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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Kearny, Stephen Watts
(August 30, 1794–October 31, 1848)

–soldier and explorer—was related to several important families in New York City. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and attended Columbia University for at least two years. His long military career began at age 15 when he was commissioned an ensign (second lieutenant) in the New York militia. On March 12, 1812, Kearny received appointment in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant. He fought brilliantly in the American invasion of Canada west of Buffalo but was captured at the Battle of Queenston Heights. His heroism and disciplined leadership led to his promotion to captain and to a new assignment west of the Mississippi in 1819. Rarely would he return to the East.

    Kearny's service between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War was multifaceted and distinguished. He accompanied and later led expeditions to negotiate with numerous American Indian tribes. His presence con tributed to generally peaceful coexistence between western settlers and American Indians before the Civil War. He supervised the building and reconstruction of army posts, most notably Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis.

    Kearny was with the first troops to pass through what is now Iowa. The descriptions left by Kearny and his men of the territory before white settlement are unique. In the late summer of 1819 Kearny led a portion of the Sixth Infantry from St. Louis through southwestern Iowa to Council Bluffs. In July 1820 he accompanied an expedition to find a convenient route from posts at Council Bluffs to Camp Coldwater (later Fort Snelling) on the upper Mississippi. After a difficult three-week trek through treeless plains and swarms of mosquitoes, Kearny and his superiors concluded that no easy path existed. The force returned to St. Louis by way of the Mississippi. On September 10, 1828, Kearny took command at Fort Crawford near Prairie du Chien and began construction of a more practical facility before his transfer in July 1829 to St. Louis, where he undertook the Jefferson Barracks project. For a few summer months in 1830 he returned to Fort Crawford. During that time, he evicted lead miners near Dubuque. That same year he married Mary Radford, stepdaughter of explorer William Clark.

    In late September 1834 Kearny took command of the dilapidated Fort Des Moines near Montrose, Iowa, which he rebuilt. Anticipating the need for a more forward base as settlers crossed the Mississippi, the War Department ordered Kearny to survey land near present-day Des Moines. Beginning June 7, 1835, Kearny undertook a 12-week expedition that led him through central Iowa and southern Minnesota and into contact with several Indian tribes. His survey of the junction of the Des Moines River and Raccoon Fork on August 8-10 convinced him of the unsuitability of that location, and he returned to Fort Des Moines. Reports described Fort Des Moines as an uncomfortable facility. Nonetheless, Kearny's first daughter, Harriet, was born there on September 24, 1835. He remained there until his promotion to colonel and transfer to Fort Leavenworth in June 1836.

    Given his extensive knowledge of western trails and conditions, Kearny received appointment as brigadier general of the Army of the West at the outbreak of the Mexican War. His assignment was to capture Santa Fe and take command of the forces in California. On August 18, 1846, his army of Missouri volunteers and U.S. cavalry captured Santa Fe without firing a shot. Despite a near defeat at San Pascual on December 6, 1846, a month later the combined forces of Kearny, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, and Colonel John C. Frémont brought California under American control. Kearny's reputation has suffered unfairly because of a dispute with Frémont over who was in charge in California. Kearny's orders clearly gave him ultimate authority, but the dispute led to the court-martial of the popular Frémont, whose family and political allies conducted an unrelenting attack on Kearny's character and accomplishments.

    In March 1848 Kearny was appointed the military and civilian governor of Vera Cruz while the peace treaty was finalized and implemented. His three-month service was anticlimactic and ultimately deadly. Kearny contracted yellow fever and returned to St. Louis to recover. Sixteen days after the birth of his 10th child and sixth son, Kearny died of the lingering effects of the fever. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. philip lucas
Sources The Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, holds Kearny's diaries and some correspondence. There is one full-length biography: Dwight L. Clarke, Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West (1961). See also Valentine Mott Porter, ed., "Journal of Stephen Watts Kearny," Missouri Historical Society Collections 3 (1908), 8–29, 99–131; Louis Pelzer, ed., "A Journal of Marches by the First United States Dragoons, 1834–1835," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 7 (1909), 331–78; and William J. Petersen, "Kearny in Iowa," Palimpsest 12 (1931), 289–334.
Contributor: M. Philip Lucas

Cite as: Lucas, M Philip. "Kearny, Stephen Watts" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017