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Alexander Doniphan

Alexander William Doniphan
(Mathew Brady's studio)
(Library of Congress collection)
Born July 9, 1808(1808-07-09)
Mason County, Kentucky
Died August 8, 1887 (aged 79)
Richmond, Missouri
Resting place Fairview Cemetery,
Liberty, Missouri
39°14′34″N 94°25′26″W / 39.2428°N 94.4239°W / 39.2428; -94.4239Coordinates: 39°14′34″N 94°25′26″W / 39.2428°N 94.4239°W / 39.2428; -94.4239
Nationality United States
Alma mater Augusta College (1824)
Occupation Lawyer; Soldier
Home town Liberty, Missouri
Height 6'4"
Known for Sparing Joseph Smith's life
Author Kearny code
Title Colonel
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Jane Thornton
[Born: December 21, 1820
Died: July 19, 1873 (aged 52)]

(Marriage 1838-1873; her death)
Children John Thornton
[Born: September 18, 1838
Died: May 9, 1853 (aged 14)]

Alexander William, Jr.
[Born: September 10, 1840
Died: May 11, 1858 (aged 17)]
Parents Joseph
Anne Fowke ( Smith) Doniphan
Nickname "Colonel"
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1833-1848
Rank Colonel
Unit 1st Missouri Volunteers
Battles/wars Heatherly War
First Mormon War
Mexican-American War
*Capture of Santa Fe
*Battle of El Brazito
*Battle of the Sacramento River
Other work lawyer

Alexander William Doniphan (July 9, 1808 – August 8, 1887)[1] was a 19th century American soldier and political figure.


Early life

Doniphan was born near the town of Maysville, Kentucky, 60 miles (97 km) southeast of Cincinnati, Ohio, in Mason County, Kentucky, near the Ohio River.[2] His parents were Joseph and Anne Fowke (Smith) Doniphan; both natives of Virginia.

Doniphan graduated from Augusta College in 1824, and was admitted to the bar in 1830. He began his law practice in Lexington, Missouri, but soon moved to Liberty, Missouri, where he was a successful lawyer. He served in the state legislature in 1836, 1840, and 1854, representing the Whig Party.

Missouri state militia and the Mormons

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, Kansas.[3]

Kearney discovered that the Heatherly brothers had sold whiskey to a hunting party of Potawatomi Indians, then stolen their horses. The Potawatomis pursued the brothers and killed three of them. The brothers' mother sought revenge by claiming the Potawatomis had gone on the war path. The brothers murdered and robbed two white men, trying to put the blame on the Potawatomis. The "war" ended with the Heatherly family being arrested, tried, and convicted.[3]

Mormons started arriving in Jackson County, Missouri in 1831, and by 1833 there were approximately 1,200. Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, denounced slavery. The growing Mormon population, combined with their practicing polygamy and Smith's criticism of slavery caused a violent reaction. Vigilantes drove the Mormons from their homes. In one encounter a Mormon settler and two vigilantes died. The Mormons petitioned the governor for protection. When he did not respond, they then hired lawyers to defend their rights, Doniphan and Atchison among them.[4]

By 1838, Doniphan had been elected a brigadier general in the Missouri state militia. Leading a force of state troops, he arrested Joseph Smith and other church leaders, and ordered them to leave Missouri. However, he disobeyed his orders to execute Smith, and prevented vigilante forces from harming any of the Mormon leaders.

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 on New Mexico, and departed towards California, on September 25, 1846.[5] Doniphan's orders were to wait until General Sterling Price arrived with the Second Missouri Mounted Volunteers, who were coming from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After they arrived he was to lead them to Chihuahua via El Paso, Texas. They were to link with the Brigadier General John E. Wool, who was moving on southwest from San Antonio, Texas toward Guerrero and Monclova, Coahuila, to attack Monterrey, Nuevo León from the west. Kearny had known that the Navajo people were going on the war path. With the Spanish gone, the Navajos wanted to test these new American soldiers. As they waited for Price, the Navajos mounted a raid and kidnapped 20 Mexican families.[6][7]

Doniphan was eager to start south, but had to wait on Price to arrive. Kearny, and then Doniphan had tried to negotiate with the Navajos, as well as the Ute tribe and Apaches, but made little progress. After Price arrived in 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 October 2, 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.[7][8]

Doniphan was unable to find the Navajos, but they sent a member of their tribe to find him to tell him they wanted to negotiate. At first Kearny was willing to be amicable with the Navajos, but the following day, October 3, 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".[9]

His men won the Battle of El Brazito (outside modern day El Paso, Texas) and again at the Battle of the Sacramento, enabling the capture of the city of Chihuahua.

Return to civilian life

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.

Doniphan was a moderate in the events leading up to the American Civil War. He opposed secession and favored 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 slaveowners or any preparation of the slaves for life as free men.

Doniphan attended a Peace Conference at Washington D. C. 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, 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.

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


Doniphan had married Elizabeth Jane Thornton (December 21, 1820—July 19, 1873)[10][11][12] on December 21, 1837,[11] in Liberty, Missouri. Her father was a colleague of Doniphan's in the state legislature.[11] Their wedding was on her 17th birthday, and it was a double-wedding ceremony, with Elizabeth's sister Caroline and Oliver P. Moss were married at the same time.[11] She 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.[13] Elizabeth died in New York City of hemorrhaging of the lungs.[12]

The couple had two sons, John Thornton (September 18, 1838—May 9, 1853)[13][14] and Alexander William, Jr. (September 10, 1840—May 11, 1858),[14][15] 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.[13][15] Alexander William Doniphan, Jr. died while attending Bethany College, in Bethany, West Virginia, when he drowned in a flood-swollen river.[15]


  • Doniphan County, Kansas was created and named for him in 1855. So is the town of Doniphan, Missouri.
  • Alexander Doniphan is honored by the Mormons for saving the life of Joseph Smith and other early church leaders.
  • 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.
  • 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 is named in his honor, Alexander Doniphan Hwy.
  • Camp Doniphan was a set up during the buildup of the Army for World War I next to Fort Sill, outside of Lawton, Oklahoma.
  • William Jewell College of Liberty, Missouri has 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 walk the furthest in life, or "Most likely to succeed."


  1. ^ BIRTH:
    1—Launius, Roger D., (1997). - Alexander William Doniphan: Portrait of a Missouri Moderate. - Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press. - p.1.
    ISBN 9780826211323.
    2—Muench, James F., (2006). - Five Stars: Missouri's Most Famous Generals, - Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press. - p.6.
    ISBN 9780826216564.
    1—Launius. - p.279.
    2—Muench. - p.32.
  2. ^ Dawson Joseph G., (1999). - Doniphan's Epic March: The 1st Missouri Volunteers in the Mexican War. - Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. - p.6. - ISBN 9780700609567.
  3. ^ a b Muench. - pp.7-8.
  4. ^ Muench. - pp.8-9.
  5. ^ Federal Writers' Project, (1953). - New Mexico. - U.S. History Publishers. - p.72. - ISBN 9781603540308.
  6. ^ Launius. - pp.116-117.
  7. ^ a b Muench. - p.21.
  8. ^ Launius. - pp.118-120.
  9. ^ Locke, Raymond Friday, (2002). - The Book of the Navajo. - Los Angeles, California: Mankind Publishing. - p.208. - ISBN 9780876875001.
  10. ^ Muench. - p.12.
  11. ^ a b c d Launius. - p.41.
  12. ^ a b Launius. - p.274.
  13. ^ a b c Launius. - p.217.
  14. ^ a b Launius. - p.42.
  15. ^ a b c Launius. - p.238.

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