Biography of James K. Kelly

For many years James K. Kelly has been a prominent man in the legal and political history of Oregon, and has left upon the annals of this section of the Union the impress of his personality. In positions of honor and trust he has maintained an exalted standard of excellence and according to the dictates of his conscience and judgment his influence has been cast for the agencies he believed to be conducive to the true interests of the people. A fitting record of the part he has borne in many important events during his long residence in Oregon, very properly belongs to any history pertaining to this portion of the State.

He was born in Center County, Pennsylvania, in 1819. Until he attained the age of sixteen years his life was spent upon a farm. He was prepared for a collegiate course at Milton and Lewisburg Academies, and became so far advanced in classical and mathematical learning that in 1837 he entered the junior class at Princeton College, New Jersey, from which institution he graduated in 1839. In the fall of 1839 he went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and commenced the study of law in the law department of Dickinson College, then under the professorship of John Reed, L. L. D. He graduated in the fall of 1841 and shortly thereafter began the practice of his profession at Lewistown, Pennsylvania. He had been in practice but a short time when he was appointed Deputy Attorney General for Juniata County, by Ovid F. Johnson, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and was re-appointed by Mr. Johnson’s successor, John K. Kane, Attorney General under Hon. Francis R. Shunk, Democratic Governor of the State. He held the position until the death of Gov. Shunk, when he was removed by the succeeding Whig governor.

He continued the practice of law at Lewistown, until March, 1849, when, in company with thirteen others he started for California, arriving in San Francisco in July, 1849. The gold excitement was then at its height and Mr. Kelly tried his fortune at mining, working in the Southern mine in Calavaras County, and at Jamestown and Murphy’s diggings. He was thus engaged until the early part of the winter of 1849, having been moderately successful, realizing some $2,000. He then went to San Francisco and resumed the practice of his profession. Here he remained until May, 1851, when he came to Oregon and linked his destiny with the then new territory.

His first summer in Oregon was passed at a place then known as Pacific City, near where Ilwaco now is. In the fall of 1851 he ‘settled in Oregon City, where he opened a law office in partnership with the late A. L. Lovejoy. Mr. Lovejoy was at that time a member of the Oregon Legislature and during the session of 1852-3 he was instrumental in having Mr. Kelly appointed one of the Code Commissioners to prepare a code of laws for Oregon Territory. Mr. Lovejoy at the same time was appointed Postal Agent, which caused their partnership relation to be discontinued.

In the summer of 1853 the Code Commissioners, consisting of Mr. Kelly, as chair-man, and Judge R. P. Boise and D. R. Bigelow, prepared the first code of laws for the territory.

In 1853 Mr. Kelly was elected a member of the territorial council from Clackamas County to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mr. Lovejoy, and at the end of the year was elected for a full term of three years, during this period serving for two years as president of the council.

When Governor Curry called for volunteers to defend the settlers in the Indian war of 1855, Mr. Kelly volunteered; raised a company at Oregon City and was elected its captain. With his command he crossed the Cascade Mountains over the Barlow road and joined other companies which had arrived at The Dalles. Here, in accordance with instructions from Governor Curry, an election for line officers was held, resulting in the choice of J. W. Nesmith as Colonel and Mr. Kelly as Lieu-tenant Colonel. Soon after the selection of regimental officers, Colonel Nesmith took five companies of the regiment and went into the Yakima country to pursue the hostile Indians, leaving Lieutenant Colonel Kelly with the left wing of the regiment at The Dalles. Lieutenant Colonel Kelly was subsequently ordered to proceed with his command to Fort Henrietta on the Umatilla River; where he arrived on the 29th of November, 1855. Learning soon after that the Indians were in force in the vicinity of Fort Walla Walla he determined to march upon them without delay. His command moved at night on the 2d of December, across the hills from the Umatilla River and on the 30th arrived at old Fort Walla Walla, now Wallula. On the 7th, while the troops were leaving the mouth of the Touchet, an engagement with the hostile Walla Wallas, Cayuses, Umatillas, Palouses and some of the Snake tribes, took place. The Indians were pursued a distance of seven miles from the mouth of the Touchet up the Walla Walla River in a running fight, until they made a temporary stand on Dry Creek, from which point they again fled a short distance beyond Dry Creek where they made a determined stand. Here a desperate battle occurred which lasted four days, resulting in the Indians being driven with great loss north of the Snake River, leaving the volunteers in full possession of the Columbia Valley north of Snake River. Lieutenant Colonel Kelly was highly complimented for the admirable way he handled his men. ” The bravery of the volunteer and their gallant conduct in charging and dispersing the enemy time after time,” says one historian, is worthy of the highest praise. Veteran troops could not have done better service.”

