Remembering Alexander Doniphan on his 207th birthday

This statue of Alexander Doniphan sits on the west side of Ray County Courthouse and was dedicated July 29, 1918. (File photo)

This statue of Alexander Doniphan sits on the west side of Ray County Courthouse and was dedicated July 29, 1918. (Postcard photo provided by Linda Emley)

By Linda Emley, For The Richmond News

Thursday July 9, 2015, may just be a normal day in Ray County, but I planned to make it a special day because on this day 207 years ago, Alexander Doniphan was born.

In 2008, the Ray County Historical Society hosted a party and celebrated his 100th birthday. I was still working in Kansas City and wasn’t around for this party. Since I started working at the museum, I have a party for him every year. I’ve already had two for him this year and planned on having another one before July 9 was over. Last week I gave a talk about Doniphan at the jail in Liberty and on July 6, we had a party for him at the new Oak Pointe Assisted Living & Memory Care in Richmond and enjoyed a wonderful chocolate cake. Please allow me to once again share a few stories about Alexander Doniphan.

On July 29, 1918, more than 20,000 people gathered around Richmond Square to celebrate the unveiling on the 19-foot tall statue of Alexander William Doniphan. It was a day like no other in Richmond history. Before we journey down that road, I want to share a brief history of the man that stands watch over our courthouse.

We have walked past him many times. Some of us know his name. A few people around town are even related to his wife, Elizabeth Jane Thornton. Who was this man and why was he chosen to be honored with a statue in Richmond?

Doniphan was born July 9, 1908, in Kentucky to Joseph and Anne Doniphan. He began his law practice in Kentucky before moving to Lexington in 1830. In 1833, he moved to Liberty.

On Dec 21, 1837, he married Elizabeth Jane Thornton in Liberty on Elizabeth’s 17th birthday. It was a double wedding with Elizabeth’s sister, Caroline, marrying Oliver P. Moss. At the time, Doniphan was 29 and a colleague of Elizabeth’s father in the state legislature.

Alexander and Elizabeth 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 was a frail lady and suffered a stroke while burying her son John. She was a semi-invalid the rest of her life and died in New York City at the age of 52. She was in New York visiting 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. He lived alone for 14 years after his wife’s death. Doniphan died in Richmond Aug. 8, 1887, at the Hudgins House, which was a hotel located on the corner of the square where the Christian Church was later built. He was buried next to his wife and sons in Liberty.

Why was Doniphan so famous? In 1838, Doniphan was a brigadier general in the Missouri State militia. He and 2,000 troops were sent to Far West in Caldwell County to arrest Joseph Smith and his fellow Mormon Church leaders because  they refused to leave Missouri. Doniphan was given orders to execute Smith and the other leaders, but he refused. He called the order “cold-blooded murder.” The Mormon leaders were taken into custody to stand trial, but thanks to Doniphan they were not executed.

He also served as one of their lawyers when they went to trial. Many members of the Mormon Church visit Richmond today and stop at the courthouse to pay their respects to the man who saved Joseph Smith.

When the Spanish American War began in 1846, Doniphan helped organized the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers and was elected colonel of the regiment. For the rest of his life he would carry the nickname of “Colonel.”

He and his troops left Fort Leavenworth on a journey that took them 3,600 miles by land and 2,000 by boat. It is said this was one of the most successful military exercises in U.S. military history. At one point in New Mexico, Doniphan and his men were assisted by Sterling Price and the Second Missouri Mounted Volunteers. Doniphan also had his picture taken by photographer Matthew Brady when he was in New Orleans after the war. This photo was later used to create the face of Doniphan’s statue. The whole story of his Spanish American War campaigns can be found in the 1973 Ray County History book on pages 240-242.

On July 29, 1918, Richmond was the place to be. My grandmother told me about the boys of World War I getting off the train and marching up the street to the courthouse. It was many years later before I realized she was talking about Doniphan Day. She was 11 at the time and the soldiers were the most impressive sight to her. I am sure the politicians’ speeches were boring, but she forgot to mention that the governor of Missouri did not come by train like the soldiers. He flew to town in a bi-plane that was piloted by a world-famous flying ace.

The Missourian, Aug 1, 1918: “GOV. GARDNER SOARED TWO MILES ABOVE RICHMOND WITH THE GALLANT NEAL. Parallel with the arrival of the soldiers train, with Gov. Frederick D. Gardner, First Citizen of Missouri, as chief guest of honor, with others held in high esteem, was the mightily expected coming of Lieutenant Marshall S. Neal, United States Army aviator, in his Curtiss military biplane.”

One of the remarkable features of the airplane trip by Gov. Gardner was the telegraphic application and permit for the flight. On Monday morning, Jewell Mayes wired Senator James Reed who called Sectretary of War Newton Baker immediately and secured permission, which was wired by Baker and arrived here at noon.

“Thanks to Jewell Mayes, Richmond got to meet Lt. Neal and his biplane. Lt. Neal is a mighty fine gentleman and is considered by Gov. Gardner as one of the very best aviators he has ever seen. Goodbye for the German plane that has to deal with our gallant Missouri aviator in a fair and square fight!”

The local commission prepared the Forrest Graham pasture for the plane’s arrival, but the trained eye of Lt. Neal spotted a better place to land. He chose the old Chenault farm north of town. “Three of the Chenault girls were, by happy coincidence, present.”

I want to know why the Chenault girls were not already uptown at the party and why did Ace pick a spot that had three young ladies waving at him to land? You know there had to be a car waiting to pick them up at the Graham pasture. But hey, you can do what you want when you are Lt. Neal and you have the Governor in the back seat of your plane. The band played and somehow the Governor and Lt. Neal got uptown.

There was an address in the morning by the Honorable Roland Hughes and then an adjournment for dinner. The 20,000 people found tables laden with food. Several of the ladies organizations had arranged to feed the crowd and there was plenty for everyone.

At 2:30, the Gov. and others went back to the platform. More music and speeches followed. Besides the Governor’s speech, the highlight of the afternoon was French Lt. Bagues. He had been an artist in Paris before the war. “He captivated the people with his charming politeness, his fine intelligence, his excellent command of language, and his sentiments expressed in words to the full liking of our American people. Lt. Bagues fired many a heart to join the army and the navy by his address on this great occasion.”

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir even came to town for the Doniphan Day celebration.

The Missourian, Aug 1, 1918: “Manager Carter of the Pathe News moving film company estimated the crowd at ever so much more than 15,000 – he said 20,000 people. The Pathe operator took moving pictures of the unveiling, the military performances, the airplane flight and the Morton house.”

Pathe News, Inc., produced its first newsreel in 1914, so Richmond was one of its early news events. Pathe was later owned by RKO Radio and Warner Brothers.

And that’s the way it was on Monday, July 29,1918, when our town celebrated  Doniphan Day.

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