Column: Col. Kearney’s contribution to area and national history

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 17, 2003

One of the often overlooked details about the military expedition that passed through Freeborn County in late June and early July of 1835 may be the name of the unit’s commanding officer who became a more prominent part of American history about a decade later.

Despite the strong local association with one of the officers in this large exploration group, West Point graduate 2nd Lt. Albert Miller Lea was just one of several officers taking part in this trip through the wilds of Minnesota and Iowa.

The exploration party consisted of about 160 men from Companies B, H and I of the First U.S. Dragoons Regiment under the command of Lt. Col. Stephen Watts Kearney. Lea was assigned to Company I and served as the expedition’s topographer or map maker.

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The Dragoons were an elite U.S. Army unit of mounted infantry organized in March 1833 for frontier duty. For an indication of their distinctive uniform, I suggest that the left side of Lloyd Herfindahl’s large mural above the stairway in the original part of the Freeborn County Courthouse be used as a reference. The Dragoons were phased out as a unit in 1860.

Kearney was born on Aug. 30, 1794, in Newark, N.J., of Irish-Dutch parentage. He joined the Army during the War of 1812, was wounded in battle, and became a British prisoner for a short time. After the war he decided to continue a career as an Army officer and spent the rest of his life with frontier military duties.

In 1820, Kearney served at the new post later called Fort Snelling near the Twin Cities. Several years later he was part of Gen. Atkinson’s expedition to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Then, in 1828 and 1829, Kearney became the commanding officer at Fort Crawford, located near what’s now Prairie du Chien, Wis.

In 1833, Kearney was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and given the command of a battalion of the new Dragoons Regiment. This is the unit which passed through this area in 1835.

Kearney served at several frontier forts and became a full colonel and commander of the Dragoons Regiment at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1836. Then, in 1842, he assumed command of the Third Military Department with headquarters at Jefferson Barracks, Mo. (near St. Louis).

In May, 1846, just after war with Mexico broke out, Kearney became commander of the Army of the West and was promoted to the rank of

brigadier general the following month. He left Fort Leavenworth, Kan., with 1,600 men and captured the city of Santa Fe, N.M., on Aug. 18, 1846. For a month he served as the military governor of New Mexico and organized a civil government for the new American territory.

In the fall of 1846 Kearney and part of his command crossed what’s now Arizona and arrived in southern California. He was slightly wounded in the Battle of San Pasqual on Dec. 6, 1846. Kearney’s Army command soon combined with U.S. Navy units under Commodore Robert F. Stockton to capture the then small villages of San Diego and Los Angeles.

Kearney was soon transferred to Mexico where he served as the military governor of Vera Cruz for two months in 1847. He later served in the same capacity in Mexico City during its occupation by American troops. However, his service in Mexico ended because of a tropical disease. Kearney returned to Missouri and died on Oct. 31, 1848, near St. Louis.

Shortly after his death a new frontier post on the Platte River in south central Nebraska was named in his honor. Fort Kearney was eventually deactivated, but the nearby community (with a population in 2000 of 27,431), a state park, a county, and a state college perpetuate the last name of the man who commanded the first group of white men to visit Freeborn County.

In the next column we’ll have more information about the area places named by Albert M. Lea, plus the man who was responsible for actually using Lea’s name for the lake and maybe even the city. Also, another member of this 1835 exploring unit had his last name used for a city in Iowa.

Tribune Feature Writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.