Station on the Plains

Zoe Mays
March 18, 2015

For two decades Fort Kearny served as a symbol of American westward expansion, an outpost on the frontier as settlers headed west.

The United States Army established Fort Kearny in 1848 at the site where several smaller overland trails merged into the wider Oregon Trail to provide supplies and military escorts to wagon trains and others traveling through lands still claimed by local tribes. It was one of several such western military bases established as the army sought to wrest land from native control and subdue its inhabitants.

The original Fort Kearny was constructed near present-day Nebraska City, but was moved to its final spot near what would become the city of Kearney, Neb., when the army noticed that few travelers passed by the original site. The relocated fort was initially named Fort Childs, but soon changed to match the original fort named after Maj. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, a hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War who had scouted the first site.

During the height of westward migration, thousands of wagons traveling to Oregon, California and other western destinations passed the fort each year. There were also a steady stream of freight wagons that resupplied the fort and travelers with food, ammunition and spare parts. Between April 1860 and October 1861, the fort also served as a stop for the Pony Express, the transcontinental mail delivery service that predated the Union Pacific Railroad.

Fort Kearney View of Fort Kearny, established south of the Platte River. Photo from the Nebraska State Historical Society.

John D. Randall, a young man from Ohio, traveled through the area as part of a gold-seeking wagon trail bound for California in 1852. Below is an excerpt from his journal upon arriving to Fort Kearny.

Monday – May 31, 1852. Started this day at 1/2 past 11 A.M. and then to Ft. Kearney 10 miles. The prairie is quite level in the bottom. Fort Kearney is on the south side of the Platte River about, 1/2 mile from the river near the head of Grand Island. This island is something over fifty miles long. Fort Kearney is situated on the slight rise of ground. There are 3 large frame houses and 3 smaller frames, one of which is a store, and one large sod house and several smaller ones. There are several of these houses covered with sod. The wall is about 3 feet thick. These houses are quite a curiousity. There are now about 60 soldiers stationed at this Fort. This evening in camp about 5 miles above the Fort near the river, no wood, river water and good grass. This river can be forded at the foot very handy. I was told its width varies from about one to two miles wide and has a very rapid current. The water resembles that running off fresh plowed ground after a hard rain. The water always keeps riley. Pretty good water can be had any place along the river by digging a hole 2 or 3 feet deep along the shore. The water filterates through the sand and is quite clear and good drinking water. The day is fair. (Buffalo County Historical Society)

According to the Buffalo County Historical Society, Randall made it to California but did not prospect for gold. More than twenty years later he moved his wife and family to Buffalo County, settling around Gibbon.

Fort Kearny. Photo from Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library.

While the early years at the fort were mostly calm, hostile activity by Cheyenne and Sioux tribes increased after the creation of the Nebraska Territory with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the influx of emigrants and settlers drove off wild game the tribes relied upon. The fort became a military outfitting post for various armed conflicts between the army and Native American tribes. While Kearny was never a proper walled fort, earthen barricades were constructed around the group of buildings during this period. In the mid-1860s, conflict shifted further west, away from the fort.

Construction on the Union Pacific Railroad across Nebraska slowed the flow of wagon trains across the state. After construction finished in 1869, orders were given for Fort Kearny to be abandoned on May 22, 1871. The soldiers were restationed to Omaha, the buildings torn down and stores moved to Fort McPherson further west. In 1876, the area Fort Kearny had occupied was turned over to the Department of the Interior. Within a few years, all that remained were the earthen barriers.

Today, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission operates Fort Kearny State Historical Park on the site, where several buildings, including a carpenter-blacksmith shop, have been reconstructed for visitors. Some of the cottonwood trees surrounding the area are more than a century old. The difference between the spelling of the fort’s name and the nearby town of Kearney originates from repeated post office errors.

This story is part of an in-depth multimedia report on the history of conservation and land use change on the central Platte River. Explore the full piece.

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PBT team photo. Summer 2023

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