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William Walker (filibuster)

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William Walker (filibuster)

William Walker
1st President of the Republic of Lower California
In office
November 3, 1853 – January 21, 1854
1st President of the Republic of Sonora
In office
January 21, 1854 – May 8, 1854
President of the Republic of Nicaragua
In office
July 12, 1856 – May 1, 1857
Preceded by Patricio Rivas
Succeeded by Máximo Jerez and Tomás Martínez
Personal details
Born May 8, 1824 (1824-05-08)
Nashville, Tennessee
Died September 12, 1860(1860-09-12) (aged 36)
Trujillo, Honduras

William Walker (May 8, 1824 – September 12, 1860) was an American physician, lawyer, journalist and mercenary, who organized several private military expeditions into Latin America, with the intention of establishing English-speaking colonies under his personal control, an enterprise then known as "filibustering." Walker usurped the presidency of the Republic of Nicaragua in 1856 and ruled until 1857, when he was defeated by a coalition of Central American armies. He was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.


  • Early life 1
  • Expedition to Mexico 2
  • Conquest of Nicaragua 3
  • Death in Honduras 4
  • Influence and reputation 5
  • Cultural references 6
  • Works 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Early life

Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824 to James Walker and his wife Mary Norvell. His father was a son of a Scottish immigrant. His mother was a daughter of Lipscomb Norvell, an American Revolutionary War officer from Virginia. One of Walker's maternal uncles was John Norvell, a US Senator from Michigan and founder of The Philadelphia Inquirer.[1] William Walker was engaged to Helen Martin, but they never married, and he died without any children.

William Walker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the age of fourteen.[1] He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and University of Heidelberg before receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 19. He practiced briefly in Philadelphia before moving to New Orleans to study law.[2]

He practiced law for a short time, and then quit to become co-owner and editor of the New Orleans Crescent. In 1849, he moved to San Francisco, where he was a journalist and fought three duels; he was wounded in two of them. Walker then conceived the idea of conquering vast regions of Latin America and creating new slave states to join those already part of the United States.[3] These campaigns were known as filibustering or freebooting.

Expedition to Mexico

In the summer of 1853, Walker traveled to Guaymas, seeking a grant from the government of Mexico to create a colony, using the pretext that it would serve as a fortified frontier, protecting US soil from Indian raids. Mexico refused, and Walker returned to San Francisco determined to obtain his colony, regardless of Mexico's position. He began recruiting from amongst American supporters of slavery and the Manifest Destiny Doctrine, mostly inhabitants of Kentucky and Tennessee. His intentions then changed from forming a buffer colony to establishing an independent Republic of Sonora, which might eventually take its place as a part of the American Union (as had been the case previously with the Republic of Texas). He funded his project by "selling scrips which were redeemable in lands of Sonora."[2]

On October 15, 1853, Walker set out with 45 men to conquer the Mexican territories of Baja California Territory and Sonora State. He succeeded in capturing La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, which he declared the capital of a new Republic of Lower California, with himself as president and his partner, Watkins, as vice president; he then put the region under the laws of the American state of Louisiana, which made slavery legal. Fearful of attacks by Mexico, Walker moved his headquarters twice over the next three months, first to Cabo San Lucas, and then further north to Ensenada to maintain a more secure position of operations, because he lost to General Manuel Márquez de León. Although he never gained control of Sonora, less than three months later, he pronounced Baja California part of the larger Republic of Sonora.[2] Lack of supplies and strong resistance by the Mexican government quickly forced Walker to retreat.

