View Full Record

Stephen Watts Kearny

August 30, 1794 - October 21, 1848

A Continent Divided: The U.S.-Mexico War

Stephen Watts Kearny

August 30, 1794–October 31, 1848

Stephen Watts Kearny, a career U.S. Army officer, was born on August 30, 1794 in Newark, New Jersey. In his youth he enrolled at Columbia University but quit when the War of 1812 began, serving throughout as a lieutenant. In 1819 Kearny was a member of the Yellowstone Expedition. He was subsequently posted on the frontier, during which time he advanced to the rank of colonel. The start of the U.S.-Mexico War found Kearny at Fort Leavenworth, where in May 1846 he gathered troops charged with conquering New Mexico and California.

Kearny's forces left Fort Leavenworth in June 1846. Numbering 1,558 men, the "Army of the West" consisted of a battalion of Missouri Volunteers, two companies of regular infantry, five squadrons of the First Dragoons, Doniphan's Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, an interpreter, about fifty Indian guides, and a small body of Army Topographical Engineers.

On July 22, the army reached Bent's Fort. Soon afterward, Kearny sent word to New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo that the Americans intended to take possession of New Mexico. On August 15 the Americans entered Las Vegas, New Mexico, and three days later entered Santa Fe without opposition, Armijo having fled.

Promising to respect New Mexican property and religion, Kearny established a legal code for New Mexico and installed Charles Bent, an American trader, as territorial governor. Kearny now received new orders from Washington, promoting him to the rank of brigadier general and instructing him to aid in the conquest of California.

On September 25, mistakenly believing there was little or no danger of revolt, Kearny and 300 dragoons departed for California, leaving Col. Alexander Doniphan in charge of U.S. military forces in New Mexico. En route, Kearny met Kit Carson, who informed him that the U.S. Navy had taken possession of California, whereupon he sent 200 of his men back to New Mexico.

As Kearny headed west, resistance to U.S. rule flared in California. As his small force approached San Diego, where it planned to link up with Commodore Robert F. Stockton's marines, Kearny's weary dragoons encountered a force of 150 Californios. At the Battle of San Pascual on December 6, Kearny was seriously wounded and 18 of his men killed. The force was rescued the following day by the timely arrival of a relief column led by Stockton.

While the dragoons rested, Stockton prepared to re-take Los Angeles. In late December he and Kearny led a joint Army-Navy force of about 600 men out of San Diego. Defeating Mexican and California troops at the battles of Rio San Gabriel and La Mesa, Stockton and Kearny's troops entered Los Angeles. Signing the Treaty of Cahuenga, which ended Californian resistance to U.S. occupation, Stockton turned over military command to Kearny and appointed John C. Fremont governor.

In November 1846, the War Department ordered Fremont to relinquish the governorship to Kearny, who held the office until May, 1847. Returning to Washington D.C. in the spring of 1848 Kearny was brevetted major-general and then sent to Mexico. While serving as governor of Vera Cruz, he contracted yellow fever, which resulted in his death in St. Louis, Missouri on October 21, 1848.


Bayard, John Samuel. A Sketch of the Life of Commodore Robert Stockton. New York: Derby and Jackson, 1856.

29th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Document No. 388, Message of the President of the United States Relative to the Operations and Recent Engagements on the Mexican Frontier, 1847.

Connelley, William Elsey. Doniphan's Expedition and the Conquest of New Mexico and California. Topeka, Kansas: Published by the Author, 1907.

U.S. Mexico War logo