Fort Kearny was a historic outpost of the United States Army founded in 1848 in the western U.S. during the middle and late 19th century. The outpost was located along the Oregon Trail near present-day Kearney, Nebraska, which took its name from the fort (with a modification of spelling).
Despite its lack of fortifications, Fort Kearny served as way station, sentinel post, supply depot, and message center for 49'ers bound for California and homeseekers traveling to California, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. By the 1860s the fort had become a significant state and freighting station and home station of the Pony Express. During the Indian Wars of 1864-1865 a small stockade was apparently built upon the earth embankment still visible. Although never under attack, the post did serve as an outfitting depot for several Indian campaigns.
The fort was a primary source of provisions for emigrants on the early section of the trail for several decades during the height of the trail use until its abandonment in 1871. As it had been founded along the Platte River to protect emigrants on the trail westward, the fort became an important stop along the eastern part of the trail for the following decade, offering the sale of food, reliable mail service and other amenities. At the height of the pioneer trail use in the 1850s, as many as 2,000 emigrants and 10,000 oxen might pass through in a single day during the height of the trail season in late May.
One of the fort's final duties was the protection of workers building the Union Pacific. In 1871, two years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the fort was discontinued as a military post. Its buildings were disassembled and moved West to outfit newer posts.
The Army constructed a two-story wooden blockhouse on the site, which became known as Camp Kearny and later Fort Kearny. The Army quickly realized, however, the location was not chosen well, since few emigrants passed the site on their way west. Instead, the main routes of the trails preferred by emigrants lay to the north near Omaha and to the south. Construction was subsequently halted on the site, with the exception of the erection of a number of log huts for temporary quarters for a battalion of troops who wintered there in 1847– 1848.
In September 1847, Kearny sent topographical engineer Lt. Daniel P. Woodbury westward along the Platte looking for a more suitable location for the outpost. Woodbury selected a site in present-day central Nebraska near the spot where the Trail westward from Independence, Missouri joined the trail westward from Omaha and Council Bluffs. Woodbury described the spot in his journals as:
In December Woodbury went to Washington, D.C. with orders to secure organization of the new post. Woodbury requested an appropriation of $15,000 for construction, while advocating the employment of Mormon emigrants for construction. Although he did not receive these provisions, Woodbury received permission to build the form from scratch with soldier labor.
The Army abandoned the Table Creek post in May 1848 and arrived at the new site in June. Woodbury directed construction of the fort with 175 men as labor. They built wooden buildings around a four acre (16,000 m²) parade ground, with cottonwood trees planted around the perimeter. Woodbury initially named the fort "Fort Childs" after Col. Thomas Childs, a famous soldier in the Mexican-American War, as well as Woodbury's father-in-law. A directive from War Department, however, directed that the name "Fort Kearny" would be transferred to the new fort.
The fort grew rapidly into an important trail stop. By June 1849, Woodbury noted in his journals that 4,000 wagons had passed the fort so far that year, mostly on their way to California. The fort accumulated large stores of goods for travelers, with the directive of selling them at a beneficial cost to the emigrants. Specifically, the commander of the fort was authorized to sell goods at cost to emigrants, and in some cases of hardship, to give goods to them for free. In 1850, the fort acquired regular once-a-month mail service with the arrival of a stagecoach route between Independence, Missouri and Salt Lake City. It was the first regular mail service established along the trail.
The early years of the fort were relatively peaceful. After 1854, and the creation of the Nebraska Territory by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the area around the fort in northern Kansas and southern Nebraska increasingly became the hostile activity of the Cheyenne and Sioux tribes. In the summer of 1864, the irritation of the Native Americans at the encroachment by white settlers culminated in violent attacks on wagon trains along the Platte and the Little Blue River. During this time, soldiers from the fort began escorting wagon trains, and the fort became a center for refugees fleeing from attacks. Earthwork fortifications were constructed at the fort, and the Army ordered the deployment of the First Nebraska Cavalry and the Seventh Iowa Cavalry to the fort. By 1865, the conflict between Native Americans and white settlers had shifted westward away from the area of the fort.
In 1928, the Fort Kearny Memorial Association was formed by Nebraska citizens to raise money to purchase and restore part of the grounds. The organization was able to purchase 40 acres (162,000 m²) of the original site, which it offered to the State of Nebraska. The State Legislature authorized the purchase, which became final on March 26, 1929. Thus acquired by the State of Nebraska in 1929, part of the original site is now operated as Fort Kearny State Historical Park by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The site has been entered on the National Register of Historic Places.
In cooperation with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, which operates the current State Historic Park, the Nebraska State Historical Society conducts ongoing archaeological investigations of the grounds. These digs have uncovered and marked the foundations of all major building on the site including headquarters, officers and troops quarters, parade grounds, storage and livestock stockade. A small theatre that shows a 20 minute history of the fort, a museum with collected artifacts and a reconstructed blacksmith shop with period cannons, cassons, tack and other equipment is behind the museum. There is space on the park for RV and trailer parking with some facilities. The park is only open during the summer months. Reenactors fire the authentic cannon every year on 4th of July weekend ceremonies.
Fort Kearny also appears in the short-lived television western drama series "The Loner" (1965) starring actor Lloyd Bridges. The series, created and written by Rod Serling of "The Twilight Zone" fame, takes place in the late 1860s and features the fort in an episode titled "Westward the Shoemaker". The "Westward..." episode concerns an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who seeks a new life in Nebraska Territory as a bootmaker but runs afoul of a card shark.