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Major General Stephen Watts Kearny: Integrity in an Imperialistic Age

Stephen Watts Kearny
August 30, 1794 – October 31, 1848

In 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny led the Army of the West in the American takeover of the Southwest and California. His expedition added almost a third to America's current territory, and was one of the largest, most effective, and least bloody military conquests in the history of the world.

Prior to the Mexican-American War, Kearny (pronounced “Carney”) was a father of the United States Cavalry. He built and/or commanded numerous frontier posts, including Ft. Leavenworth and Jefferson Barracks, and was a leader of some of the longest marches in American history. Kearny held successful council with many Indian tribes, and maintained a fragile peace on the vast western frontier. Kearney, Nebraska, (misspelled) and Kearny Street in San Francisco (mispronounced) were named in his honor.

Stephen Watts Kearny (August 30, 1794-October 31, 1848) came from a prominent family of colonial leaders, including the van Rensselaer, Schuyler, van Cortlandt, and de Lancey families of New York. He attended what later became Columbia University, and fought in the War of 1812. In 1830, he married Mary Radford, the beautiful stepdaughter of William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

At the onset of the Mexican-American War, President James K. Polk commissioned Kearny to take possession of New Mexico Territory and Upper California, which included the present states of New Mexico, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Prior to his departure, Kearny ordered the raising of the Mormon Battalion, which followed him to California.

Not a shot was fired in Kearny's "bloodless conquest" of New Mexico, and the record shows that he was ahead of his time in respecting cultural diversity and human rights. As military governor, he established a civil government and instituted a new legal system, the Kearny Code, which incorporated existing Mexican law, and is the basis of New Mexican law today. It contained a bill of rights that upheld the principles of liberty and free government, protected free expression, assembly, religion, and a fair trial, and forbade unreasonable searches and seizures. By preserving much of the existing system, he was in the vanguard of creating a multicultural society.

General Kearny appointed Charles Bent Territorial Governor and departed to fulfill his primary mission of annexing Upper California. Kit Carson served as guide on the onerous, thousand-mile march. In California, Kearny's exhausted expedition was battered at the Battle of San Pasqual, then the volatile situation set him on a collision course with Commodore Robert Field Stockton and Lt. Col. John C. Fremont. Kearny's authority as military governor of California was upheld, and Fremont was convicted of mutiny. Subsequently, Kearny briefly served in Mexico, where he was commander and military governor of Veracruz, military governor of Mexico City, and commander of a division in the final withdrawal of American forces, before succumbing to illness and early death.

Stephen Watts Kearny was a dedicated public servant, whose vision and exemplary personal conduct helped ease our nation's growing pains. In imperialistic times, and under difficult circumstances, he always chose the path of restraint and compassion. The acting Mexican governor in Santa Fe, Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid, declared when responding to Kearny's proclamation upon entry of the American Army: "We are cognizant of your kindness, of your courtesy and that of your accommodating officers and of the strict discipline of your troops....How different would be our situation had we been invaded by European nations!" How different the conquest might have been if led by a less conscientious man.

Although General Kearny and his historic accomplishments have been largely forgotten, the American takeover of the Southwest and California was a watershed event of national significance.

Chapter History

The Stephen Watts Kearny Chapter is the oldest chapter in New Mexico. Organized in 1898, before New Mexico became a state in 1912, it was first called the Sunshine Chapter.

In 1903, General Kearny’s daughter Ellen visited Santa Fe, the oldest capital in the U.S., and was a guest of the chapter. In 1905, the Santa Fe DAR members, desiring a chapter name of historical significance, voted to change the name to the Stephen Watts Kearny Chapter. The Daughters have placed a marker in the Santa Fe Plaza commemorating General Kearny’s 1846 annexation of New Mexico Territory for the United States of America.

Painting From the Collection of Stephanie Kearny and May Eskridge Kearny
Copyright 2012, Stephanie Kearny, great-great-granddaughter of General Stephen Watts Kearny

(The DAR, and this chapter, deeply appreciates the family
giving us permission to use the image of their private family painting
and excerpts of his history on this website.)

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Last update March 28, 2012