Alexander William Doniphan (July 9, 1808-August 8, 1887) is Liberty’s best known and most influential citizen. His life covered a crucial time in Liberty and even America’s early history. His influence made an impact on several fronts. We hope you will end this tour with a deepened appreciation of how one person and critical times can make an impact for good.
Born on July 9,1808, near Augusta, Mason County, Kentucky, Alexander William Doniphan was the youngest of 10 children. His father died when he was about 5 years old, having been a teacher and friend of Daniel Boone. Alexander was born about 1 year before Abraham Lincoln, who was also born in Kentucky. Both Alexander and Abraham grew to be 6’4" tall. Both of Alexander’s grandfathers participated in the American Revolution. Graduating from Augusta College at Bracken, KY at the age of 18, Alexander studied law in the office of Martin Marshall, a kinsman of the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Alexander studied the classics, histories and then the law.
Doniphan was admitted to the bar in 1830, and began to practice in Lexington, Missouri. He soon moved further west to Liberty and gained a reputation as one of the best lawyers in Missouri. He also served in the state legislature in 1836, 1840, and 1854, representing the Whig Party.
On this tour you will visit five locations in Liberty that help tell the multi-faceted ways this one man impacted, and was impacted by, Liberty and western Missouri more than 150 years ago.
The tour begins at the marker on the east side of N. Main Street at the Presbyterian Church Park.
Doniphan: Moves to Missouri and His First Home
The Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation sign marks the site of the first home of General Doniphan and his bride Elizabeth Jane Thornton. They were married on her 17th birthday. During this period, Liberty was the outpost of civilization, and being near Ft. Leavenworth, it served as the social, educational and cultural center of the area. Doniphan married a daughter of Col. John Thornton and from this marriage, two sons were born and both met untimely accidental deaths in their 16th year.
In 1829, at the age of 21, the new lawyer made his way up the Missouri River to Lexington where he began his law practice. In 1833, he moved to Liberty, MO and began a 30 year practice of law. Doniphan never prosecuted cases, but was always a defense lawyer. He was a mighty orator with a commanding presence and persuasive manner. He served in the State Legislature and was a staunch Whig and an admirer and supporter of Henry Clay.
As a young attorney, Alexander Doniphan enhanced his legal career by representing Mormon Church members in legal actions taken against those who had driven them from their homes in Jackson County. As a member of the state legislature, he helped to draw up a bill that organized Caldwell County for the Mormons. While living here, he also refused the order to execute the Prophet Joseph Smith and other prisoners. While living in the home across the street (the church parking lot), Porter Rockwell’s mother came and asked him to defend her son. Porter Rockwell was a Mormon leader who had been arrested for the attempted assassination of Missouri Governor Boggs. Doniphan did defend Porter Rockwell at the Independencecourthouse and was able to prove him innocent.
Walk north about 100 yards to the Historic Liberty Jail on the NW corner of Mississippi and N. Main Streets.
Doniphan: Friend to the Mormons
Doniphan excelled in law, but he is chiefly remembered for his military career. In his legal work, he spent much time defending Mormons in court cases. The history of Mormons is rich in Jackson, Clay, and Caldwell Counties. By 1838, he had risen to the rank of brigadier general in the state militia. He led a large force of state troops and was ordered to arrest the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and other leaders. Later, Doniphan was under orders from Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs and a general to execute Smith and “exterminate” the Mormons in Far West (Caldwell County). Doniphan is credited with saving Smith’s life. Doniphan, with his legal skills, promised that if the General did kill these Mormons, Doniphan would see that the General would be prosecuted in the Courts for Murder. The General decided not to exterminate the Mormons. Instead Smith and his followers were ordered to leave the state, moving on to Nauvoo, Illinois. Doniphan is credited with saving the lives of Smith and his followers with the order to leave the state and thereby preventing vigilante forces from inflicting greater harm to the Mormons.