Back in California, he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war, in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1794. However, in the era of Manifest Destiny, his filibustering project was popular in the southern and western United States and the jury took eight minutes to acquit him.[4][5]

Conquest of Nicaragua

Walker's Nicaragua map

Since there was no inter-oceanic route joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at the time, and the transcontinental railway had not been completed, a major trade route between New York City and San Francisco ran through southern Nicaragua. Ships from New York entered the San Juan River from the Atlantic and sailed across Lake Nicaragua. People and goods were then transported by stagecoach over a narrow strip of land near the city of Rivas, before reaching the Pacific and being shipped to San Francisco. The commercial exploitation of this route had been granted by Nicaragua to the Accessory Transit Company, controlled by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (see also Nicaragua Canal).[6]

In 1854, a civil war erupted in Nicaragua between the Legitimist Party (also called the Conservative Party), based in the city of Granada, and the Democratic Party (also called the Liberal Party), based in León. The Democratic Party sought military support from Walker who, to circumvent U.S. neutrality laws, obtained a contract from Democratic president Francisco Castellón to bring as many as three hundred "colonists" to Nicaragua. These mercenaries received the right to bear arms in the service of the Democratic government. Walker sailed from San Francisco on May 3, 1855, with approximately 60 men. Upon landing, the force was reinforced by 170 locals and about 100 Americans, including the well-known explorer and journalist Charles Wilkins Webber and the English adventurer Charles Frederick Henningsen, a veteran of the First Carlist War, the Hungarian Revolution, and the war in Circassia.[7]

With Castellón's consent, Walker attacked the Legitimists in the town of Rivas, near the trans-isthmian route. He was driven off, but not without inflicting heavy casualties. On September 4, during the Battle of La Virgen, Walker defeated the Legitimist army. On October 13, he conquered the Legitimist capital of Granada and took effective control of the country. Initially, as commander of the army, Walker ruled Nicaragua through provisional President Patricio Rivas.[8] U.S. President Franklin Pierce recognized Walker's regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua on May 20, 1856.[9] Walker's first ambassadorial appointment, Colonel Parker H. French, was refused recognition.[10]


  • "Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt fought war over route through Central America" from the Vanderbilt Register
  • "Walker's expeditions" from
  • "Filibustering with William Walker" from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
  • Fuchik, Don "The Saga of William Walker" The California Native Newsletter
  • Walker the 1987 Alex Cox movie, Walker, featuring Ed Harris as William Walker, at the Internet Movie Database
  • Patrick Deville, Pura Vida: Vie et mort de William Walker, Seuil, Paris,2004
  • "How Tennessee Adventurer William Walker became Dictator of Nicaragua in 1857 The Norvell family origins of The Grey Eyed Man of Destiny"
  • the memory palace podcast episode about William Walker.
  • Walker, William "The War in Nicaragua" at Google Books
  • Brief recount of William Walker trying to conquer Baja California (Spanish)
  • by Ernesto Cardenal, translated by Jonathan CohenWith Walker in Nicaragua
  • Maps of North America and the Caribbean showing Walker's expeditions at

External links

  • Harrison, Brady. William Walker and the Imperial Self in American Literature. University of Georgia Press, August 2, 2004. ISBN 0-8203-2544-9. ISBN 978-0-8203-2544-6.

