Stephen W. Kearny

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Stephen W. Kearny
Stephen W. Kearny.jpg
Military Governor of New Mexico
In office
August 1846 – September 1846
Preceded by Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid
Succeeded by Sterling Price
3rd Military Governor of California
In office
Preceded by Robert F. Stockton
Succeeded by Richard Barnes Mason
Personal details
Born August 30, 1794
Newark, New Jersey
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
St. Louis, Missouri
Profession Soldier
Awards Fort Kearny named for him.
Camp Kearny, San Diego, named after him.
Military service
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch CavalryBC.png Cavalry
Years of service 1812 – 1848
Rank Union army brig gen rank insignia.jpg Brigadier General
Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Bvt. Major General
Unit Cantonment Missouri
Commands Jefferson Barracks
The Old Guard
1CavRegtDUI.jpg 1st U.S. Dragoons
Army of the West
Mexico City
Battles/wars War of 1812
Mexican-American War
Battle of San Pascual

Stephen Watts Kearny (/ˈkɑːrni/ KAR-nee;[1] surname also appears as Kearney in some historic sources; August 30, 1794 – October 31, 1848), was one of the foremost antebellum frontier officers of the United States Army. He is remembered for his significant contributions in the Mexican–American War, especially the conquest of California. The Kearny code, which was proclaimed on September 22, 1846 in Santa Fe established the law and government of the newly acquired territory of New Mexico, was named after him.


Early years

Kearny was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Philip Kearny, Sr. and Susanna Watts. His maternal grandparents were the wealthy merchant Robert Watts of New York and Mary Alexander, the daughter of Major General "Lord Stirling" William Alexander and Sarah "Lady Stirling" Livingston of American Revolutionary War fame. Stephen Watts Kearny went to public schools. After high school, he attended Columbia University in New York City for two years. He joined the New York Militia soon after he left school in 1812, setting the course of the rest of his life.

Marriage and family

In the late 1820s after his career was established, Kearny met, courted and married Mary Radford, the stepdaughter of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The couple had eleven children, of whom six died in childhood.


Kearny served as a First Lieutenant in the War of 1812, and at the end of the war, he chose to remain in the US Army. He was assigned to the western frontier under command of Gen. Henry Atkinson. In 1819, he was a member of the expedition to explore the Yellowstone River in present-day Montana and Wyoming. The Yellowstone Expedition of 1819 journeyed only as far as present-day Nebraska, where it established Cantonment Missouri, later renamed Fort Atkinson. Kearny was also on the 1825 expedition that reached the mouth of the Yellowstone River. During his travels, he kept extensive journals, including his interactions with Native Americans.

In 1826, Kearny was appointed as the first commander of the new Jefferson Barracks in Missouri south of St. Louis. While stationed there, he was often invited to the nearby city, the center of fur trade, economics and politics of the region. By way of Meriwether Lewis Clark, Sr., he was invited as a guest of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

In 1833, Kearny became the lieutenant colonel (2nd in command) of the newly organized 1st Dragoon Regiment. The U.S. Cavalry eventually grew out of this regiment, which was re-designated the 1st United States Cavalry in 1861, earning Kearny his nickname as the "father of the United States Cavalry". The regiment was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in present-day Kansas, and Kearny was promoted to the rank of colonel in command of the regiment in 1836. He was also made commander of the Army's Third Military Department, charged with protecting the frontier and preserving peace among the tribes of Native Americans on the Great Plains.

By the early 1840s, when emigrants began traveling along the Oregon Trail, Kearny often ordered his men to escort the travelers across the plains to avoid attack by the Native Americans. The practice of the military's escorting settlers' wagon trains would become official government policy in succeeding decades. To protect the travelers, Kearny established a new post along Table Creek near present-day Nebraska City, Nebraska. The outpost was named Fort Kearny. However, the Army realized the site was not well-chosen, and the post was moved to the present location on the Platte River in central Nebraska.