The Historic Liberty Jail is where Joseph Smith and five other Mormon leaders were held from December 1838 to April 1839. They were helpless while knowing that the Latter-day Saints were being driven from Missouri under an "extermination order" from the governor. The Jail was a rough stone dungeon measuring 14 by 14 feet, with a ceiling just over 6 feet high. Only two small barred windows allowed light and air into the cell. They suffered from winter weather, filthy conditions, hunger, and sickness. Inside the Historic Liberty Jail you can see the original key to the jail in the foyer. The Liberty Jail has been rebuilt in a cutaway style. This helps you visualize the prisoners’ cramped and gloomy quarters. The Historic Liberty Jail is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
For the next stop on the tour, walk south on Main Street, about 100 yards, to the marker on the west side of N. Main Street next to the Presbyterian Church..
Doniphan: His Second Home and His Career Continues
From circa 1830 until 1925 a house stood on this site once occupied by Doniphan. At other times the house was occupied by Peter H. Burnett, the first governor of California, and for many years the Hubbell family.
The first men enlisted by Doniphan to serve in the Mexican War.
Walk south on Main Street, take a left on Kansas, and then a right on Water. Along the Clay County offices you will find a series of murals.
In the center is the Clay County War Memorial. This Clay Country War Memorial among a setting of murals shows the white doves of Anguish (on the left) and Serenity (on the right). Flanked by the white doves, soldiers from Missouri in all the great wars remind us of the price freedom requires -- death. As the North gestures to the South, the sallow image of Col. Alexander Doniphan and his entourage march into history. We are reminded of the claimed saying of Georges Santayana: "Those who fail to reconcile with the past are condemned to repeat it!"
Doniphan: War Hero
In 1846, the war between the U.S. and Mexico was in full swing and Doniphan enlisted, along with other Clay Countians. Up and down the Missouri River, volunteers from each county enlisted and at their muster at Ft. Leavenworth, Doniphan was elected as the Colonel of the Missouri Volunteer Regiment and he then led his men on the march to Santa Fe, under the command of General Stephen Kearny.
Thereafter, he was ordered to march South to Mexico with his Regiment, composed of about 900 to 1000 men. A short battle was fought North of the present site of El Paso, Texas and then the Regiment set out on the long march, about 300 miles, to capture Chihuahua. In February, 1847, just north of that city, the Battle of the Sacramento River was fought, where Doniphan’s forces overcame about 5000 Mexican Soldiers and captured the city.
After marching to the Gulf of Mexico and returning through New Orleans and back home by boat, the famous Doniphan Expedition came to an end one year after it began after marching and traveling by boat about 5000 miles. It was an epochal achievement. This march was the longest march in world military history since Alexander the Great crossed the Alps.
After the Mexican War, Alexander Doniphan was appointed by General Kearny to construct the code of civil laws known as the “Kearny code” in English and Spanish for the territory annexed from Mexico.
Return north on Water Street and then go right (east) on Franklin Street to the steps leading to Jewell Hall.
Doniphan: Friend of Education
Doniphan was named the first Clay County superintendent of schools in 1853. Prior to that, he had a crucial role in the formation of William Jewell College.
Dr. William Jewell, physician, legislator, and Baptist layman in Columbia, offered $10,000 in land to start a Baptist college in 1843. The offer was declined as the organized effort of Baptists at that time was small. Jewell renewed the offer in 1848, and by that time Baptists were eager to begin a college. On February 27, 1849, the Missouri legislature granted a charter which created the first four-year men’s college west of the Mississippi.
Jewell had stipulated the College needed to be in mid-Missouri. Many towns in Missouri wanted the College, but residents of Clay County - led by Mexican War hero Alexander Doniphan—succeeded in bringing the college to Liberty at the edge of the American wilderness. Doniphan closed his law practice and personally traveled around Clay County soliciting subscriptions of $48 each as an incentive for the new college to decide on Liberty. Through Doniphan’s influence the College was named to honor its original benefactor - Dr. Jewell.
In addition to Jewell and Doniphan, one of the founding members of the Board of Trustees was Rev. Robert James, a nearby Baptist minister, whose sons Frank and Jesse eventually made good on their father’s financial pledge to the College when Rev. James left the area to follow church members to the California Gold Rush.
