Kelley was born in Era, Texas. He graduated from Balmorhea High School in 1931, enrolled at Sul Ross State Teachers College, and later received his B.A. in anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 1937. He completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1948.
Kelley was active in fieldwork as he pursued his education. In the early 1930s he was involved in several excavations and surveys in west Texas, often associated with Sul Ross State College. While at the University of New Mexico, Kelley worked at various sites in New Mexico and held a position as field ethnographer for the Soil Conservation Service's social and economic survey of the Navajo Indian Reservation. The latter part of the 1930s saw Kelley returning to west Texas to pursue a decade of research, variously associated with Sul Ross, the WPA, School of American Research (SAR), the University of Texas-Austin, and Harvard.
In collaboration with Thomas N. Campbell, Kelley directed the 1937-1938 Harvard Peabody Museum-Sul Ross State Teachers College Expedition in the Texas Big Bend, which resulted in the first substantive culture-historical framework for the Big Bend borderlands. He conducted surveys on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of the Río Grande in the vicinity of Ojinaga and, as part of an SAR project, excavated the Millington and Loma Alta sites. This, and his earlier work, provided the basis for his dissertation, Jumano and Patarabueye, Relations at La Junta de los Ríos. Kelley's dissertation committee included Clyde Kluckhohn (chair), J. O. Brew, Kirk Bryan, and Alfred Kidder II. Kelley felt deeply indebted to Kluckhohn, whom he considered his mentor.
From 1944 to 1945 Kelley conducted anthropometric research for the design of gas masks as a research associate for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was assigned to the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service. He enlisted in the army in 1945 and was honorably discharged at the end of World War II.
Kelley became the curator of the Archaeology Museum at the University of Texas-Austin in 1949. He continued work on the Río Grande, but also initiated research in northwest Mexico--a survey of the Río Conchos in Chihuahua. In 1950, Kelley began a 26-year tenure at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIU) as director of the University Museum and a founding father of the anthropology department. During his early years at SIU, he conducted archaeological research in southern Illinois. However, Kelley's main research focus continued to be northwest Mexican archaeology, especially the Chalchihuites culture--an interest that would persist for the rest of his life.
In 1952 Kelley initiated fieldwork in Durango, Mexico. By 1954, in collaboration with Román Piña Chán, Kelley undertook the first of three seasons of excavation at the Schroeder site, south of the city of Durango--work that led him to the development of the Chalchihuites sequence. This work also sparked Kelley's interest in Chalchihuites exchange and interaction with the cultures of Mexico's west coast and the Aztatlán tradition. Kelley would eventually document an extensive exchange system throughout west and northwest Mexico, with links to central Mexican cultures. It was with the Durango research that Kelley also formulated his concept of the Loma San Gabriel culture.
Kelley helped organize the Mesoamerican Cooperative Research Program at SIU in 1960, overseeing surveys in Durango, Zacatecas, and northern Jalisco. Simultaneously he organized a far-ranging project to study the northwest frontier from the Bajío through Zacatecas, northern Jalisco, to Durango, with collaborators Román Piña Chán, Howard Winters, Walter Taylor, Pedro Armillas, and Beatrice Braniff. Also at this time, Ellen Abbott Kelley, his wife, right arm, field assistant, laboratory director, and ceramicist, began 30 years of research on the Chalchihuites culture.
The Schroeder excavations and intitial testing at Alta Vista resulted in Kelley's seminal article "Archaeology of the Northern Frontier: Zacatecas and Durango" (1971, in Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, Part II. Edited by Gordon F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal, pp. 763-801. Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol 11. General editor Robert Wauchope, Universityof Texas Press, Austin). Here, Kelley abandoned the concept of a panregional Chalchihuites-La Quemada cultural pattern, arguing that although the cultures of the region may have grown from a common base, they eventually evolved into three distinctive cultures: the Chalchihuites, Malpaso (La Quemada), and Bolaños-Juchipila cultures. His studies of the northwest Mesoamerican frontier also led to an interest in Mesoamerican-southwestern interaction, a topic he discussed in numerous publications.
The 1971 season at Alta Vista was followed by several survey seasons in western Zacatecas and excavations at Gualterio Abajo. Two excavation seasons at Alta Vista (1974-1976) demonstrated the uniqueness of this frontier Mesoamerican ceremonial center, and the site became the primary focus of Kelley's subsequent research.
Kelley retired from SIU in 1976 and returned to Texas. He and Ellen became adjunct faculty at Sul Ross State University. At their home in Fort Davis, the Kelleys built a library to continue their Mexican research. In 1986 when he was 73, J. Charles and Ellen organized Blue Mountain Consultants and undertook numerous small survey and excavation projects in west Texas. They codirected excavations at Alta Vista in 1991-1993 at the invitation of archaeologists from the Centro Regional de Zacatecas and the Mexican state of Zacatecas. In 1994 Kelley retired from fieldwork although he continued to write and assist other investigators.
Kelley served as officer, board member, committee member, and consultant for a variety of local, regional, and national organizations including SAA and the American Anthropological Association. Because of his vast knowledge of northwest Mexico, the American Southwest, and Mesoamerica, he was often sought as a discussant for numerous symposia and conferences. Kelley was an advocate for collaboration between American and Mexican archaeologists and actively participated in the Sociedad de Antropología Mexicana. Upon his retirement from SIU, two festschrift volumes were published in his honor. In 1980 Kelley spent an academic year at the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas at the Universidad National Autónoma de México as a recipient of the first Cátedra Extraordinaria Alfonso Caso, commending his many years of devotion to the archaeology of Mexico. SAA honored him with its 50th Anniversary Award. His years of efforts on behalf of Texas archaeology were recognized by the Texas Historical Commission and the Texas Office of the State Archaeologist. In 1986 an homenaje was held in Zacatecas in recognition of Kelley's work in northwest Mexico, and he was acknowledged by the Sociedad de Amigos de Zacatecas and the Universidad Juarez del Estado de Durango. His humor, generosity, friendship, and scholarship is--and will be--missed.
Michael S. Foster is with the Cultural Resource Management Program at Gila River Indian Community, Robert J. Mallouf is with the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University, and Carroll L. Riley is a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University.