Alexander Doniphan: More than a military man

Alexander DoniphanBy Linda Emley

Editor’s note: July 9 would be Alexander Doniphan’s 204th birthday. This Saturday at 1 p.m., Linda will present a program on Doniphan at Ray County Museum.


A few days ago I was looking at the 1922 Clay County history book and found a story about Alexander Doniphan. It was written by the Alexander Doniphan Chapter of the DAR, which is still in Liberty.

His story was the first in the series titled “The Pioneers”. It said, “Col. Alexander William Doniphan, orator, jurist, statesman, soldier and Christian gentleman, was born in Mason County, Kentucky, July 9, 1808, and died in Richmond, Mo., Aug 8, 1887. He was of immense stature, noble appearance, brilliant parts, fearless, of great moral courage, sanguine, faithful, just, poetic in temperament, the champion of the down-trodden, eloquent beyond description.

“He took up the practice of law in Liberty in 1833 and at once begun his active support of every progressive movement. In 1837 he married Elizabeth Jane Thornton, who was born in Clay County, Dec. 21, 1820, a daughter of Col. John Thornton, one of the county’s first settlers. During his residence of thirty years, he held his place as leading citizen, giving the best of his powers to Clay County’s development, being absent only during his famous expedition to old Mexico in 1846-47– the longest march ever made by a military organization – when he was commander of the First Regiment Missouri Mounted Volunteers, and when representing his County in the Legislature.

“Alexander Doniphan was a strong supporter of all educational endeavors. His name appears on lists of trustees of a number of early schools; he was instrumental in securing William Jewell College for Liberty, and in 1853 he became the first county school commissioner. In 1861, he was a member of the Peace Commission which met Lincoln in Washington, and during the Civil War his sympathies were with the Union.

“On June 5, 1872, Col. Doniphan was one of the guests of honor and first speaker of the day at Clay County’s Semi-Centennial celebration. In 1909 a chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution was organized in Liberty and in his honor was named the Alexander Doniphan Chapter. On July 29, 1918, the state of Missouri dedicated a magnificent monument of bronze and granite at Richmond, to his memory.

The death of his two sons early in life prevented the direct continuance of Alexander Doniphan’s brilliant qualities but Clay County is the heir of his achievements.”

After reading this, I realized that I never thought about Doniphan as a real person. He had always been the soldier we read about, but now I saw him as a person who walked the same brick streets of Richmond that we walk. I loved the way the DAR ladies described him, “He was of immense stature, noble appearance, brilliant parts, fearless, of great moral courage, sanguine, faithful, just, poetic in temperament“ and my favorite “eloquent beyond description.” I looked up “sanguine” and the dictionary said, “cheerful, optimistic, hopeful, or confident.” It sounds like he was a hansome man but I want to know more about him as a person. What was his favorite book? What did he like to do in his spare time? We know he liked to play cards with the boys and tell war stories, but did he liked to dance when Richmond had a ball? Did he ever attend shows at the opera house?

I thought it was interesting that he had “brilliant parts”. I’ve heard this phrase before but wanted to know more and soon figured out where I’ve seen it used.

Found this from The New York Times, May 26, 1918: “A BOASTFUL STATUE.; Missouri Turns Herself Loose in Her Tribute to Doniphan. History, in so far as it can be recorded on the base of a statue, will give unstinted praise to Col. Alexander Doniphan, for whom Camp Doniphan is named. The Richmond News reported that the Doniphan statue recently erected in Richmond has been accepted and the unveiling will take place in June, either on the anniversary of Col. Doniphan’s election to the office of Colonel, or the date he started his expedition into Mexico. It says: ‘Inscribed on the east side of the base of the statue are these words: ‘Col. Doniphan was of immense statue, noble appearance, brilliant parts, fearless, of great moral courage, sanguine, faithful, just, poetic in temperament, the champion of the down-trodden, eloquent beyond description, and without doubt entitled to be classed among the greatest orators and lawyers that ever lived. On the west side of the base are the following words,’On the roster of the great soldiers of the earth must stand in a halo of glory the name of Col. Alexander Doniphan of Missouri.’ ”

“Well, Col. Doniphan was a great man and a great soldier,” The Kansas City Times noted. But will writers of epitaphs and statue inscriptions never learn the emphasis of understatement?”

How many times have we walked by Doniphan’s statue and never stopped to see what it says? Next time you are at the courthouse, stop and read with your own eyes, the description of a good man, our own Col. Alexander William Doniphan.


You can write Linda at or see her in person at Ray County Museum.

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