Alexander Doniphan managed greatness despite life of personal tragedy

By Linda Emley

I’ve written several stories about Alexander William Doniphan, but every time I turn a page of Ray County History, I find a new story that gives us another clue to who this man really was.
In honor of his upcoming birthday on July 9, I’m sharing a few more facts about our man Doniphan.
He was born in Kentucky on July 9, 1808 and died in Richmond on Aug 8, 1887. Few men will ever experience as much as his did in his 79 years.
Doniphan started a law practice in Kentucky before moving to Lexington in 1830. In 1833, he moved to Liberty, Mo. In 1837 he married Elizabeth Jane and they had two sons, but both died as teenagers. They were John Thornton (1838–1853) and Alexander William, Jr. (1840–1858).
John died from accidental poisoning and Alexander Jr. drowned in a flood-swollen river. Elizabeth suffered a stroke while burying her son John and later died in New York City at the age of 52. She was in New York visiting with her sisters and Alexander had returned to Richmond when he got the telegram that his wife had died.
He was 10 days away from his 65th birthday and lived for another 14 years alone in Richmond until his death in 1887. Doniphan is buried in Liberty beside his wife and their two sons. His personal life was very tragic, but it did not stop him from being a great man who will be remembered forever in our hearts and history books.
In 1838, he was sent to Far West in Caldwell County and given orders to execute Joseph Smith but refused, calling the order “cold-blooded murder.”
Joseph was arrested, but thanks to Doniphan he wasn’t murdered. Members of the Mormon Church visit Richmond and stop at our courthouse to pay their respects to the man that saved Joseph Smith.
Doniphan was a great military man and when the Mexican- American War started in 1846, he helped organized the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers and was elected colonel of the regiment.
He and his troops left Fort Leavenworth on a journey that took them 3,600 miles by land and 2,000 by boat. This was one of the most successful marches in U.S. military history and is known as “Doniphan’s Expedition.” A song was written called “Alexander Doniphan’s March.”
I had someone ask me why they went to Mexico and my first answer was “we had to save Texas.” It was actually a bigger issue and is considered the “first American Intervention” war.
In 1845, we annexed Texas and Mexico claimed it was its territory despite the Texas Revolution of 1836. The Mexican-American war lasted from 1846 to 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on Feb. 2, 1848. In it, the U.S paid $18 million for Texas, New Mexico and California. Another part of the deal was that the U.S. forgave the debt owed by the Mexican government to American citizens. The Rio Grande River was established as the border between Mexico and the United States.
I found the following in the 1881 Ray County History Book that explains how the locals felt about this war. “And does any one ask, ‘What have we gained by the Mexican war?’ If such a one there be, let him forget, if he can, the national glory gained for our country by the gallant deeds of our soldiers, in giving increased military renown and glory in a war without a single defeat; and look at the grand and solid results of the Mexican war! It added two states and territories to our country, that are now teeming with a population full of energy, thrift and prosperity, embracing millions of acres of land, whose valleys are of boundless fertility, and whose mountains contain inexhaustible quantities of minerals, of priceless value, the gold and silver alone yielding $80,000,000 per year. It gave to our own country an extended seacoast, with capacious bays, inlets, and harbors, affording an almost limitless commerce, foreign and Domestic.”
President Polk’s goal was to expand our nation to the Pacific Ocean, but like any war, it was not without criticism. The American people were concerned about the loss of American lives and the high cost of war. The war also raised the issue of slavery when northern abolitionists claimed the war was an attempt by slave owners to expand slavery. This helped fuel the flames for the American Civil War.
Many families from Ray County moved to Texas looking for more land so the Mexican-American war affected Ray County for many years after it was over.
The 1881 Ray County History Book had many good things to say about Doniphan and the men that fought for our country. “General Doniphan’s fame as a soldier is world-wide. His heroic military exploits are read in the school room, and live in the hearts of his countrymen, yet he is not unknown as a brilliant and successful lawyer. He is now retired from practice, and is a resident of Richmond.”
It went on to say, “Thirty-five years have rolled around since the commencement of the Mexican war, and many of the brave soldiers of the gallant armies of Taylor, Scott and Doniphan have gone to their last camping ground. ‘On fame’s eternal camping ground, Their silent tents are spread; And glory guards with solemn round. The bivouac of the dead.’
“A pension bill, for the benefit of the survivors of the Mexican War has been introduced into Congress. It is ardently hoped that it will soon become a law, and afford some recognition of the gallant services of the soldiers whose deeds hold a conspicuous place on that pillar of glory, where the deeds of the American soldier are emblazoned for the admiration of mankind.”
After the war, Doniphan became a member of West Point’s Board of Visitors and addressed the cadets from the class of 1848. Some of Doniphan’s war strategies are still taught at West Point today. Doniphan was also known as a great solider because of his ability to negotiate, which he used many times in the courtroom in Ray County.
On Saturday, July 14, we’ll be celebrating the 2nd annual Alexander Doniphan Birthday Party at the Ray County Museum. It is being hosted by the Ray County Genealogical Association and the Ray County Historical Society. This will be the regular monthly Genealogical Association meeting and the program will be about Alexander Doniphan and the room we are creating for him at the museum. Please come join us as we honor this great man that stands guard on the steps of our Ray County Courthouse.

Know something about Alexander Doniphan or another historical figure you’d like to share with Linda? Let her know by emailing or stop by and see her at Ray County Museum, Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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