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Stephen Watts Kearny

Born: 1794 - Died: 10-31-1848

by William H. Wroth

General Stephen Watts Kearny led the United States army forces in the occupation of New Mexico in August 1846. General Kearny was born in 1794 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended public schools in Newark and enrolled in Columbia College in New York City in 1811. In 1812 he left college to serve in the War of 1812 and took a commission as First Lieutenant in the 13th Infantry the next year. He was advanced to Captain in April 1813 and was wounded and captured by the British forces in October in the battle of Queenston Heights near the Niagara River in Canada. After being captured he was sent to Quebec but soon was released in a prisoner exchange. In 1815 he was transferred to the 2nd Infantry. In 1819 he had his first experiences in the West when he took part in Colonel Henry Atkinson’s Yellowstone expedition, which built the first United States military post west of the Mississippi River, Camp Missouri (later Fort Atkinson) in today’s Nebraska. In 1820 Kearny accompanied Captain Matthew J. Magee on an overland expedition to Fort Snelling. In 1825 now as Major in the 1st Infantry he accompanied Atkinson on another expedition, traveling by keelboats up the Missouri River to Ponca and Mandan Indian villages and continuing 120 miles up the Yellowstone.

After various postings in Wisconsin, Missouri and today’s Oklahoma, in 1833 he advanced to lieutenant colonel of the newly organized 1st Dragoons in Iowa. He advanced to colonel in the dragoons and has been credited as the father of the American cavalry of which the dragoons were the forerunner. In 1842 Kearny was appointed as commander of the Third Military Department at Fort Leavenworth, with responsibility for keeping peace with the Indian tribes on the Plains and escorting travelers and expeditions going west. He conducted an expedition himself in 1845; with five companies of dragoons he traveled over the Oregon Trail from Fort Leavenworth to Wyoming, holding a council with the Sioux near Fort Laramie to convince them not to attack the emigrant wagon trains. He then returned to Fort Leavenworth by a southern route to Bent’s Fort and the Arkansas River, meeting with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Kearny’s expedition added to the Army’s knowledge of the terrain and the routes west, and a new map, improving on the efforts of John C. Fremont, was made by Lieutenant William Franklin under Kearny’s direction.

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in May 1846, Kearny, now familiar with the routes across the Plains was a logical choice to become commander of the Army of the West. He was made Brigadier-General and given the task of leading United States forces to New Mexico and California. Organized in May and June 1846, the Army of the West consisted of two batteries of artillery, three squadrons of dragoons, one regiment of cavalry, and two companies of infantry, totaling approximately 1750 men. The Army marched in late June over the Santa Fe Trail to the Arkansas River near Bent’s Fort. At Bent’s Fort on August 2, General Kearny sent Captain Philip St. George Cooke ahead to New Mexico with a flag of truce, hoping to negotiate a peaceful surrender of New Mexico. Cooke first arrived in the town of Las Vegas where he was hospitably received by the alcalde, Juan de Dios Maes. Cooke went on to Santa Fe, arriving on August 12. Cooke and his party met with Governor Manuel Armijo, presenting him with a letter from Kearny which asked for his surrender. Armijo declined to surrender, stating that he would oppose the invasion. Later he 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. It has been said by American writers, in their negative depictions of Armijo, that Magoffin on behalf of the United States government bribed him not to fight, but there is no concrete evidence for this accusation. Rather, Armijo’s reluctance to oppose Kearny was most likely based upon the hard facts of the situation: the strength of the United States forces and the comparative weakness and inexperience of the volunteers under his command. As Lieutenant Emory characterized Armijo’s response: “He has seen what they [his people] are blind to; the hopelessness of resistance.”

Kearny and his troops advanced from Bent’s Fort to Las Vegas on August 15 where he met no opposition. Alcalde Maes assembled the citizens in the plaza and Kearny informed them that they were no longer under Mexican sovereignty and that he had replaced Armijo as their governor. He pledged to respect their Catholic religion. Then Kearny continued westward, passing through Tecolote and San Miguel del Bado where he gave the same speech. On August 14 Governor Armijo had 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. Armijo with 75 dragoons then retreated to Chihuahua.

