Dakota Datebook

Kelley’s Firsts

Friday, December 17, 2004

Arthur Wellesley Kelley was born in New Brunswick on this date in 1832. Forty years and one week later, he became the first postmaster of Jamestown, of which he was the first settler. And the first merchant. And owner of the first general store.

Kelley’s first view of what would become Jamestown was on May 9th, 1872. He had been in a partnership dealing in the hay and wood business at Fort Totten for five years. Now he wanted to strike out on his own. He had heard the railroad was approaching the James River valley and decided to have a look.

Kelley liked what he saw and headed back to Fort Totten for his merchandise and livestock. When he returned to the valley a month later, graders were at work, and track-layers were approaching. The military arrived the same day that Kelley set up his camp. Soldiers created Fort Seward, and Kelley created a tent store.

When Kelley felt his little store was well enough established, he left it with a temporary manager and went back to Fort Totten to get his wife, Frances, and their two children – Horatio, 12, and Jennie, 6. They were the first children in the new little village called Jamestown.

Jennie later talked about what it was like when they arrived in the summer of 1872: “To my childish eyes, it was a vision of fairyland. On the bluffs west of the river, the campfires of the soldiers were burning brightly, while in the valley below, the twinkling lights of the town gleamed merrily through the darkness.”

The Kelleys lived in a tent for six months until their one-room log cabin was built. The town now consisted of many other businesses operating in tents – three hotels, several saloons and three general stores were all located on the west bank of the river where the Anne Carlsen school now stands. By Christmas, Kelley was named postmaster, and he distributed the mail from his store.
When Fort Seward closed five years later, Kelley salvaged timbers from one of the buildings and built an impressive new building called the Capital House. Arthur and Frances sold peanut butter, kerosene and vinegar in bulk. Apples and crackers were sold from barrels, and sugar, flour and coffee beans were sold in 100-pound sacks. They also sold 5 and 10-pound pails of syrup. Out front on the sidewalk, the Kelleys encouraged farm trade by selling hay bales.

Kelley was the town’s first notary public, which led to yet another of his firsts – he officiated over the town’s first marriage ceremony – a wedding between a soldier named Gillespie and a Miss Bowden.

Jennie later talked about how she and her brother loved running on the prairie. They grew up with the town and went to school with the military kids. She also talked about their Native American neighbors and said there was a friendliness between them and the early white settlers. On one occasion, Mrs. Kelley came in to the house to find her husband sitting on the floor smoking a pipe of peace with eleven Indian visitors.

Frances died in 1908, and Arthur followed fourteen days later. They had been married for 36 years. Their children and grandchildren carried on in their place, with Arthur Kelley II running a grocery store in the tradition of his grandparents until 1936 – including hay bales on the sidewalk.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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