Mexican–American War (1846–1848)

Gen. Kearny proclaiming New Mexico part of the United States, August 15, 1846 on the Plaza in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

At the outset of the Mexican–American War, Kearny was promoted to brigadier general on June 30, 1846 and took a force of about 2,500 men to Santa Fe, New Mexico. His Army of the West (1846) consisted of 1600 men in the volunteer First and Second Regiments of Fort Leavenworth, Missouri Mounted Cavalry regiment under Alexander Doniphan; an artillery and infantry battalion; 300 of Kearny's 1st U.S. Dragoons (light cavalry) and about 500 members of the Mormon Battalion. The Mexican military forces in New Mexico retreated to Mexico without fighting and Kearny's forces easily took control of New Mexico. While moving his forces through the native Pueblos town of Embudo north of Sante Fe, Kearny oversaw the burning of a church packed with locals who were inevitably burned alive in the fire.

Kearny established a joint civil and military government, appointing Charles Bent, a prominent Santa Fe Trail trader living in Taos, New Mexico as acting civil governor. He divided his forces into four commands: one, under Col. Sterling Price, appointed military governor, was to occupy and maintain order in New Mexico with his approximately 800 men; a second group under Col. Alexander William Doniphan, with a little over 800 men was ordered to capture El Paso, in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico and then join up with General John E. Wool;[2] the third command of about 300 dragoons mounted on mules, he led under his command to California along the Gila River trail. The Mormon Battalion, mostly marching on foot under Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, was directed to follow Kearny with wagons to blaze a new southern wagon route to California.


Kearny set out for California on September 25, 1846 with a force of 300 men. En route he encountered Kit Carson, a scout of John C. Frémont's California Battalion, carrying messages back to Washington on the status of hostilities in California. Kearny learned that California was, at the time of Carson's last information, under American control of the marines and bluejacket sailors of Commodore Robert F. Stockton of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron and Frémont's California Battalion. Kearny asked Carson to guide him back to California while he sent Carson's messages east with a different courier. Kearny sent 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe believing that California was secure. After traveling almost 2,000 miles (3,200 km) his weary 100 dragoons and most of his nearly worn-out mounts were replaced by untrained mules purchased from a mule herder's herd being driven to Santa Fe, New Mexico from California. On a trip across the Colorado Desert[3] to San Diego Kearny encountered marine Major Archibald H. Gillespie and about 30 men with news of an ongoing Californio revolt in Los Angeles.

On a wet December 6, 1846 day Kearny's forces encountered Andrés Pico (Californio Governor Pio Pico's brother) and a force of about 150 Californio Lancers. With most of his men mounted on weary untrained mules, his command executed an uncoordinated attack of Pico's force. They found most of their powder wet and pistols and carbines would not fire. They soon found their mules and cavalry sabers were poor defense against Californio Lancers mounted on well-trained horses. Kearny's column, along with the small force of Marines and volunteer militia, suffered defeat. About 18 men of Kearny's force were killed; retreating to a hill top to dry their powder and treat their wounded, they were surrounded by Andre Pico's forces. Kearny was slightly wounded in this encounter, the Battle of San Pasqual. Kit Carson got through Pico's men and returned to San Diego. Commodore Stockton sent a combined force of U.S. Marine and U.S. Navy bluejacket sailors to relieve Kearny's column. The U.S. forces quickly drove out the Californios. In January 1847 a combined force of about 600 men consisting of Kearny's dragoons, Stockton's marines and sailors, and two companies of Frémont's California Battalion won the San Gabriel and the La Mesa and retook control of Los Angeles on January 10, 1847. The Californio forces in California capitulated on January 13 to Lt. Col. John C. Frémont and his California Battalion. The Treaty of Cahuenga ended the fighting of the Mexican–American War in Alta California on that date. Kearny and Stockton decided to accept the liberal terms offered by Frémont to terminate hostilities, despite Andrés Pico's breaking his earlier, solemn pledge that he would not fight U.S. forces.

As the ranking Army officer, Kearny claimed command of California at the end of hostilities despite the fact that California was brought under U.S. control by Commodore Stockton's Pacific Squadron's forces. This began an unfortunate rivalry with Stockton, whose rank was equivalent to a rear admiral (lower half) today. Stockton and Kearny had the same equivalent rank (one star) and unfortunately the War Department had not worked out a protocol for who would be in charge. Stockton seized on the treaty of capitulation and appointed Frémont military governor of California.