Further reading

  • Doubleday, C.W. Reminiscences of the Filibuster War in Nicaragua. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1886.
  • Jamison, James Carson. With Walker in Nicaragua: Reminiscences of an Officer of the American Phalanx. Columbia, MO: E.W. Stephens, 1909.
  • Wight, Samuel F. Adventures in California and Nicaragua: a Truthful Epic. Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1860.
  • Fayssoux Collection. Tulane University. Latin American Library.
  • United States Magazine. Sept., 1856. Vol III No. 3. pp. 266–72
  • “Filibustering”, Putnam's Monthly Magazine (New York), April 1857, 425–35.
  • “Walker’s Reverses in Nicaragua,” Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 17, 1856.
  • “The Lesson” National Era, June 4, 1857, 90.
  • “The Administration and Commodore Paulding,” National Era, January 7, 1858.
  • “Wanted – A Few Filibusters,” Harper's Weekly, January 10, 1857.
  • “Reception of Gen. Walker,” New Orleans Picayune, May 28, 1857.
  • “Arrival of Walker,” New Orleans Picayune, May 28, 1857.
  • “Our Influence in the Isthmus,” New Orleans Picayune, February 17, 1856.
  • New Orleans Sunday Delta, June 27, 1856.
  • “Nicaragua and President Walker,” Louisville Times, December 13, 1856.
  • “Le Nicaragua et les Filibustiers,” Opelousas Courier, May 10, 1856.
  • “What is to Become of Nicaragua?,” Harper’s Weekly, June 6, 1857.
  • “The Late General Walker,” Harper’s Weekly, October 13, 1860.
  • “What General Walker is Like,” Harper’s Weekly, September, 1856.
  • “Message of the President to the Senate in Reference to the Late Arrest of Gen. Walker,” Louisville Courier, January 12, 1858.
  • “The Central American Question – What Walker May Do,” New York Times, January 1, 1856.
  • “A Serious Farce,” New York Times, December 14, 1853.
  • 1856–57 New York Herald Horace Greeley editorials.
Primary sources
  • Carr, Albert Z. The World and William Walker, 1963.
  • Dando-Collins, Stephen. Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Richard Harding Davis (1906), Real Soldiers of Fortune, “General William Walker, the King of the Filibusters” (Chapter 5).
  • Dueñas Van Severen, J. Ricardo (2006). La invasión filibustera de Nicaragua y la Guerra Nacional (PDF) (in Spanish). Secretaría General del Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana SG-SICA. 
  • Juda, Fanny. California Filibusters: A History of their Expeditions into Hispanic America
  • McPherson, James M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 909.  
  • May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America, 2002.
  • May, Robert E. The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
  • Moore, J. Preston. “Pierre Soule: Southern Expansionist and Promoter,” Journal of Southern History 21:2 (May, 1955), 208 & 214.
  • Norvell, John Edward, “How Tennessee Adventurer William Walker became Dictator of Nicaragua in 1857: The Norvell Family origins of the Grey Eyed Man of Destiny,” The Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, Vol XXV, No.4, Spring 2012
  • "1855: American Conquistador," American Heritage, October 2005.
  • Recko, Corey. "Murder on the White Sands." University of North Texas Press. 2007
  • Scroggs, William O. (1916). Filibusters and Financiers; the story of William Walker and his associates. New York: The Macmillan Company. 
  • "William Walker" Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 28 Oct. 2008.
Secondary sources
  1. ^ a b William Walker, 1824–1860, genealogy GenForum
  2. ^ a b c Miss Fanny Juda (February 1919). "California Filibusters: A History of their Expeditions into Hispanic America". The Grizzly Bear XXI (4; Whole No. 142). Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West. Retrieved 2009-08-03. 
  3. ^ McPherson, James M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 114
  4. ^ Scroggs, pg 65
  5. ^ "The Biography of William Walker". 2014-03-07. Retrieved 2014-05-03. 
  6. ^ Finch, Richard C. "William Walker". The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. Retrieved 26 July 2012. 
  7. ^ Scroggs, pg 7
  8. ^ Scroggs, pg 150
  9. ^ McPherson pg 112
  10. ^ Scroggs, pg 141
  11. ^ Scroggs, pg 270-1
  12. ^ Scroggs, pg 188
  13. ^ Sánchez Ramírez, Roberto. "El general que trajo a los primeros catrachos". La Prensa (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2007-11-10. Retrieved 2012-07-26. 
  14. ^ a b Dueñas Van Severen 2006, p. 140.
  15. ^ Theodore Henry Hittell, History of California (N.J. Stone, 1898), p. 797
  16. ^ Scroggs, pp. 333–6
  17. ^ Scroggs, pp. 72–4
  18. ^ "Maps of Nicaragua, North and Central America: Population and Square Miles of Nicaragua, United States, Mexico, British and Central America, with Routes and Distances; Portraits of General Walker, Colonel Kinney, Parker H. French, and Views of the Battle of New-Orleans and Bunker Hill". World Digital Library. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  19. ^ James M. McPherson (1988). Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. US: Oxford University Press. pp. 904 pages.  
  20. ^ With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949–1954, translated by Jonathan Cohen, Wesleyan University Press, 1985
  21. ^  


See also

  • Walker, William. The War in Nicaragua. New York: S.H. Goetzel, 1860.