On August 18 General Kearny and his troops took possession of Santa Fe without a battle, graciously if sadly welcomed by acting governor Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid. In front of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, the General again told the assembled citizens they were no longer under Mexican rule. Vigil y Alarid spoke in response, noting that questions of national sovereignty were to be decided by the cabinets in Mexico City and Washington, not by the local people, but went on to say: “Don’t be surprised that among us there has been no love or manifestation of joy and enthusiasm in seeing this city occupied by your military forces. For us the power of the Mexican republic is dead. No matter what her condition, she was our mother. What child will not shed abundant tears at the tomb of his parents?”

On August 22 Kearny issued his first proclamation as military governor in which he spoke of the military power of his forces, stating that “he has more troops than is necessary to put down any opposition that can possibly be brought before him, and therefore that it would be but folly or madness for any dissatisfied or discontented persons to think of resisting him.” And he ordered those who had taken up arms against the United States troops to return home “or else they will be considered enemies and traitors, subjecting their persons to punishment and their property to seizure and confiscation.” He assured the populace that the Catholic Church and its property would not be disturbed nor would their right to worship be hindered, and they would be protected against their enemies, “the Eutaws [Utes], the Navajos and others.” He ended by proudly noting that he had taken possession of the territory “without firing a gun, or spilling a single drop of blood.”

On September 22 Kearny, as military governor, appointed civil officials for the territory, as follows: Charles Bent, Governor; Donaciano Vigil, Secretary; Richard Dallam, Marshall; Francis P. Blair, Jr., United States Attorney; Charles Blummer, Treasurer; Eugene Leitensdorfer, Auditor. Joab Houghton, Antonio José Otero, and Charles Beaubien were appointed Superior Court Judges. On the same day Kearny also promulgated the first set of laws for New Mexico under United States sovereignty. The "Kearny Code" was actually compiled by Colonel A. W. Doniphan and was based on both the laws of the United States and Mexico. It became the basis for law in New Mexico and was in use until 1885.

Three days later Kearny with 300 of his troops departed from Santa Fe for California, leaving Colonel Doniphan in charge until the arrival of Colonel Sterling Price and his troops. At Socorro Kearny met Kit Carson who incorrectly informed him that California had already surrendered to John C. Fremont and Commodore Robert Stockton, so he left 200 of his troops in New Mexico and enlisted Carson to guide him to southern California. Meanwhile with Price’s arrival, Doniphan and his men then marched south to do battle in Chihuahua. In early December Kearny and his men reached California, and on December 6 they engaged Mexican forces led by Andrés Pico in the battle of San Pascual. Underestimating Pico’s lancers, the Americans were routed with 22 men killed and were forced to retreat to nearby ridge to wait re-enforcements from Stockton. Kearny himself received two wounds in the battle. The combined forces of Kearny and Stockton went on to take San Diego and Los Angeles, thus ending the Mexican-American War in California.

Kearny and Fremont soon came into conflict over who should assume supreme authority over California and establish a provisional territorial government. Stockton had named Fremont as governor, but Washington sided with Kearny and he served as military governor of California for three months. Fremont was later court-martialed for disobeying orders and resigned from the army. Kearny went from California to Mexico in 1847 where he served briefly as military governor of Veracruz and of Mexico City. In Veracruz he contracted yellow fever 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.

Sources Used:

Clarke, Dwight L. Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Clarke, Dwight L., ed. The Original Journals of Henry Smith Turner: With Stephan Watts Kearny to New Mexico and California, 1846-1847. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966

Emory, W. H. Notes of a Military Reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego, in California. Washington, 1848 (30th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Executive no. 7).

Kearny, Stephen Watts. Report of a Summer Campaign to the Rocky Mountains, &c. in 1845. Washington, 1845 (29th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Document 1).

Thrapp. Dan L. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, vol. II. Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Co, 1990.

Twitchell, Ralph E. The History of the Military Occupation of the Territory of New Mexico from 1846 to 1851. Denver: Smith-Brooks Co., 1909.