In July 1846, Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson of New York was asked to raise a volunteer regiment of 10 companies of 77 men each to go to California with the understanding that they would muster out and stay in California. They were designated the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteers and fought in the California Campaign and the Pacific Coast Campaign. In August 1846 and September the regiment trained and prepared for the trip to California. Three private merchant ships, Thomas H Perkins, Loo Choo and Susan Drew, were chartered, and the sloop USS Preble was assigned convoy detail. On 26 September the four ships left New York for California. Fifty men who had been left behind for various reasons sailed on November 13, 1846 on the small storeship USS Brutus. The Susan Drew and Loo Choo reached Valparaíso, Chile by January 20, 1847 and after getting fresh supplies, water and wood were on their way again by January 23. The Perkins did not stop until San Francisco, reaching port on March 6, 1847. The Susan Drew arrived on March 20 and the Loo Choo arrived on March 16, 183 days after leaving New York. The Brutus finally arrived on April 17.

After desertions and deaths in transit the four ships brought 648 men to California. The companies were then deployed throughout Upper (Alta) and Lower (Baja) California from San Francisco to La Paz, Mexico. These troops finally allowed Kearny to assume command of California as ranking Army officer. The troops essentially took over all of the Pacific Squadron's on-shore military and garrison duties and the California Battalion and Mormon Battalion's garrison duties as well as some Baja California duties.

With all these reinforcements in hand Kearny assumed command, appointed his own territorial military governor and ordered Frémont to resign and accompany him back to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. On Kearny and Frémont's trip back east on the California Trail, accompanied by some members of the Mormon Battalion who had re-enlisted, they found and buried some of the Donner Party's remains on their trip over the Sierra Nevadas. Once at Fort Leavenworth, Frémont was restricted to barracks and ordered court-martialed for insubordination and willfully disregarding an order. A court martial convicted Frémont and ordered that he receive a dishonorable discharge, but President James K. Polk quickly commuted Frémont's sentence due to services he had rendered over his career. Frémont resigned his commission in disgust and settled in California.[4] In 1847 Frémont purchased the Rancho Las Mariposas, a large land grant in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains near Yosemite, which proved to be rich in gold. Frémont was later elected one of the first U.S. senators from California and was the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party in 1856.

Governorship and last years

Kearny remained military governor of California through August, when he traveled to Washington, D.C. and was welcomed as a hero. He was appointed governor of Veracruz, and later of Mexico City. He also received a brevet promotion to major general in September 1848, over the heated opposition of Frémont's father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton.

After contracting yellow fever in Veracruz, Kearny had to return to St. Louis. He died there in October (1848) at the age of 54. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, now a National Historic Landmark in St. Louis.


Kearny is the namesake of Kearny, Arizona and Kearney, Nebraska. Many schools are named after Kearny, including Kearny Elementary in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Kearny High School in the San Diego neighborhood of Kearny Mesa. Kearny Street, in downtown San Francisco, is also named for him, as is a street within Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Camp Kearny in San Diego, a U.S. military base which operated from 1917 to 1946 on the site of today's Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was named in his honor. Fort Kearny in Nebraska is also named for him.

His nephew was Major General Philip Kearny of American Civil War fame.

Kearny Mesa, an area of San Diego, was later named after him.

Two U.S. postage stamps relate to Kearny. Scott catalog number 970, printed in 1948, commemorates Fort Kearny, and number 944, issued in 1946, the capture of Santa Fe. The accuracy of the latter's depiction has been questioned.[5]


  1. Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815–1848. ISBN 978-0-19-507894-7, p. 758.
  2. John E. Wool [1] Kansas University
  3. James, George Wharton (May 1906). "The Colorado Desert: As General Kearney Saw It". The Four-Track News. Passenger Department, New York Central & Hudson River R.R. 10 (5): 389–93. OCLC 214967241. Unknown parameter |coauthor= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Borneman, Walter R., Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. New York,: Random House Books, 2008, pp. 284–85.
  5. Trail dust: 'Questionable' drawing plucked as stamp image

External links