Biography of Hon. James Kerr Kelly

HON. JAMES KERR KELLY. – Among the men of distinction in our state, none have held a position of eminence for a longer time than Senator Kelly. It requires stamina to stand for thirty years upon “the hard and wintry peaks of fame.” We are the more assured of eminent qualities of the Colonel when we consider that he came to this coast and started upon bed-rock. Family ties, name, favoritism, may elevate men of no ability to high positions in older communities; but in the Oregon of an early day artificial conditions did not exist. A man came near being born again, or returning to his naked abilities, when he came to the Pacific coast.

Of the men of power in our state, – Baker, Nesmith, Woods, Williams, Logan, Mallory, Lane, Applegate, – none have shown more mental grip and wear than Colonel Kelly. But the simple tale of his life carries with it its own commentary. Merit and service may go without veneer.

He was born on a farm in Center county, Pennsylvania, in 1819. His was an old American family, although his great-grandfather came from the north of Ireland about 1720. His grandfather served in the Revolutionary war. Young James began his school-days at Milton, and thence went to Princeton College, graduating in 1839. He immediately began the study of law with Judge John Reed of Carlisle, attending also lectures upon law delivered by the judge at Dickinson College, and was admitted to the bar in 1842. He commenced practicing at Lewistown, and was appointed prosecuting attorney by Governor Porter for Juniata county, and subsequently for Mifflin.

Determining in 1849 to come to the Pacific coast, he chose the route via the Ohio river and New Orleans, proceeding thence to Vera Cruz, passing from the Gulf coast overland to the antique City of Mexico, and reaching the Pacific at San Blas. He there found a ship, and arrived at San Francisco in July. It was to dig gold that he came; and he spent the rest of the year at Murphy Diggins, in Calaveras county, washing the dust with a pan and rocker. Although moderately successful, he wisely concluded that there was more money in practicing his profession; and at San Francisco he opened his office, which he kept until, in 1851, he was burned out in the great fire. Pulling up is stakes once more, he came to Oregon, arriving on the 10th day of May of that year. Here he found a flourishing political field, and was almost immediately given legislative service and preferment. In 1852 and 1853 he was elected chairman of the board of commissioners to prepare a code of laws for Oregon. Judge R.P. Boise and D.R. Bigelow also serving on the commission. In 1853 he was elected to fill an unexpired term of one year in the council, and, at its close, to the full term of three years.

When, in 1855, the Indian war broke out, Kelly was among the most active to spring to the defense of the young settlements. He organized a company at Oregon City, and led it over the mountains by the Barlow road to The Dalles. Here were the Oregon companies, each with its captain. Soon after the different companies had assembled at The Dalles, Governor Curry ordered an election to be held for general officers, at which election J.W. Nesmith was chosen colonel and Mr. Kelly lieutenant-colonel of the First Regiment of Oregon Volunteers. A few days afterwards Colonel Nesmith proceeded with five or six companies to the Simcoe valley to chastise the hostile Indians in that part of Washington Territory.

Shortly after the departure of Colonel Nesmith, Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly was ordered by Governor Curry to proceed with the remaining companies of the regiment to the Walla Walla valley. With five companies under his command, he met the hostile Indians at the mouth of the Touchet river. The Indians were driven in a running fight from there to Dry creek, a distance of about ten miles, where they made a stand. The battle was continued for four days, a full account of which is given in the first volume of this work. The victory of the Oregon volunteers was complete; and the hostile Indians were driven north of Snake river. This was about the middle of December; and the volunteers went into their winter camp near where the city of Walla Walla now stands.

Colonel Nesmith having resigned his office soon after his return from Simcoe, Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly, by order of the governor, directed an election to be held to fill the vacancy cause by that resignation, but declined to be a candidate himself for the office, as it was his desire to go to Salem, to attend the session of the Legislative Assembly, of which he was a member. Captain T.R. Cornelius was elected colonel; and Kelly left for the capital for the purpose of aiding in such legislation as would be beneficial to the volunteers. After the close of the legislative session, he returned to the camp of Colonel Cornelius in Walla Walla valley, and from that time until late in the spring of 1856 was with the regiment under Colonel Cornelius, when it was mustered out of the service.

Colonel Kelly again entered into active political life. In 1857 he was a member of the convention which formed the constitution of Oregon. Having removed from Oregon City to The Dalles in 1862, he was nominated in 1864 by the Democratic convention, against his will, for member of Congress, but was defeated by J.H.D. Henderson, the Republican nominee. In 1866 he was again nominated by the Democratic party as its candidate for governor of the state, but was defeated-counted out as he maintains – by Geo. L. Woods. Having removed to Portland in 1869, he was elected United States senator in1870, having carried the democratic standard through ten of the most stormy political years of its history in the state to this final victory.

Returning from Washington City in 1877 at the end of his senatorial term, he had scarely well set his foot upon the soil of Oregon before he received the appointment of chief justice of the recognized supreme court of Oregon. This was for the term of two years. We may therefore name James K. Kelly “Colonel,” “Senator” or “Judge” as best suits our mood. To the Indian war veterans he will always be “Colonel.” Besides these high positions, he has served as mayor of Oregon City and The Dalles. This shows his popularity in his immediate home. He has ever been a Democrat since he cast his first vote for James K. Polk for President.

In his student life he was associated with many who have since been eminent the nation over. Among his classmates at Princeton College were Gen. J.T. Boyle of Kentucky, Hon. H.M. Fuller, Member of Congress from Pennsylvania, Hon. N.S. Graham, Chancellor of Alabama, Hon. H.K. McCay, Judge of the Supreme Court of Georgia, Hon. Robert McKnight, Member of congress from Pennsylvania, Hon. Joel Parker, Governor of New Jersey, besides other distinguished in various pursuits in civil life. Among his fellow-students at Judge Reed’s law school in Carlisle may be named Andrew G. Curtin, Governor of Pennsylvania and Minister to Russia, Alex Ramsey, Governor U.S. Senator from Minnesota, and secretary of War, Carroll Spence of Missouri, Minister to Turkey, James H. Campbell of Pennsylvania, Member of Congress and Minister to Sweden, John C. Kunkel and M. Swartzwelder, Members of Congress from Pennsylvania, and N.B. Smithers, Member of Congress from Delaware.

In 1863 he was married to Mary, second daughter of Reverend James P. Millar (deceased), who emigrated to Oregon from the State of New York in 1851. They have two children, a daughter and a son.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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