Western Trips

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fort Kearney / The Key Fort For America's 1800's Westward Expansion

Fort Kearney was located on probably one of the worlds busiest immigrant trails. That was the reason for it's existence. Fort Kearney Nebraska just happened to be located on the Platte Road which was the east-west thoroughfare traveled by settlers emigrating to points west, namely to California and Oregon. It was also well traveled earlier in the 19th century by gold seekers heading to California as well as freighters bringing supplies west to both settlers and the various military posts.
stephen kearny
Fort Kearney was named after Stephen W. Kearney (his name also appears as Kearny in some biographies). Kearney served as a First Lt. during the War of 1812 and further distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War of 1848 especially for his service in the California Campaign. It's interesting to note that Kit Carson, then a scout, served under Kearney in California primarily as a messenger which at that time was an important task. In regards to the Native Americans, in the early 1840's Kearney traveled with troops to a spot in southeastern Wyoming about where Fort Laramie is located in a show of force after settlers were raided by several Indian tribes. His journey really had two goals. One was to try to restore peace with the tribes by offering presents and at the same time to display the American firepower and weaponry in a bid to discourage the Indians from further raids on both the settlers and the freighters. The results were mediocre in as much as the Indians were not really intimidated, at least not to the degree Kearney had hoped.

After the Mexican-American War ended Kearney became military governor of the California Territory for a short time After returning to Washington D.C. he was then named governor of Veracruz and then Mexico City. Kearney contracted yellow fever while in Veracruz and subsequently died at age 54 in St. Louis Missouri.

The First Fort Kearney

Fort Kearney was built at two different locations. The first was near present day Nebraska City, about 50 miles south of Council Bluffs, and was constructed by Kearney and his troops with orders from Washington. While being constructed in 1847 it was determined that this really was not an ideal location to protect the emigrating settlers who started their journey in western Missouri. As a result, a new location along the Platte River, about 200 miles west of the first fort, was surveyed and construction was begun there in 1848 with 175 troops used as labor. The early 1850's was a relatively peaceful time at the fort but things then turned hostile with the Indians when the Nebraska and Kansas Territories were formed.

The post served as the first major resupply center for settlers heading west from Missouri. In addition to providing supplies the soldiers also had the duty to protect wagon trains. Much of the Indian trouble after 1865 however was located west and northwest of Fort Kearney in the area of Fort Laramie and northwards into Montana. These were the sites of the Fetterman Massacre and Red Cloud's War in 1866 and the Custer defeat by the Sioux in 1876.

fort kearney map
 The Second Fort Kearney

The second Fort Kearney consisted of about fifteen structures, some unpainted wood and others adobe or sod buildings. There might be a blockhouse which served many purposes such as a post office, drugstore, court, jail and storehouse. The typical western military fort as depicted by Hollywood is surrounded by a wall of timbers or what we refer to as a stockade. The fact is that most western forts did not have stockades and Fort Kearney simply had structures built around a parade ground. During the Indian troubles some earthen reinforcements were added however a stockade was never constructed.

A western military fort such as Fort Kearney was constructed at this vital geographic point to not only supply the westward moving settlers and wagon trains and not solely to provide protection. It really was a combination of both of these services with the overall aim to do everything possible to aid western expansion. In other words, a fort such as Kearney was a key element in the achievement of Manifest Destiny. Over 500 ox teams could travel past the fort on a summers day and the army became very involved with the overland travelers. A cavalry officer might come to the aid of a settler in need. He might be found arbitrating a dispute among the emigrants which did happen from time to time. He might try to provide emergency aid when possible to settlers who started their journey unprepared for the 2,000 mile Oregon Trail trek.

Fort Kearney became the major mailrek. Some emigrants started out their trip with no knowledge of the ever present dangers. stop along the Platte Road when stagecoach service was established. It served as a stopping point on the Pony Express trail. When Indian hostilities broke out in 1864, Fort Kearney was reinforced with troops from the Nebraska Volunteers and strict rules were in place regarding wagon train travel. During this period wagon trains traveling west of the fort were required to be at least fifty in number to be able to fend off Indian attacks.

As was the case with many western U.S. military forts, civilian settlements sprang up very close, sometimes within a mile or two, and these small towns attracted a wide array of characters...some good and hardworking and others very bad. The U.S. Government had a rule against military forts becoming civilian trading areas therefore small settlements grew within the shadow of many forts. In the case of Fort Kearney, a settlement named Dobytown was located just a few miles west of the fort. It acquired a reputation of being a wild frontier town with an overabundance of bad characters.

fort kearney
Fort Kearney provided an essential service to Platte Road and Oregon Trail emigrants for many years but as the railroad stretched across Nebraska and then with the Transcontinental Railroad's completion in 1869, the necessity of maintaining these forts, and the expense involved, was debated. While outposts were still required, the number of forts needed was the question, at least along the path of the railroads. As a result Fort Kearney was abandoned with the last soldier leaving the fort on May 17, 1871. You also may be interested in the story of Fort Davis Texas along the San Antonio to El Paso Trail.

The State of Nebraska offers many unique historic vacation attractions and a visit to the Fort Kearney State Historic Park is one of these. Located just south of Kearney Nebraska and Interstate-80, the area is easily accessible.

Another good frontier era attraction is the General George Crook House on the north side of Omaha Nebraska. The Crook House was once the headquarters of the Army's Department of the Platte. While planning a vacation to Nebraska you may also want to add the site of the first Fort Kearney located near Nebraska City and about 50 miles south of Council Bluffs. Travel and tourism in the state of Nebraska can be an educational trip back to the time of America's massive westward expansion and the Oregon Trail days.

You will also want to see our Western Trips article and photos of Oregon City, the official end of the Oregon Trail.

(Photos are from the public domain)