One of the foremost frontier officers of the U.S. Army, General Stephen Kearny is remembered for his significant contributions in the Mexican-American War, especially the conquest of California. Stephen Watts Kearny was born August 30, 1794, in Newark, New Jersey. Following two years of college, Kearny joined the New York Militia and began a military career that would last for 36 years. He spent most of that time traveling throughout the western frontier, exploring, mapping, visiting Indian tribes and keeping the peace. He fought in the War of 1812 serving as a First Lieutenant. Afterwards he was assigned to the western frontier and in 1819 was a member of the expedition to explore the Yellowstone River in present-day Montana and Wyoming. 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 St. Louis, Missouri. During this time, Kearny met, courted, and married Mary Radford, the stepdaughter of William Clark of the famous Corps of Discovery Expedition. The couple had eleven children, of whom, six died in childhood.
In 1833, Kearny became the Lieutenant Colonel of the newly organized 1st Dragoon Regiment, which eventually grew into the U.S. Cavalry, earning him the nickname of the “father of the United States Cavalry”. The regiment was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 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. At the outset of the Mexican–American War in 1856, Kearny was promoted to Brigadier General and took a force of about 2,500 men to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also became the Commander of the Army of the West, which consisted of some 1600 men.
By 1847, Kearny was promoted to Brevet-Major General and was appointed governor at Vera Cruz and Mexico City. While there, he contracted yellow fever and returned to his home in St. Louis, Missouri where he died on October 31, 1848. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, now a National Historic Landmark in St. Louis.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated June 2018.