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First Name: Alexander

Last Name: Doniphan

Birthplace: Maysville, KY, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: William

Date of Birth: 09 July 1808

Date of Death: 08 August 1887

Rank: Colonel

Years Served:
Alexander William Doniphan

•  Mexican-American Wars (1846 - 1848)


Alexander William Doniphan
Colonel, Missouri Militia

Alexander William Doniphan was born on 9 July 1808 near the town of Maysville, KY, 60 miles southeast of Cincinnati, OH, in Mason County, KY, near the Ohio River. His parents were Joseph and Anne Fowke Smith Doniphan, both natives of Virginia. He was the youngest of ten children. His father had been a friend of Daniel Boone, and both of his grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution.

Doniphan graduated from Augusta College in 1824, and was admitted to the bar in 1830. He began his law practice in Lexington, MO, but soon moved to Liberty, where he was a successful lawyer. Doniphan always served as a defense attorney during his career, never as a prosecutor, and was noted for his oratorical skills. He served in the State Legislature in 1836, 1840, and 1854, representing the Whig Party.

The Heatherly War

Doniphan's friend and partner, David Rice Atchison, was a member of the Liberty Blues, a volunteer militia unit. He persuaded Doniphan to join them. Doniphan took part in the so-called Heatherly War as an aide to Colonel Samuel C. Allen. As the Liberty Blues moved toward the Missouri border, Stephen Watts Kearny, then a Lieutenant Colonel, joined them from Fort Leavenworth, KS.

Kearney discovered that the Heatherly brothers had sold whiskey to a hunting party of Potawatomi Indians and then stolen their horses. The Potawatomi's pursued the brothers and killed three of them. The brothers' mother sought revenge by claiming that the Indians had gone on the warpath. After making that claim, the remaining brothers robbed and murdered two white men, trying to put the blame on the Potawatomi. The "war" ended with the Heatherly family being arrested, tried, and convicted.

The Mormons

Starting in 1831, Jackson County, MO, had become home to several members of the Church of Christ, commonly known as "Mormons," a sect founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in upstate New York a year earlier. By 1833, approximately 1,200 Mormons lived in Jackson County, where they aroused the ire of many earlier settlers by their belief that American Indians, whom they called "Lamanites," were the descendants of ancient Israelites who had migrated to the New World centuries earlier, together with rumors that the Mormons practiced polygamy. Other fundamental differences between Mormons and non-Mormons exacerbated the situation, especially a belief that the Mormons were abolitionists, who planned to foment uprisings among Missouri slaves. Denunciations of abolitionism in the church press did nothing to allay their neighbors' fears, and matters came to a head in late 1833, when the Mormons were forcibly expelled from Jackson County.

Following these events, Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders petitioned the governor of Missouri for protection, but were largely ignored. This led them to hire Doniphan and Atchison, among others, to defend their rights in court. Doniphan assisted in the creation of a special county in northwestern Missouri for the Mormons, but continued friction between Mormons and non-Mormon settlers in that region ultimately led to the outbreak of the 1838 Mormon War. Following a clash between Mormons and state militia at the Battle of Crooked River, Governor Lilburn Boggs issued his infamous "Extermination Order" directing that the Mormons be "exterminated, or driven from the state." In 1836-37, Doniphan was Instrumental in the Platte purchase, which added to Missouri's land.

As a Brigadier General in the Missouri State Guard, Doniphan was ordered into the field with other forces to operate against the Mormons, even though he himself had worked diligently to avoid the conflict, and believed that the Mormons were largely acting in self-defense. After the surrender of Far West, General Samuel Lucas took custody of Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders, and instituted a drum-head court martial which declared Smith and the others guilty of treason, and ordered Doniphan to execute them. Doniphan indignantly refused, saying: "It is cold blooded murder. I will not obey your order. . . . [I]f you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God."The Mormon leaders were accordingly sent to Liberty Jail during the winter, to await trial during the following spring of 1839. Ultimately, they were permitted to escape from custody, and they subsequently made their way to the new Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, IL, where Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844.

In 1845, Orrin Porter Rockwell, a controversial Mormon figure later known as "the destroying angel of Mormondom," was arrested in St. Louis and accused of carrying out a failed assassination attempt on (now former) Governor Boggs. He hired Doniphan to defend him; Doniphan managed to have the main charge dismissed for lack of evidence, and arranged for Rockwell's release after serving only a few hours of a five-month sentence (for a previous jailbreak attempt) in the county jail. Rockwell made his way to Illinois, then later to Utah where he achieved fame as a lawman and Wild West figure.

Forty years after the events of 1838, an aged Doniphan visited Salt Lake City, UT, which had become the nucleus for the largest body of Mormons following the death of Joseph Smith. There, he received a hero's welcome, and was feted and thanked by the Latter-day Saints for his role in saving the life of their prophet.

Mexican-American War

In 1846, at the beginning of the Mexican-American War, Doniphan became Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, and served in several campaigns, including General Stephen W. Kearny's capture of Santa Fe and an invasion of northern Mexico (present day northern New Mexico).

After Santa Fe was secure, Kearny left Doniphan in charge in New Mexico, and departed towards California on 25 September 1846. Doniphan's orders were to wait until General Sterling Price arrived with the Second Missouri Mounted Volunteers, who were coming from Fort Leavenworth, KS; after they arrived he was to lead them to Chihuahua via El Paso, TX. They were to link up with the Brigadier General John E. Wool, who was moving southwest from San Antonio, TX, toward Guerrero and Monclova, Coahuila, to attack Monterrey, Nuevo León from the west. Kearny had known that the Navajo people were going on the warpath. With the Spanish gone, the Navajos wanted to test these new American soldiers; hence, as Doniphan waited for Price, the Navajos mounted a raid and kidnapped 20 Mexican families.

