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Fort Kearny - Sydenham's Memories

The growth of overland emigration to Oregon after 1842 resulted in the establishment of military posts across the West to protect travelers. Fort Kearny, first called Fort Childs, was established in the spring of 1848 near the head of the Grand Islandî along the Platte River by Lt. Daniel P. Woodbury. In 1848 the post was renamed Fort Kearny in honor of Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny.

Despite its lack of fortifications, Fort Kearny served as way station, sentinel post, supply depot, and message center for travelers bound for California, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest. By the 1860s the fort had become a significant overland stage station and home station of the Pony Express. Although never under attack, the post did serve as an outfitting depot for several Indian campaigns.

One of the fort's final duties was the protection of workers building the Union Pacific. With the completion of the railroad in 1869, Fort Kearny was rendered obsolete. By 1870, the garrison had dwindled to fifty men. Early in 1871, on the recommendation of Gen. William T. Sherman, the War Department ordered the abandonment of Fort Kearny as a military post.

More than thirty years later longtime postmaster at the fort, Moses H. Sydenham, recalled an incident during an official visit by Sherman to Fort Kearny that Sydenham believed had been partly responsible for the fort's closure. Sydenham's letter, published in the Nebraska State Journal, September 24, 1905, related the following incident: "[A] horseback ride was proposed for the entertainment of the general, to pass through the little settlement at Old Kearney city, or 'Doby Town,' [and then to] go a few miles west up the Platte valley and see the country. . . . As the happy party passed along the main street of the town from one of the business houses or saloons came out a loud and distinct 'Hiss-s-s-s.'"

Both Sydenham and an angry Sherman believed local "copperhead" sentiment was responsible. Sydenham, perhaps assigning too much importance to the isolated occurrence, wrote to the Journal in 1905, "Had not this hissing incident occurred, without a doubt the fort would have been continued."


(May 2003)



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