Fort Kearny, Kearney City, Kearney Station, Kearney Junction, Kearney County, and the City of Kearney - all named for a man who was never stationed at the Fort. He had, however, passed through the area while leading an expedition up the Oregon Trail to South Pass in 1845. This man was General Stephen Watts Kearny, whose distinguished military service in the Mexican War led to the honor of having Fort Kearny named for him. Even earlier, Kearny's name was given to the first Fort Kearny on Table Creek near what became Nebraska City. The fort, begun in 1846, was located by Kearny who had been urging its establishment since 1838.
Stephen Watts Kearny
Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
Stephen Watts Kearny was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1794 into a family whose ancestors came primarily from Ireland where the name was O'Kearny. Yes, the name was spelled KEARNY, but when a postoffice was applied for at the Fort in 1849, it was misspelled KEARNEY and this misspelling has been retained since, except for the Fort, which now uses the correct Kearny name.
Kearny attended public schools and spent two years at Columbia University in New York City. Soon after he left school he joined the New York Militia and thereby established the course of his future life work. He served as a soldier for thirty-six difficult and exciting years. Because of his career choice, the plains, the mountains and the frontier West were to be his home for most of his life.
He served as a Lieutenant and Captain in the War of 1812 during which he was both injured and imprisoned briefly. Soon after that he traveled westward by boat and foot with exploration parties sent to establish new routes through the Great Plains. Fortunately, during most of his life he kept a diary which has been of great value to his future historians.
In 1819 Captain Kearny was a member of General Atkinson's Yellowstone expedition which established Cantonment Missouri (later Fort Atkinson) near present Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. This was the northernmost point reached in 1819, but Kearny was with the 1825 expedition that ended at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. During these travels he visited Indian villages, saw many buffalo and other game. Kearny admitted that he became adjusted to his wandering life with its frequent moves to new places. He studied and learned about the true course of rivers and corrected existing maps. Because the need was there, he learned to repair boats and equipment. Indian tribes accepted him well and he had satisfactory council meetings with all of them that he visited.
His government asked this capable man to supervise the building of many forts and barracks through the midwest. Major Kearny was the first commander of Jefferson Barracks in 1826, which still exists in Missouri. From there he often was invited to the city of St. Louis to visit friends. Now in his thirties he was a nice-looking, slender, tall man with soldierly bearing. While he was a guest of General Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, he met his future wife. She was Clark's stepdaughter, 18 year-old Mary Radford. Kearny won her over some competition and in 1830 married this young lady who followed him to Fort Leavenworth.
At this point in his career Kearny started a new project, that of organizing a regiment of dragoons very much like a cavalry outfit. Eighteen hundred men joined his unit and he became "the Father of the U.S. Cavalry." The unit's next headquarters were at Fort Leavenworth where Kearny was promoted to the rank of Colonel. Mary Radford Kearny accompanied her husband wherever she could. Their family now included some small children. They eventually had eleven children but all of them did not live to adulthood. Kearny was devoted to the aim of preserving peace. As commander of the army's Third Military Department, Colonel Kearny and his men were now trying to protect a thousand miles of frontier and to preserve peace among many Indian tribes. Sometimes he even ordered his soldiers to escort emigrants on the Oregon Trail across the plains so they could avoid Indian attacks.
At the outbreak of the Mexican War, Kearny was considered one of the army's most capable officers, and he was made commander of the Army of the West by President Polk and ordered to lead an expeditionary force to occupy New Mexico and California. He quickly accomplished the bloodless conquest of New Mexico on August 19, 1846, and was named military governor with headquarters in Santa Fe. Kearny was now 52 years of age.
Kearny Monument in Plaza, Santa Fe. On top of the monument are these words: In this plaza Gen. S. W. Kearny, U.S.A., proclaimed the peaceable annexation of New Mexico, Aug. 19, 1846. Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
After spending a little more than a month in Santa Fe, Kearny decided to continue on to California with 300 of his men. Two hundred of these returned to Santa Fe on hearing from a dispatch rider that Fremont had occupied California. The remaining 100, after an arduous trip across the desert, suffered heavy casualties in a battle with Californians at San Pascual on December 6, 1846. The occupation of San Diego only became possible when Kearny received reinforcements from Commodore Robert Stockton. The joint command fought two further skirmishes near Los Angeles in January, 1847, and were proceeding toward Monterey when they heard the last Mexican forces had surrendered to Fremont.
A controversy then arose between Kearny and Stockton with each claiming authority to organize a provisional territorial government. Stockton named Fremont governor thus challenging Kearny's claim to that role. Kearny's position was ultimately upheld and Fremont, who had refused to obey his superior officer, was later court martialed and resigned from the army. From there he was sent to Mexico, briefly serving as governor at Vera Cruz and Mexico City. Kearny was appointed Brevet Major-General while at the latter post. Late in the summer of 1848, Kearny returned to the United Stated to die in St. Louis in October of an illness contracted in Mexico. His was the largest funeral St. Louis had had up to that time. Seven hundred soldiers and friends marched behind his casket. He provided amply for his wife and surviving children. In addition to his estate his wife received from the government thirty dollars per month until her death at the age of 88.
A St. Louis newspaper reporter summed up the life of General Kearny when he published the following: "General Kearny, though not a product of West Point, was a fine disciplinarian, a brave soldier and a military genius. He was influential among the Indians and maintained a degree of good fellowship among his officers and men which was seldom equalled at any other military post. He was at all times courteous, approachable and just--yet stern, fixed and unwavering when his decisions were once formed. He inspired respect and confidence alike in officers and in men of the ranks."
Kearny built more frontier posts than any contemporary, led some of the longest marches in American history, and brought law and order to vast portions of the country that had previously known little of either. The citizens of Kearney, Nebraska, can be proud that their city bears the name of such an admirable man.
Fort Kearny (originally Fort Childs) named in honour of S. W. Kearny
Clark, Stephen Watts Kearny, Soldier of the West. Simmons, New Mexico, a history.
Back to Buffalo Tales Index
Back to Buffalo County Historical Society home page