A few days after this encounter Lieut. Col. Kelly left his command and went to Salem in order to attend a session of the legislature of which he was a member. Before going, however, he had ordered an election to be held to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Col. Nesmith, which resulted in the selection of T. R. Cornelius, as Colonel. In March, 1856, following the close of the legislative session of that year, Lieut. Col. Kelly returned to Camp Curry where the troops were stationed and rejoined the regiment then under command of Col. Cornelius. He proceeded with the regiment a few days later into the Palouse country in pursuit of hostile Indians, enduring all the hardships and privations of this admirable campaign. After the return of the regiment, Col. Kelly was left in charge of the few troops in Walla Walla Valley, Col. Cornelius having gone into the Yakima country. Here he remained until May, 1856, when the regiment was mustered out of service. Thus ended the campaign, and the volunteers who had so valiantly fought in the field and endured uncomplainingly so many hardships, returned to their homes.

Colonel Kelly resumed the practice of law in Oregon City after his return from military duty, and in 1857 was elected a member of the State Constitutional Convention, and three years later was elected State Senator to represent the counties of Clackamas and Wasco, for a term of four years. Soon after his election he was tendered the appointment of United States District Attorney by President Buchanan, but he declined the proffered honor, preferring to hold the office of Senator.

Colonel Kelly’s proficiency as a lawyer was soon recognized, and early in his residence at Oregon City, he acquired a lucrative practice. The money he thus gained from his professional work he invested in extensive warehouses on the west side of the Willamette Falls, but they were swept away by the great freshet of 1861, and he was left as poor as when he came to Oregon. He was undismayed by this misfortune and it simply had the effect to spur him on to greater exertion in his profession. In December, 1862, he removed to The Dalles, where he continued the practice of law until 1869. He was the democratic candidate for Congress in 1864, but the State was strongly republican and he was defeated.

In 1866, Col. Kelly was nominated for Governor by the democratic convention, his republican competitor being George L. Woods. It was a hotly contested election and the returns showed a majority of only a few votes over 300 for the republican candidate. This majority, a large body of the citizens of the State believed and insisted was caused by the fraudulent rejection of many democratic votes in Grant county. Ground for this belief was furnished by the fact that all the republican candidates in that county who assumed office upon the return of the votes primarily made at this election, were, after a full investigation of the frauds charged, declared not elected, and compelled to vacate their offices. The gubernatorial election was not contested in the State legislature, but upon a count of the votes returned, Governor Woods was declared to be elected by the then legislature. Two years later when the democrats had a majority in the legislature, many of the democratic members were disposed to recount the vote cast two years before, even against Col. Kelly’s objection to such action. To avert this, most of the republican members resigned, leaving no quorum to transact business, taking this action before any appropriations had been made for State or other purpose, and in consequence none were made until 1870.

In 1870, the democrats having control of the legislature, Col. Kelly was elected United States Senator. In this position he served the State with his accustomed efficiency. He was one of the attorneys who argued the Oregon election case before the electoral commission of 1876, and in a long speech ably defended the position and actions of his party. After the expiration of his senatorial term he returned to Portland where he had located in 1869, and where he has since continued to reside.

Upon the re-organization of the judiciary of the State in 1878, and the. formation of a separate Supreme Court, he was appointed Chief Justice, which position he held until July 1, 1880, since which he has pursued the practice of his profession, taking that place among his professional brethren which his long experience and high abilities as a lawyer and sterling qualities as a man, have justly won.

Possessed of a strong taste for politics, Col. Kelly, soon after his settlement in Oregon, was led to take an active part in the stirring political events which preceded the transition from territorial to State government. From that period, until his retirement from political life some years ago, he wielded a power and influence which had an important bearing on many important measures. He has always been a democrat and his unflinching adherence to and able defense of party principles endeared him to party associates, while his keen practical sense, honesty and integrity and strong personality, naturally made him a leader. As a lawyer Col. Kelly is earnest and honest in the assertion of the rights of his clients, careful in the preparation of cases, well versed in the principles of his profession, discriminating in the application of precedents and in the citation of authorities and skillful in the conduct of his causes. To these elements are combined those mental and moral qualifications requisite for an accomplished and successful advocate and counsellor. As Chief Justice of the highest court in the State, his opinions bore indubitable evidence of careful and extended research and showed the possession of an honest, clear, logical mind; the grasp of legal principles, the unfailing purpose and independent courage which surely led him to right conclusions. Indeed, it is but simple justice to say that during the two years he occupied this high judicial position he fully justified the confidence of his friends and firmly established an enviable reputation as a jurist.

Col. Kelly was married in 1863 to Miss Mary Millar, daughter of Rev. James P. Millar, deceased. They have had two children, a son and a daughter.


Biography, History,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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