Doniphan was eager to start south, but he first had to wait for Price to arrive. Kearny, and then Doniphan, had tried to negotiate with the Navajos, together with the Ute tribe and Apaches, but had made little progress. After Price arrived with his force, Kearny, near the present-day border of Arizona and New Mexico, learned that the Navajos had attacked some sheepherders, killed them, and stolen their herd of 2,000 sheep. Kearny dispatched a message to Doniphan to attack the Navajos on 2 October 1846. Doniphan signed a peace treaty with the Utes, and then took three companies and headed west (toward present day Gallup) in pursuit of the Navajos.

Doniphan was unable to find his foe, but they sent a member of their tribe to find him and tell him they wanted to negotiate. At first, Kearny was willing to be amicable with the Navajos, but the following day, 3 October, the Navajos attacked the village of Polvadera, stealing the livestock and sending the residents fleeing for their lives. Kearny now called for all citizens of the territory to take up arms and aid the Cavalry in finding the Navajos, retrieving their property, and to "make reprisals and obtain redress for the many insults they received from them."

Returning to their campaign against the Mexican Army, Doniphan's men won the Battle of El Brazito (outside modern day El Paso, TX) and then won the Battle of the Sacramento, enabling the capture of the city of Chihuahua. At the latter battle, Doniphan and his force were outnumbered by more than four-to-one in troops, and nearly two-to-one in artillery, but only lost one dead and eleven wounded to the Mexican loss of 320 dead, 560 wounded and 72 prisoners.

Doniphan's men ultimately embarked on ships and returned to Missouri via New Orleans to a hero's welcome. His campaign had taken him and his men on a march of nearly 5,500 miles, considered the longest military campaign since the times of Alexander the Great.

Post-Military Service

After the Mexican-American War, Doniphan was appointed by General Kearny to write a code of civil laws (known as the "Kearny code") in both English and Spanish. It was to be used in the lands annexed from Mexico, and still forms the basis of New Mexico's Bill of Rights and legal code. He was also instrumental in the establishment of William Jewell College in his home town of Liberty; one of his colleagues on the college's board of trustees was Rev. Robert James, father of Frank and Jesse James. Doniphan also served as the first Clay County Superintendent of Schools.

Doniphan was a moderate in the events leading up to the American Civil War, opposing secession and favoring neutrality for Missouri. Although a slaveholder, Doniphan advocated the gradual elimination of slavery. This was in response to proposals of the Republican Party to make emancipation immediate, without compensation to the slave owners or any preparation of the slaves for life as free men.

Doniphan attended a Peace Conference at Washington, DC, in February 1861, but returned home frustrated at its inability to solve the crisis. He was offered a Colonel's commission in the Missouri State Guard (fighting for the Confederacy), but turned it down. Doniphan was also offered high rank in the Union Army, but refused to fight against the South. In 1863 he moved to St. Louis and remained there for the rest of the war. During a meeting with Doniphan, President Abraham Lincoln is alleged to have remarked: "Doniphan, you are the only man I've ever met whose appearance came up to my expectations." During the war, Doniphan worked in St. Louis with the Missouri Claims Commission, handling pension applications.

In the late 1860s, Doniphan re-opened his law office in Richmond, MO, where he died at the age of 79. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery in Liberty under an obelisk.


Doniphan married Elizabeth Jane Thornton on 21 December 1837 in Liberty, MO. Her father was a colleague of Doniphan's in the state legislature. Their wedding was on her 17th birthday, and it was a double-wedding ceremony, with Elizabeth's sister Caroline and Oliver P. Moss being married at the same time. Elizabeth became sickly in the 1850s, and during the burial of her son John she suffered a stroke, which left her a semi-invalid for the remainder of her life. Elizabeth died in New York City of hemorrhaging of the lungs.

The couple had two sons, John Thornton and Alexander William, Jr. (neither of whom lived to age 18.) John Thornton Doniphan died from accidental poisoning: while visiting his uncle James Baldwin, he sought relief for a toothache in the middle of the night but mistakenly took corrosive sublimate (mercury chloride), thinking that it was Epsom salts. Alexander William Doniphan, Jr. died while attending Bethany College, in Bethany, WV, when he drowned in a flood-swollen river.


Doniphan County, KS, was created and named for him in 1855. So is the town of Doniphan, MO.

Alexander Doniphan remains highly esteemed by the Mormons for saving the life of Joseph Smith and other early church leaders. His story is routinely told in church literature and histories.

Doniphan was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians in 2008, and a bronze bust depicting him is on permanent display in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol.

A large bronze statue of Doniphan stands on the grounds of the Ray County courthouse, in Richmond, MO.

The American Legion Boys State of Missouri named Doniphan City one of their divisions in his honor.

Doniphan Drive, in El Paso, is named for Doniphan, from the Battle of El Brazito fought near the city.

Missouri Highway 152, running between Liberty, MO, and Leavenworth, KS, is named the "Alexander Doniphan Highway."

Camp Doniphan was set up during the buildup of the Army for World War I next to Fort Sill, outside of Lawton, OK.

William Jewell College of Liberty, MO, has its prestigious Senior Award named in honor of Colonel Alexander Doniphan. This award is presented to the male of the graduating Senior Class whom demonstrates leadership, strong academics and is considered by his peers to be the most likely to walk the furthest in life, or "most likely to succeed."

The Liberty, MO, School District has named an elementary school in honor of Doniphan.

Doniphan was inducted into the Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame for his military exploits during the Mexican-American War.

Death and Burial

Colonel Alexander William Doniphan died on 8 August 1887. He is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Liberty, MO.

Honoree ID: 2432   Created by: MHOH




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