The Indomitable Spirit of Frontierswoman Emma Kelly

This adventure-driven pioneer's biggest accomplishment might be better defined by what she didn’t do.

by posted on March 2, 2023
Emma Kelly Lede
National Park Service image

For most Americans, when we think of “American Exploration,” we think of Manifest Destiny, Lewis and Clark, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. These are the household names revered in legend and song, about whom we write grade-school book reports and college history papers. These men’s contributions to our history remain undisputable feats of bravery, but they weren’t the only pioneers on the hunt for adventure. Though often overlooked by the pages of history, many women contributed to the exploration of the American West. One such trailblazer was Emma Leonidas Kelly, an avid adventurer whose dedicated documentation of the Klondike gold rush contributed to the preservation of pioneering history. Like the spartan warrior king of the same name, this intrepid frontierswoman demonstrated incredible courage and a truly indomitable spirit throughout her many expeditions.

As a female reporter during the Klondike gold rush, Emma Kelly was a trailblazer on multiple fronts. Often the only woman on her trips up North, she was frequently informed of what she “couldn’t do,” only to turn around and one up the challenge. On one such occasion, her hired guides attempted to abandon their trek amid vicious weather conditions. Not one for retreat (or fearmongering) Kelly reportedly declared, “If I can make it, so can you!” and insisted they soldier on. This wouldn’t be the only time her companions would try to dissuade her from the increasingly harrowing journey, either (though subsequent attempts were equally unsuccessful). While Kelly remained stringent in her decision to continue, she did quickly recognize the value of morale, and began a focused effort to improve the group’s spirits. A woman of truly never-ending talents, she simply pulled out her guitar and led them all in singing and celebrating their memories of home.

Sheep Camp image courtesy National Park Service

Unsurprisingly, Kelly’s determination didn’t stop at musical ability. In fact, Emma was so dedicated to journalistic integrity that she often felt the need to re-traverse elements of particularly dangerous terrain for additional documentation. Such detours often took a physical and monetary toll, but her fearless nature knew no bounds. When once again faced with the “a woman could never” argument prior to a voyage on the Yukon River rapids, Emma not only handled the treacherous waters with ease, but she also then immediately after arriving turned around and hiked back up the canyon to ride the rapids down for a second time. On her way up, Kelly came across an unexpected patch of ice, fell off a shallow cliff and hit her head. Unconscious in the frigid temperatures might have been the last history would see of the daring Emma Kelly, had it not been for her beloved Newfoundland, (aptly named Klondike) who barked so persistently that he alerted the crew to her location. Utterly undeterred by her recent brush with death, the relentless reporter barely gave herself time to recuperate before insisting on continuing the expedition that would later become her opus.

Despite having to repeatedly prove her mettle, Emma Kelly made many successful trips to Dawson City, and even ended up owning several mines in the area. She would go on to help found the Arctic Press Club (of which she was the only female member) and through the organization, hosted community events where locals could escape the harsh realities of mining. In the following years, she dedicated herself to sharing her experiences, giving lectures and writing magazine and newspaper articles about the Klondike wilderness and life on the frontier. With the proceeds and knowledge gained from her adventures, she eventually began a settlement claim in North Dakota, bringing full circle the opportunity that had changed her life.  

However, Kelly’s biggest accomplishment might be better defined as what she didn’t do. As the daughter of a former senator, Emma grew up in a measure of affluence and societal prestige. She likely could have had a very lush life, surrounded by luxury and ease, turning down any involvement in perilous exploits. Instead, when faced with a genial existence of everything handed to her, Kelly chose the uncertain road, and gained so much from her decision. Determined to avoid the safe and ordinary, Emma built her life on chasing what was dangerous and extraordinary, and had the grit to stick to her decision despite extreme adversity. Throughout her entire life, Emma Kelly embodied the pillars of courage, rugged individualism, and perseverance. These ideals, though not uniquely American, make Kelly a quintessential example of the American woman, and a hero of both the past and the present.


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