Nate DiMeo's historical podcast The Memory Palace featured an episode on William Walker entitled "Presidente Walker".[21]

A long early poem by the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, Con Walker En Nicaragua, translated as With Walker in Nicaragua,[20] gives a historical treatment of the affair.

In S. M. Stirling's Nantucket series, a young U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant, William Walker, steals a ship loaded with modern technology from the timelost Nantucketers who have arrived in the Late Bronze Age. Like the historical William Walker he embarks on a campaign for conquest and carves for himself a personal empire, first in Britain, then in Mycenean Greece, from which he carries out his own brutal version of the Trojan War.

In Part Five, Chapter 48, of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell cites William Walker, "and how he died against a wall in Truxillo", as topic of conversation between Rhett Butler and his filibustering acquaintances, while Rhett and Scarlett are on honeymoon in New Orleans.

Walker's campaign has inspired two films, both of which take considerable liberties with his story: Burn! (1969) directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, starring Marlon Brando, and Walker (1987) directed by Alex Cox, starring Ed Harris. Walker's name is used for the main character in Burn!, though the character is not meant to represent the historical William Walker and is portrayed as British. On the other hand, Alex Cox's Walker incorporates into its surrealist narrative many of the signposts of William Walker's life and exploits, including his original excursions into northern Mexico to his trial and acquittal on breaking the neutrality act to the triumph of his assault on Nicaragua and his execution.

Cultural references

In Central American countries, the successful military campaign of 1856–57 against William Walker became a source of national pride and identity, and it was later promoted by local historians and politicians as substitute for the war of independence that Central America had not experienced. April 11 is a Costa Rican national holiday in memory of Walker's defeat at Rivas. Juan Santamaría, who played a key role in that battle, is honored as one of the two Costa Rican national heroes, the other one being Juan Rafael Mora himself.

Before the end of the American Civil War, Walker's memory enjoyed great popularity in the southern and western United States, where he was known as "General Walker" and as the "grey-eyed man of destiny". Northerners, on the other hand, generally regarded him as a pirate. Despite his intelligence and personal charm, Walker consistently proved to be a limited military and political leader. Unlike men of similar ambition, such as Cecil Rhodes, Walker's grandiose scheming ultimately failed.

William Walker convinced many Southerners of the desirability of creating a slave-holding empire in tropical Latin America. In 1861, when U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden proposed that the 36°30' parallel north be declared as a line of demarcation between free and slave territories, some Republicans denounced such an arrangement, saying that it "would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and State owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego."[19]

Influence and reputation

Rather than return him to the US, Salmon delivered Walker to the Honduran authorities in Trujillo, who executed him near the site of the present-day hospital by firing squad on September 12, 1860.[18] Walker was 36 years old. He is buried in the Cementerio Viejo, in Trujillo.

After writing an account of his Central American campaign (published in 1860 as War in Nicaragua), Walker once again returned to the region. British colonists in Roatán, in the Bay Islands, fearing that the government of Honduras would move to assert its control over them, approached Walker with an offer to help him in establishing a separate, English-speaking government over the islands. Walker disembarked in the port city of Trujillo, but soon fell into the custody of Commander Nowell Salmon (later Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon) of the British Royal Navy. The British government controlled the neighboring regions of British Honduras (now Belize) and the Mosquito Coast (now part of Nicaragua) and had considerable strategic and economic interest in the construction of an inter-oceanic canal through Central America. It therefore regarded Walker as a menace to its own affairs in the region.[17]

