Emma Kelly, Gold Miner and Farmer

Emma Kelly was quite an adventurous person, for she was among the first women to endure the extreme conditions of the Alaskan-Klondike gold-rush in 1897. She also established a farm in N.D. as a homesteader on the south shore of Devils Lake in 1904.

On this date in 1904, the Bismarck Tribune described Emma Kelly as a “writer of ability” and “woman of culture” who had fearless and “Romantic Experiences” before her arrival in North Dakota.

Born in Kansas in 1873, Emma Leonidas Kelly was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry B. Kelly. Emma’s father was a regionally-known newspaper editor and Kansas state senator, and Emma had worked in the newspaper office before graduating from college. By age 22, Emma Kelly was a sales representative for a Kansas City paper.

In 1897, Emma moved to Chicago to work in newspaper advertising, but she grabbed an opportunity to go to Alaska — to the Yukon/Klondike Gold Rush — with financial support from a Chicago business syndicate.

Fully-outfitted with cold-weather clothing; plus a Bowie-knife, revolver, rifle and shotgun, Emma traveled to the gold fields. She got rich with her own shrewd mining claims, returning to Kansas after one year with $50,000 and plenty of gold nuggets.

For some years thereafter, Emma wrote magazine articles about her Alaskan expedition and also went on a lecture tour, telling her chilling far-north stories.

In 1904, Emma Kelly heard about land becoming available in North Dakota when the U.S. Government opened up 100,000 acres of the Devils Lake (Spirit Lake) Reservation for outsiders to join a lottery for a chance to settle on the land. ‘Twas a good deal for outsiders, but devastating, long-term, for the tribe.

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Emma Kelly, age 31, got lottery number 37 and chose land on the south shore of Devils Lake, paying $4.50 per acre for her 160-acre homestead.

Two years later, she married Louis S. McClellan (1861-1922) from Kansas, a railway passenger agent. They bought 800 nearby acres, living alternately in Kansas City and at their 1,000-acre Devils Lake ranch. By 1912, the McClellans moved to New York City, but supervised their ranch during the summer. Louis died in 1922. Then Emma died in New York in 1934.

Memories of the once-famous Emma Kelly McClellan as gold miner in Alaska and farmer in North Dakota have now faded into history.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department, with research by Isabella Grafstrom.


“Romantic Experiences,” Bismarck Tribune, September 14, 1904, p. 3.

“Farm and Mines,” Grand Forks Herald, January 19, 1906, p. 5.

“Miss Kelley Here,” Kansas City [MO] Journal, November 1, 1898, p. 7.

“Miss Kelly’s Lecture,” Topeka [KS] State Journal, February 4, 1899, p. 8.

“Section 11: Spirit Lake Reservation Allotment,” NDStudies.Gov, https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-iii-waves-development-1861-1920/lesson-1-changing-landscapes/topic-4-reservation-boundaries/section-11-spirit-lake-reservation-allotment, accessed August 10, 2020.

“Filings at Devils Lake Office,” Wahpeton Times, September 16, 1904, p. 3.

“First Woman to Brave Perils of Alaska,” Grand Forks Evening Herald, April 18, 1906, p. 5.

“Will Go to Klondike,” Topeka [KS] Daily Capital, August 27,1897, p. 5.

“Miss Kelly as a Lecturer,” Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal, January 11, 1899, p. 4.

“She Will Raise Flax,” Lawrence [KS] Daily World, September 10, 1904, p. 1.

“Emma Kelly; Gold Miner and Farmer,” Topeka [KS] Daily Capital, December 26, 1905, p. 5.

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“Miss Emma Kelly Weds,” Topeka [KS] Daily Herald, March 3, 1906, p. 6.

“Devils Lake Woman Writes Clever Stories,” Devils Lake Weekly World, August 9, 1912, p. 1.

“H.B. Kelly,” McPherson, KS, U.S. Census, 1880; “Henry B. Kelly,” Topeka KS, U.S. Census, 1900.

“Died: McClellan, Louis S.,” New York Times, July 18, 1922, p. 11; “Louis S. M’Clellan Dies,” Topeka [KS] Daily Capital, July 25, 1922, p. 10.

“Deaths: McClellan, Emma L.,” New York Times, March 11, 1934, p. 30.

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Source: https://news.prairiepublic.org/dakota-datebook/2020-09-14/emma-kelly-gold-miner-and-farmer

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