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States: General History and Description >> Revolution to Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Mexican War, 1846-1848
explorer, Mexican War general, Military Governor of California
Stephen Watts Kearny was born in Newark, New Jersey, on August 30, 1794. He attended the Newark public schools and enrolled in Columbia College (now Columbia University) in 1811. He left college to join the New York Militia soon after outbreak of the War of 1812, beginning what became a lifelong military career. Commissioned First Lieutenant in the 13th Infantry in 1813, Kearny was promoted to Captain in April of that same year. Wounded and taken prisoner during the Battle of Queenston Heights in October of 1813, he was briefly held at Quebec until being released in a prisoner exchange. He subsequently served through the end of the war, and was transferred to the 2nd Infantry in 1815.
Explorations and Fort Establishments
In 1819, Kearny was part of Colonel Henry Atkinson's Yellowstone expedition, which built the first U.S. military post west of the Mississippi, Camp Missouri (later renamed Fort Atkinson) near what is now Omaha, Nebraska. In 1820, he accompanied Captain Matthew J. Magee on an overland expedition to establish Fort Snelling, near present-day St. Paul, Minnesota. A Major in the 1st Infantry by 1825, Kearny accompanied Atkinson up the Missouri River (by keelboat) that year, visiting several Ponca and Mandan villages along the way, and then another 120 miles up the Yellowstone River. In 1826, Kearny was appointed as the first commander of the new Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, south of St. Louis.
In the late 1820's, after his career was established, Kearny met, courted and married Mary Radford, the stepdaughter of William Clark. The couple had eleven children, of whom 6 died in childhood.
In 1833, Kearny organized and was made Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st Dragoons in Iowa. The U.S. Cavalry eventually grew out of this regiment, earning Kearny the nickname "father of the United States Cavalry." The regiment was subsequently stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. By 1842 Kearny had been promoted to full Colonel and appointed commander of the Third Military Department, which was charged with maintaining peace with Native Americans and escorting travelers and expeditions. In 1845, Kearny led an expedition of five companies of dragoons over the Oregon Trail from Fort Leavenworth to Wyoming, where he held a council with the Sioux near Fort Laramie to convince them not to attack the emigrant wagon trains. He returned to Leavenworth by way of Bent's Fort (near present-day La Juncta, Colorado) and the Arkansas River, meeting with Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes along the way.
In 1846, Kearny was made a Brigadier-General and given the task of leading the newly organized Army of the West to New Mexico and California. The Army marched in late June over the Santa Fe Trail to the Arkansas River near Bent's Fort, from where he sent Captain Philip St. George Cooke ahead to New Mexico with a flag of truce, hoping to negotiate a peaceful surrender of New Mexico. Upon arriving at Santa Fe on August 12, Cooke and his party met with Governor Manuel Armijo, presenting him with a letter from Kearny asking for his surrender. Armijo declined to surrender, stating that he would oppose the invasion; he later sent an emissary to Kearny delivering the same message. Armijo issued a call to arms which brought an enthusiastic but completely untrained crowd of New Mexicans to Santa Fe to volunteer for the defense of the territory. In the meantime, however, Captain Cooke, United States consul Manuel Alvarez, and merchants James Magoffin and Henry Connelly all met with Armijo to urge him not to fight. On August 14, Governor Armijo ordered the volunteers to Apache Canyon east of Santa Fe to defend against the invasion, but when he arrived there himself on the 16th, he decided not to oppose Kearny and sent the volunteers home. On August 18, General Kearny and his troops took possession of Santa Fe without a battle.
On September 25, 1846, after establishing a government for New Mexico, Kearny set out for California with 300 troops. At Socorro (New Mexico) 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 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. On the trip across the Mojave Desert to San Diego, Kearny encountered Major Archibald H. Gillespie, who told him about an on-going Californio revolt in Los Angeles.
On December 6, 1846, Kearny's forces encountered Andrés Pico and a force of about 150 Californio Lancers. With most of his men mounted on weary, untrained mules, Kearny's command executed an uncoordinated attack on Pico's force. About 18 men of Kearny's force were killed and they were forced to retreat to a hill top, where they were surrounded by Pico's forces. Kearny was slightly wounded during the fighting, but Carson was able to get through Pico's men and make it to San Diego. Commodore Stockton then 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. The Californio forces in California capitulated on January 13, ending the Mexican-American War in California. Both Kearny and Stockton claimed responsibility for bringing California under U.S. control, and since both men were of equal rank the War Department was unable to decide which one should be in charge of the newly acquired territory. Since Stockton had been the one to whom the Californios had formally surrendered, he declared himself in control and appointed Frémont Military Governor of California. Stockton's appointment was soon overruled by Washington, however, and Kearny was named Military Governor instead. When Frémont refused to leave his office, Stockton had him arrested and sent to Washington, D.C., where he was tried for mutiny, insubordination, and conduct prejudicial to good order. He was found guilty and dismissed from the Army, but President James K. Polk overruled the guilty plea and returned Frémont's commission.
Kearny remained Military Governor of California through August 1847, when he traveled to Washington, where he was greeted as a hero. He was subsequently appointed Military Governor of Veracruz, and then of Mexico City. He contracted yellow fever while serving in Veracruz, and in the summer of 1848 returned to his home in St. Louis, where he died from the effects of the disease on October 31, 1848.
This page was last updated on January 21, 2017.