Bill Waiser

Outlaw turned farmer tried to run from his past

When asked why the early cattle industry in present-day southwestern Saskatchewan was never as violent as its American counterpart, a ranch hand suggested, “the alkali water (cowboys drank) up here took it out of them, and the winters froze out what was left.”

But there were outlaws operating in the border country. One of the most notorious was Joseph Erving Kelly, more popularly known as Sam Kelly or by his alias, Red Nelson.

Born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1859, the tall, lanky Kelly, renowned for his deadly aim as much as for his bright, red beard, came to prominence in the Saskatchewan-Montana border country in the 1890s when he fell in with American Frank Jones and his criminal friends. Over the next few years, the Nelson-Jones gang, sometimes working with the rough-and-tumble Dutch Henry, terrorized local ranchers and settlers, stealing horses and rustling cattle, when not robbing trains and businesses.

The North-West Mounted Police responded to the crime spree by setting up a detachment in the Big Muddy Valley, but the gang eluded capture by hiding in caves near Peake’s Butte in the badlands or just slipping across the line.

Sometime after 1902, perhaps tired of running, Kelly abandoned his life of crime and tried his hand at ranching. But he was always afraid that his past would catch up with him, and he left the area in 1913 and apparently headed to northern Alberta.

In the spring of 1914, Kelly surfaced in Debden, northwest of Prince Albert, with three friends from his Big Muddy days: Louis Morency, Ernest Schumann, and Jim Moody. All four men applied for homesteads in the area, near what is known today as Kelly Lake.

Homestead records indicate that Kelly applied for 160 acres in late March 1914. But he didn’t like the parcel of land and applied for a different quarter section the next month. That homestead (SE 15-53-6 W3) was patented in 1920.

Kelly might have reinvented himself as a pioneer bachelor farmer, but word about his outlaw past was soon whispered in the community. His pal Morency liked to talk about the old days—how he had served as lookout for the gang and would put a barrel on its side to alert the boys to the presence of the police.

Alphide Jean, a fellow homesteader from Quebec, heard these stories first-hand. He was also one of Kelly’s few friends — he helped fence his property — and wrote about his experiences 60 years later.

Jean said that local people quickly learned not to ask Kelly what he did before arriving in Debden. The former outlaw kept to himself and would not let anyone on his property without permission. If he took a dislike to someone, they knew not to cross his path. He had a soft spot, though, for children and always had candy for them.

Kelly took great care with his appearance and worked at being a gentleman — a far cry from his outlaw persona. He was never scruffy. His clothes were always clean and he shaved regularly. Gone was his trademark red beard. He also never cussed. But Jean remembered that his piercing blue eyes could still look right through a person.

There were also signs of another life. Kelly was a crack shot — able to dehorn a bull with his Winchester rifle from over 100 yards away. And he always paid cash for hired help at the end of the day or for supplies in town.

Kelly was never much of a farmer. He had only a few acres in crop — mostly feed for his horses. His large garden, though, kept him supplied with fresh produce. He also traded eggs to some of the local settlers. He showered affection on his horses and chickens and talked to them as if they were all that mattered in the world.

In the spring of 1937, Kelly suffered a breakdown. Neighbours tried to nurse him along, but he became increasingly confused and ornery. Their concern turned to alarm when they found him shooting at the water barrels around his house, claiming he was being followed, and they arranged to have him committed to the Battleford Mental Hospital.

The 78-year-old Kelly died there in October and was buried in a numbered grave. He found in death the anonymity he desired — and could finally stop running from his past.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:In keeping with his desire for anonymity, there are no known photographs of Sam Kelly.
Photo Source: Blossom Communications

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.