Who is the most well-known Missourian? Sheryl Crow or Brad Pitt? How about the most influential Missourian? Harry Truman or Chuck Berry? For many years, I have believed that the least recognized but most influential Missourian is Alexander Doniphan.
It is true that the Doniphan name has resurfaced in Clay County, and people recognize the highway and school that bear his name. However, why is he important to people today? Regardless of his personal opinion, Doniphan always seemed to do what was needed even if it was not popular. Doniphan embodied these qualities, which I believe were unique in the 19th Century but equally unique today.
In the 1830s, Doniphan, who was also a general in the Missouri militia, was ordered in the field to carry out an order to exterminate the leaders of the Mormon Church in Missouri. Although under orders, Doniphan refused to execute these men. Doniphan, who was not a Mormon, defended these men in court and secured their safe passage out of the state. For Doniphan, it wasn’t about fearing someone different from you, but about doing what was right.
When America went to war against Mexico in 1846, Doniphan responded to the call. He commanded a military campaign of over 5,000 miles and helped secure the trade routes to Santa Fe, New Mexico. To this day, much of the New Mexico code of laws is based on the code Doniphan wrote for the area following the war. Under direction from General Kearny, Doniphan wrote a code in English and Spanish for all the people of the new territory. For Doniphan, it was about creating a set of rules that everyone could understand—not just the winners.
Doniphan believed in education. In 1849, the Missouri Baptist Convention decided to establish a college in Boonville, Missouri. Doniphan, who was not Baptist, joined with several prominent Baptists in Clay County to persuade the founding of William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. Doniphan also served as the first superintendent of the Liberty Public Schools. For Doniphan, it was about supporting education—not just supporting people who thought as he did.
We need more people like Alexander Doniphan. We need people that can abandon their “tribe” and do what is right for the community…even if it is unpopular.
A small committee of people celebrate and remember Alexander Doniphan by finding individuals who exemplify these important characteristics and recognizing them with the Doniphan Community Service Award. This year, the award will be presented to Former U.S. Senator John Danforth. Mid-Continent Public Library is proud to be able to cosponsor this award, which will be given during a ceremony at the Harry S Truman Library and Museum on September 11, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. The event is free, but you need to register online.
I hope you will join us in celebrating Senator Danforth and remembering the extraordinary Alexander Doniphan.
Steven V. Potter
MCPL Director & CEO