Doniphan, Alexander W.

Born: 1808-07-09 Mason County, Kentucky

Died: 1887-08-08 Missouri

Alexander W. Doniphan was an attorney, politician, and soldier from Missouri best known for his exploits during the Mormon War of 1838 and the Mexican War. Born near Maysville, Kentucky, Doniphan attended private school in Augusta, Kentucky, graduating from Augusta College at the age of nineteen. After reading law for two years, he earned admission to the bar in Kentucky and Ohio. In 1830, Doniphan moved to Missouri, settling first in Lexington. Three years later, he moved to Liberty, Missouri, and established a law practice, sharing a law office with David R. Atchison. Soon after arriving in Liberty, Doniphan and Atchison initiated legal proceedings to assist leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in either regaining or receiving compensation for property lost when hostile neighbors in Jackson County forced Mormons from their homes. Doniphan quickly acquired a solid reputation as a defense attorney, particularly in murder cases, defending some 180 murder suspects over the next thirty years. In 1837, he wed Elizabeth J. Thornton, a union that produced two children. Gravitating to politics, Doniphan won election in 1836 as a Whig to the Missouri General Assembly. During his time in the General Assembly, Doniphan secured the creation of Caldwell and Daviess counties in western Missouri, the tacit understanding being that the former would be the exclusive residence of the Mormons. Within two years, however, the Mormon population proved too large for Caldwell County, and Mormons began moving into Daviess and other counties. In August 1838, an election-day conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons in Daviess County sparked disturbances throughout northwestern Missouri, prompting Governor Lilburn W. Boggs to call out the state militia. Having risen to the rank of brigadier general in the militia, Doniphan gathered troops from Clay County to quell the disturbances, while at the same time working with Atchison to mediate between the Mormon leaders and the state government. When Governor Boggs issued his infamous "Exterminating Order" in October, calling on the militia to either exterminate the Mormons or drive them from the state, Doniphan moved his troops into position for attack, but protected Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders from vigilantes after they surrendered and refused to participate in the execution of Smith after a court-martial found him guilty of treason. In the spring of 1839, Doniphan also defended Smith and other Mormon leaders in civilian courts. In 1840, Doniphan won reelection to the General Assembly. When the Mexican War commenced in May 1846, Doniphan established the First Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, becoming its colonel. In June, Doniphan and his unit marched overland to participate in the capture of Santa Fe. Doniphan assumed military and civilian authority of New Mexico, drafting a constitution and legal code for the area. In December, Doniphan led his unit into Mexico, defeating Mexican forces at battles of the Bracito and Sacramento rivers, entering Chihuahua on March 1, 1847. After securing most of Northern Mexico, Doniphan and his men returned to Missouri to a heroes' welcome. Returning to his law practice in Liberty, Doniphan became the commissioner of public schools for Clay County in 1854. He also returned to the Missouri General Assembly. In 1860, Doniphan was practicing law in Liberty and owned real estate valued at $40,000 and had a personal estate of $6,000. Although he owned enslaved people, Doniphan encouraged Missouri to remain neutral during the Secession Crisis. In February 1861, he represented Missouri at the Washington Peace Conference. He won election to the Missouri state convention to consider secession, but remained opposed to leaving the Union. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Doniphan as a commissioner of claims, and he moved to St. Louis, where he also opened a law practice.

William E. Parrish, "Doniphan, Alexander William," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6:723-24; Roger D. Launius, Alexander William Doniphan: Portrait of a Missouri Moderate (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 48-71; U.S. Census Office, Eighth Census of the United States (1860), Liberty, Clay County, MO, 104.