Walker's grave in the Old Trujillo Cemetery, Colón, Honduras

Death in Honduras

On May 1, 1857, Walker surrendered to Commander Charles Henry Davis of the United States Navy under the pressure of the Central American armies, and was repatriated. Upon disembarking in New York City, he was greeted as a hero, but he alienated public opinion when he blamed his defeat on the U.S. Navy. Within six months, he set off on another expedition, but he was arrested by the U.S. Navy Home Squadron under the command of Commodore Hiram Paulding and once again returned to the U.S. amid considerable public controversy over the legality of the Navy's actions.[16]

On October 12, 1856, Guatemalan Colonel José Víctor Zavala performed an incredible act of courage: he crossed the square of the city to the house where Walker soldiers took shelter; under heavy fire, he made it to the enemy's flag and carried it back with him shouting to his men that the filibuster bullets did not kill.[14] On December 14, 1856, as Granada was surrounded by 4,000 Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan troops, Charles Frederick Henningsen, one of Walker's generals, ordered his men to set the city ablaze before escaping and fighting their way to Lake Nicaragua. An inscription on a lance reading Aquí fue Granada ("Here was Granada") was left behind at the smoking ruin of the ancient capital city.[15]

Walker took up residence in Granada and set himself up as President of Nicaragua, after conducting a fraudulent election. He was inaugurated on July 12, 1856, and soon launched an Americanization program, reinstating slavery, declaring English an official language and reorganizing currency and fiscal policy to encourage immigration from the United States. Realizing that his position was becoming precarious, he sought support from the Southerners in the U.S. by recasting his campaign as a fight to spread the institution of black slavery, which many American Southern businessmen saw as the basis of their agrarian economy. With this in mind, Walker revoked Nicaragua's emancipation edict of 1824. This move did increase Walker's popularity in the South and attracted the attention of Pierre Soulé, an influential New Orleans politician, who campaigned to raise support for Walker's war. Nevertheless, Walker's army, weakened by an epidemic of cholera and massive defections, was no match for the Central American coalition.

Walker's house in Granada. On October 12, 1856, during the siege of Granada, Guatemalan officer José Víctor Zavala ran under heavy fire to capture the flag and bring it back to the Central American coalition Army trenches shouting Filibuster bullets don't kill! Zavala came out unscatched of this adventure.[14]

From the north, President José Santos Guardiola sent Honduran troops who went side by side with Salvadoran troops to fight William Walker under the leadership of the Xatruch brothers. Florencio Xatruch was named General-in-Chief of the Allied Armies of Central America. He also led the combat against the filibusters in la Puebla, Rivas. Later, for political reasons, Juan Rafael Mora was left in charge. Several Central American countries recognized Xatruch as Brigade and Division General. On June 12, 1857, Xatruch made a triumphant entrance to Comayagua, which was then the capital of Honduras, after Walker surrendered. The nickname by which Hondurans are known popularly still today, Catracho, and the more infamous nickname Salvadorans are known today, Salvatrucho are derived from Xatruch's figure and successful campaign as leader of the Allied Armies of Central America, as the troops of El Salvador and Honduras were national heroes, that played a key role, fighting side by side as Central American brothers against William Walker's troops. As the general and his soldiers returned from battle, some Nicaraguans affectionately yelled out "¡Vienen los xatruches!", meaning "Here come Xatruch's boys!" However, Nicaraguans had so much trouble pronouncing the general's last name (a Catalan last name) that they altered the phrase to "los catruches" and ultimately settled on "los catrachos".[13]

Walker's flag of Nicaragua

Walker had also scared his neighbors and potential American and European investors with talk of further military conquests in Central America. Battle of Santa Rosa in March 20, 1856. In April 1856, Costa Rican troops entered into Nicaraguan territory and inflicted a defeat on Walker's men at the Second Battle of Rivas, in which Juan Santamaría, later to be recognized as one of Costa Rica's national heroes, played a key role.[12]


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