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First Name: Stephen

Last Name: Kearny

Birthplace: Newark, NJ, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: Watts

Date of Birth: 30 August 1796

Date of Death: 31 October 1848

Rank: Major General

Years Served:
Stephen Watts Kearny

•  War of 1812
•  Mexican-American Wars (1846 - 1848)


Stephen Watts Kearny
Brevet Major General, U.S. Army

Stephen Watts Kearny was born on 30 August 1796 in Newark, NJ, the son of Philip Kearny, Sr. and Susanna Watts Kearny. 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, setting the course of the rest of his life.

Military Career

Kearny served as a First Lieutenant in the War of 1812, and at the end of the war, he chose to remain in the U.S. 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 1819 Expedition 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, south of St. Louis, MO. 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.

While at Jefferson Barracks, Kearny organized a regiment of dragoons on the lines of a cavalry unit. The U.S. Cavalry eventually grew out of this regiment, earning Kearny his nickname as the "father of the U.S. Cavalry." The regiment was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in present-day Kansas, and Kearny was promoted to the rank of Colonel. 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 immigrants 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 emigrants, Kearny established a new post along Table Creek near present-day Nebraska City, NE. 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 (1846-48)

At the outset of the Mexican-American War, Kearny took a force of about 2,500 men to Santa Fe, NM. His Army of the West (1846) consisted of 1600 men in the volunteer First and Second Regiments of Fort Leavenworth, MO, Mounted Cavalry regiment under Alexander Doniphan; an artillery and infantry battalion; 300 of Kearny's 1st U.S. Dragoons (light Calvary) 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.

Kearny established a joint civil and military government, appointing Charles Bent, a prominent Santa Fe Trail trader living in Taos, NM, as acting Civil Governor. He divided his forces into four commands: one, under Colonel Sterling Price who was appointed military governor, was to occupy and maintain order in New Mexico with his approximately 800 men; a second group under Colonel 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; 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 25 September 1846 with a force of 300 men. Enroute, he encountered Kit Carson, a scout of John C. Fremont'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 Fremont'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, 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, NM, from California. On a trip across the Mojave Desert to San Diego, Kearny encountered Marine Major Archibald H. Gillespie and about 30 men with news of an on-going California revolt in Los Angeles.

On a wet day on 6 December 1846, Kearny's forces encountered Andres Pico (California Governor Pio Pico's brother) and a force of about 150 Californio Lancers. (Californio, historic and regional Spanish for "Californian," is a term used to identify a Spanish-speaking Catholic people, regardless of race, born in California before 1848.) 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 their 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. Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny's U.S. Army column, along with the small force of Marines and volunteer Militia, suffered defeat at the hands of the Californios and their Lancers, led by Andrés Pico. About 18 men of Kearny's force were killed and an unknown number of Andre Pico's forces. Retreating to a hilltop to dry their powder and treat their wounded they were surrounded by Andre Pico's forces. This battle is called the Battle of San Pasqual and Kearny was slightly wounded in the battle. 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 Blue Jacket Sailors to relieve Kearny's column. In the aftermath, the U.S. forces after reaching San Diego quickly drove the Californios out of the area. In January 1847, a combined force of about 600 men consisting of Kearny's Dragoons, Stockton's Marines and Sailors and two companies of Fremont's California Battalion won the battles of San Gabriel and La Mesa and retook control of Los Angeles on 10 January. When Californio forces in California capitulated on 13 January, they did not do so to Stockton or Kearny, but 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 13 January 1847. Kearny and Stockton decided to accept the liberal terms offered by Fremont to terminate hostilities--despite Andre Pico's breaking his solemn pledge that he would not fight the U.S. forces given earlier.

As ranking Army officer, Brigadier General 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 Commodore (equivalent to a Rear Admiral today) Stockton. 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, Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson of New York had been asked to raise a volunteer regiment of ten companies of 77 men each to go to California with the understanding that they would be mustered out and remain 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 and September 1846, 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 13 November 1846 on the small storeship USS Brutus. The Susan Drew and Loo Choo reached Valparaiso, Chile by 20 January 1847 and after getting fresh supplies, water and wood were on their way again by 23 January. The Perkins did not stop until San Francisco, reaching port on 6 March 1847. The Susan Drew arrived on 20 March 1847 and the Loo Choo arrived on 26 March 1847, 183 days after leaving New York. The Brutus finally arrived on 17 April 1847.

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 in California and appointed his own territorial military governor and ordered Fremont to resign as military governor and accompany him back to Fort Leavenworth KS. On Kearny and Fremont'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 Nevada's. Once at Fort Leavenworth, Fremont was restricted to barracks and ordered court marshaled for insubordination and willfully disregarding an order. A court marshal court eventually convicted Fremont and ordered a dishonorable discharge from the Army. President James K. Polk quickly commuted Fremont's sentence of dishonorable discharge due to the services he had rendered over his career. Frémont resigned his commission in disgust and settled in California. In 1847 Fremont purchased the Rancho Las Mariposas, a large gold rich land grant in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains near Yosemite. Fremont was later elected one of the first U.S. Senators from California, as well as being chosen as the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party in 1856.

Governorship and Final Years

Kearny remained Military Governor of California through August, when he traveled to Washington, DC, 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 at the age of 54.


Kearny is the namesake of Kearny, AZ, and Kearney, NE.

Many schools are named after Kearny, including Kearny Elementary in Santa Fe, NM, and Kearny High School in the San Diego neighborhood of Kearny Mesa, also named in his honor.

Kearny Street, in downtown San Francisco, is also named for him, as is a street within Fort Leavenworth, KS.

Camp Kearny in San Diego, a U.S. military base which operated from 1917-46 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.


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 several died in childhood.

His nephew was Major General Philip Kearny of American Civil War fame. Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming and Fort Kearny in Washington, DC, are named for him.

Death and Burial

Major General Stephen Watts Kearny died on 31 October 1848. He is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, now a National Historic Landmark in St. Louis, MO.

Honoree ID: 2694   Created by: MHOH




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