Perhaps no other name has been applied so frequently, and in so many variations, to Nebraska places as that of Kearney. The name commemorates Bvt. Maj. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, who served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. In 1825 he traveled from Fort Atkinson in Nebraska on an expedition to make treaties with Indian tribes on the upper Missouri River. Kearny also led an important military expedition along the Oregon and Santa Fe trails in 1845. Kearny’s name was first applied as a place name at the first Fort Kearny, using his original spelling without an “e” in the second syllable. The name continued to be spelled correctly until about 1856, when the second “e” began to appear in popular usage. This incorrect spelling became fixed in all subsequent uses.
Fully seven places in Nebraska have been named for Kearny. The first was the 1846 Fort Kearny on Table Creek, the present site of Nebraska City. This fort, usually referred to as “old” Fort Kearny, was abandoned and a second Fort Kearny was established in the central Platte Valley in 1848. “New” Fort Kearny served as an army supply depot and as protection for emigrant trains and railroad construction crews until it was abandoned in 1871. The site is now a state historical park in Kearney County.
The first misspelled place name was Kearney City post office in Otoe County, established in 1856. A second Kearney City was platted in 1859 two miles west of new Fort Kearny at an old settlement known as Dobytown. This Kearney City became the first county seat of the original Kearney County, which was formed in 1860.
Construction of the Union Pacific Railroad began to reduce travel on the old overland trails. This led to a movement of settlers to the north side of the Platte River. In 1866 the Union Pacific established Kearney Station on the north side of the river opposite the fort. When the Burlington Railroad intersected the Union Pacific line in 1872, Kearney Station was moved to the junction and renamed Kearney Junction. The old Kearney Station was renamed Buda. In 1873 “Junction” was dropped, leaving the name Kearney the way we know it today for the county seat of Buffalo County.