the outlaws launched the escape.

They rode up to the jailhouse casually, two horses in tow. On signal, the prisoners used a key moulded from tallow and fashioned from a tin can to unlock their cell. As they glided by the sheriff's wife, who sat flabbergasted at her desk, one of them tipped his hat. Sheriff Willis gave chase until a bullet spooked his horse and he was flipped out of the saddle. A posse might have been struck to pursue the outlaws, but all the town's men, horses and guns were on the road with Hoke. It seems that was no coincidence.

Hoke, by all reports a stalwart citizen and talented cowboy before they pinned a badge on him, later resigned when it was discovered he and Kelley had been corresponding by letter.

Kelley's Big Muddy home when he was on the lamb, and before he bought his ranch.
Kelley's Big Muddy home when he was on the lam, and before he bought his ranch.

Kelley would come to be known best as co-leader with Frank Jones of the infamous Nelson-Jones Gang, one of the primary reasons the North-West Mounted Police established a post in the Big Muddy Valley. The gang specialized in horse and cattle rustling, stealing stock on one side of 'the line' and selling it on the other. But Kelley, Jones and their crew were not averse to robbing the occasional trainload of Montana gold. And as with all outlaw bands of the era, membership expanded and contracted with the ebb, flow and death of individual bandits. It wasn't unusual for gangs like Nelson-Jones to work with other outlaw groups such as Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch.

Rustling was a lucrative and dangerous business that attracted a range of personalities. Some outlaws were Robin Hood figures in the their home communities and stories still circulate about kind deeds done for poor homesteaders. Kelley's partner Frank Jones, on the other hand, is said to have simply enjoyed the act of killing.

Most outlaws killed only when they had to; a Nelson-Jones Gang member called 'the Pigeon-toed Kid' boasted five notches on the handle of his pistol, and Kelley would kill to defend himself. And when the guns were drawn, Kelley was said to be a formidable opponent. In an 1896 dust-up with a Glasgow, Montana deputy named Allison, Kelley shot a rifle right out of the lawman's hands, destroying the weapon. People around Debden would later claim he could use a rifle to de-horn a steer at 100 yards.

Still, when the odds were stacked against them -- when a Montana posse of 15 to 20 heavily-armed men set off to retrieve them either dead of alive -- the Nelson-Jones boys could be quite practical. They'd flee over the line to take refuge in the Canadian section of the Big Muddy Valley. The 'Sam Kelly Caves', a feature stop on any tour of the valley, was one of their favorite hideouts.

The two caves, enlarged wolf dens that housed men and horses separately, were ideal for outlaw business. They were located just inside the Canadian boundary across a small gully from Peake's Butte, a craggy height of land with a commanding view of the surrounding area that included the trails frequented by Mountie patrols. A visual signal from the lookout post atop Peake's Butte gave the bandits plenty of time to flee back into the U.S., where the Redcoats couldn't touch them.

If their vigilance flagged and a patrol approached the cave while they were still in it, one outlaw could lay down cover fire while the rest escaped from an emergency tunnel that exited out of sight of the patrol.

Kelley and other outlaws used seperate caves for their horses.
Kelley and other outlaws used separate caves for their horses.

Kelley is said to have lived in the caves for several years following his decision to go straight. Around 1909, he purchased a ranch in the Big Muddy Valley and set off on a new life as a legitimate rancher. Whether it was ghosts from the past, economics, or a simple change of heart, he left the Big Muddy in 1913 to homestead near Debden, about 75 km (45 miles) northwest of Prince Albert.

Kelley took with him some horses and three Montana buddies. All four men homesteaded around the shores of a small body of water that came to be known as Kelley's Lake.

For the most part, it appears, Kelley was reasonably well behaved in Debden. His life there is neither well documented nor much discussed by town folk.

However, the other men were likely involved in a little rustling. And one of them, Louis 'Big Lou' Morency, had a falling out with Kelley that apparently brought the two men face to face for a gunfight on a Debden street. They stared each other down and circled around, but neither drew his weapon.

Kelley's death was sad, but not violent. He was found, hungry and confused, at a bus stop in Smeaton, Saskatchewan and was committed to Saskatchewan Hospital at Battleford. He died and was buried there in October 1937.

Saskatchewan's legendary outlaw was 78.

Sources for this story include: Border Outlaws of Montana, North Dakota and Canada, by Barbara Hegne; 100 Years of Grasslands, by Marjorie Mason; Big Muddy Country, by the community of Big Beaver and The Big Muddy Nature Centre and Museum; Big Muddy guide Tillie Duncan; and Big Muddy residents Michael and Tammy Burgess.

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