Dr. Jewell was engaged to supervise the construction of the first College building and, in fact, died from heatstroke while Jewell Hall was being built. Jewell Hall remains the centerpiece of the campus.
An interesting note, Doniphan was not a Baptist and not a member of any church at the time, although he later joined the Liberty Christian Church.
Retrace your steps on Franklin until you are on the north side of the Clay County Administration Center (the old Court House).
Doniphan: Slavery and the Union
The Liberty Freedom Fountain, presented by Clay County African-American Legacy, Inc, commemorates the accomplishments of African-Americans in Clay County's history and is near the location where slaves were regularly purchased and sold prior to the Civil War.
The most vexing issue in America’s early years was slavery. Missouri was at the center of much of that controversy with “The Missouri Compromise” (1820), the Dred Scott Decision (1857), and the Kansas/Missouri Border Wars (1854-1858).
Doniphan was a slaveholder.
He cheered on the pro- slavery movement in Kansas and Missouri, but neither voted in Kansas nor participated in raids into the territory. For the "Sack of Lawrence" in May 1856, Doniphan provided "Old Sacramento," a cannon he brought back from Mexico and had placed on the courthouse grounds in Liberty. In 1856, he was a director of the Clay County Pro-Slavery Aid Association," raising funds for southerners who wanted to go to Kansas.
While a slaveholder, he advocated the gradual elimination of slavery only after it became apparent that the Republican Party would make emancipation immediate. (Interesting note: Abraham Lincoln received zero votes in Clay County in 1860.)
But he opposed secession and favored neutrality for Missouri. Doniphan's position on Missouri's secession was in the "Conditional Unionist" camp. He was among those southern men who believed Missouri should resist coercion by the North forcing seceding states back into the Union . They hoped Missouri could remain in the Union by some compromise that would provide a Constitutional guarantee for the South.
Early in 1861 he rallied about 6000 persons to Liberty while he orated from the Courthouse steps for two hours imploring Missourians to remain in the Union.
Doniphan went to Washington Peace Conference in February 1861 but came away frustrated by its inability to hold the Union together.
Doniphan was offered high command by the Union Army. He did not take an active part in the Civil War for the Union likely because he did not want to fight against some of the same men he had led to Mexico fifteen years before, most of whom sided with the Confederates.
Doniphan instead relocated to St. Louis in 1863. One reason for his move to St. Louis was the tense attitude between the Federal occupiers of Liberty/Clay County during the day and the fierce support for the Confederacy by citizens when the Occupiers returned to their quarters at William Jewell College. For a man like Doniphan who wanted to somehow preserve the Union it was not a pleasant time to live in Liberty.
In 1912, through the efforts of the Alexander Doniphan Chapter of the DAR, the United States flag was hoisted above the Clay County Courthouse for the first time in more than 50 years. The DAR also placed a flag at the public school the same year.
Fairview Cemetery is a few walkable blocks away. Go south on Main Street, then right on Mill Street, left on Prairie Street (just before Franklin Elementary) and at the end of Prairie take a right. Look for the Doniphan obelisk.
Doniphan: Returns to Liberty only in Death
In 1863, Doniphan moved from Liberty to St. Louis. Since he was a strong Unionist and many of his friends and clients were Southern sympathizers, he could not resolve the conflicts within himself so he lived in St. Louis during that period. After the war was over, Doniphan moved back to Western Missouri -- not to Liberty, but to the adjoining Ray County, and there, in the Town of Richmond, he engaged in the banking business and the practice of law until his death on August 8, 1887 . He finally returned to Liberty when he, along with his wife and family members, were buried in Liberty’s Fairview Cemetery.
If you are ever in Richmond, Missouri find the life-sized statue of Doniphan on the Courthouse lawn erected in 1918.
For more information, we suggest a speech by Juarenne Hester or this speech by Juarenne Hester
Information for this tour came from several sources, including:
The Clay County Archives (with Judge R. Kenneth Elliott
Roger D. Launius, Alexander William Doniphan: Portrait of a Missouri Moderate
Becky Cardon Smith
William Jewell College
Thanks to Brigham Young University, William Jewell College, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, and Clay County for photographs.