John duke kelly

Confederate, Bushwhacker, pioneer


John Duke Kelly was born on January 18th, 1830, to Missouri Territory Pioneers Thomas H. Kelly and Nancy Zumwalt Kelly.

John lived in Nevada, Vernon County, Missouri, when John Brown attacked local citizens on December 20th, 1858. Already an indicted murderer at this point, Brown led the 1858 “Christmas raid”, with two dozen followers from Kansas. They attacked the Vernon County homes of James Lawrence, Isaac LaRue, and David Cruise . The raiders murdered the elderly Mr. Cruise in his home, held his wife at gunpoint, and robbed her of their possessions. By the end of the raid, the Brown gang had attacked several families and stolen 11 slaves, thousands of dollars’ worth of livestock, wagons loaded with farm equipment, food, clothing, bedding, and the farmers’ cash. According to the late Vernon County historian, Patrick Brophy, this raid contributed greatly to the fact that, per capita, Vernon County would provide more men to fight for the South than any other county in Missouri.

John D. Kelly served as a lieutenant in the Missouri Militia organized by the Governor to patrol the county and fight off the abolitionist raids. Kelly later joined Company A, Seventh Cavalry Regiment, 8th Division of the Missouri State Guard, known locally as "The Vernon County Rangers", as a lieutenant under General Sterling Price. Kelly saw action at Carthage, Wilson's Creek, and the Battle of Dry Wood. They frequently operated independently on the borders, mainly in Vernon County protecting their own homes. These men were frequently referred to as "Bushwhackers", which means "one who beats the bush; an outdoorsman". John Kelly is named in an 1862 letter as a man who could take Southern fighters to both General Price and Quantrill, and Kelly was also identified by Frank James after the war as someone who rode with Quantrill.

On April 27th, 1865, the SS Sultana was carrying over 2,300 passengers up the Mississippi River, mostly Union Soldiers recently released from Southern prison camps. The Sultana’s boiler exploded, sinking the boat and killing approximately 1,700 people. John Kelly was arrested swimming away from the boat and sent to a federal prison in Memphis. It is noteworthy that Kelly was a known associate of Quantrill and Frank James, as was Arthur McCoy, because McCoy was also the brother in law of Robert Louden. Louden was a Southern spy, Bushwhacker supporter and boatburner in St Louis. Louden claimed on his deathbed to have sunk the Sultana with a coal bomb, but the cause of the Sultana explosion remains disputed. Neither Kelly nor anyone else was convicted of the suspected sabotage.

Kelly moved to neighboring Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), where he misled government officials about his background, owned and operated a saloon, and raised and raced horses into his old age. John Duke Kelly, Cavalryman, Partisan Ranger, “Bushwhacker”, and suspected Boatburner, died 14 February 1903 at Afton, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory. He rests at Ballard Cemetery, Bernice, Oklahoma.

Photo used with permission from Cantey Meyers's W.C. Quantrill and the Misouri Guerillas Collection at;sa=view&id=702