Biographical Notes
Stephen Watts Kearny

Stephen Watts Kearny was born in Newark, New Jersey on August 30, 1794. His ancestry can be traced back several hundred years in Ireland where the family had large landholdings in the vicinity of Cork. They immigrated to America around 1704 and settled in New Jersey. Stephen's father, Philip Kearny III, was a loyalist and was jailed in 1776 for his pro-British political views. Stephen's mother's ancestry is Scottish and leads back to Edinburgh. After the Revolutionary War, Stephen's father managed to reestablish himself in Newark and at the time of Stephen's birth was a prosperous wine merchant. Philip died when Stephen was four years old and he was raised by his mother, Susanna Watts. He attended school in Newark and entered King's College (Columbia University) in 1808. In 1810 he was commissioned as an ensign in the New York Militia and was promoted to full lieutenant in 1811. Financial documents make it clear that he completed four years of college, but it is not known which schools he attended. (Some have claimed that he attended West Point, but there is no evidence of this in the Academy records.)

Stephen enlisted in the army in 1812 over the objections of his mother. (He may have enlisted before graduation.) He was appointed first lieutenant on March 12, 1812, and was assigned to the Thirteenth Infantry Regiment in July. During the War of 1812, Kearny participated in the invasion of Canada and distinguished himself for bravery under fire in the battle for Queenston Heights on the Niagara River. Then Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott witnessed that action and called it one of the "most brilliant engagements of the war." Kearny was wounded slightly at Queenston and taken prisoner along with Scott. A prisoner exchange in 1813 returned Kearny to duty, but required that he not be engaged combat. He was promoted to captain and assigned to recruiting duty. With the conclusion of the war he was one of the few officers retained in a professional army much reduced in size. His bravery at Queenston and his association with Scott probably played a role in the decision to retain him.

In 1819 Captain Kearny was assigned to the Sixth Infantry and transferred to Council Bluffs as part of President Monroe's effort to establish control of the northwestern frontier. He participated in the first Yellowstone Expedition in 1820 and was promoted to brevet major in 1823. In 1824 Major Kearny participated in the second Yellowstone Expedition and in the process first met Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri. During this period, Kearny's duties made him familiar with the principals in the fur trade as well as with the Native American leaders throughout the Northwest. Much of his time was spent in repairing and constructing forts and troop cantonments on the frontier and he was the first commander of Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis. In 1827 he led a battalion of the First Infantry in the "Winnebago War." He was a significant participant in the events of the day that significantly weakened British influence in the area. In the process he developed a reputation as an accomplished commander. In 1827 General Edmund P. Gaines stated that Kearny's unit was the finest light infantry he had ever seen.

In 1828 Major Kearny was given command of Fort Crawford with four companies of the First Infantry at Praire du Chien and in May 1829 was advanced in rank to full major. In July 1829 Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor was assigned to take command of Fort Crawford. It appears that Taylor did not think highly of Kearny and the latter was soon transferred back to Jefferson Barracks. In the summer of 1830 he worked with General William Clark in the events that led to the Winnebago Treaty of August 1830. On September 5, 1830, Kearny married Mary Radford, General Clark's step daughter. (Clark's own son, Meriwether Clark, was also a suitor for Mary's hand.) Soon after their marriage Kearny was transferred to Fort Leavenworth and then Fort Towson. Here again he was engaged in the construction of military facilities as well as the pacification of the Pawnees and Choctaws.

In the spring of 1832 Major Kearny was assigned as superintendent of recruiting service with headquarters in New York City. On March 4, 1833, Kearny was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned to the newly created First Regiment of Dragoons, Colonel Henry Dodge commanding. (Dodge had distinguished himself in the recent "Black Hawk War.") The regiment's headquarters was established at Jefferson Barracks and the Kearnys moved back to St. Louis where Kearny, second in command, assumed responsibility for recruiting men for the new elite unit from all over the country. In 1833 the dragoons were seen to be primarily a mounted artillery unit, but they were to quickly devolve into the beginnings of the United States Army Cavalry. In 1834 the First Dragoons were divided into three parts to better cover their immense area of responsibility. Lieutenant Colonel Kearny and three companies of dragoons were assigned to establish Fort Des Moines at the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers.