William Walker was an infamous nineteenth-century American soldier of fortune and privateer (a “filibuster,” in the jargon of the day), who led a conspiracy in the 1850s and 1860s to grab land in Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua in order to assist the United States in its perceived Manifest Destiny to dominate the Americas, and to garner glory and riches for himself.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824, Walker was raised in a religious household. His parents hoped that he would become a minister, but Walker decided instead to study first medicine and then law.
After becoming a doctor and a lawyer, and being dissatisfied with both, Walker turned his attention toward journalism and eventually found himself in California as one of the founding editors of the San Francisco Herald, established in 1850. Once again unhappy with his profession, Walker returned to law for a short time before succumbing to the clamor for glory and riches promoted by the idea of the United States’ Manifest Destiny.
Enticed by the Western land grab that followed the Mexican–American war and refused a grant to establish a settlement by the Mexican government, Walker named himself a colonel and attempted to establish his own state in parts of Baja California and Sonora.
Aided by a mere forty-five men, Walker landed in La Paz on 3 November 1853, where his troops imprisoned Governor Rafael Espinosa, replaced the Mexican flag with their own and declared a new republic with no allegiance to Mexico, with Walker as its president.
Walker was not the first such person to attempt to seize a territory and declare it a sovereign nation, nor was his sovereign state in Mexico his last attempt at filibustering. (The term filibuster was taken from the Portugese and Spanish term for a pirate that held a ship for ransom, and was later used as a term in the U.S. Senate for an action taken in preventing a vote. In the nineteenth century, it also became a term—for some of treason, for others of glory—applied to mercenaries or soldiers of fortune who attempted to seize a portion of land for their own fame, fortune, or glory.)
Walker’s foray into nation-building in Mexico failed when supplies and troops ran low, and he surrendered to the United States government in May 1854. Revered as a hero by some in the United States and reviled by many in Mexico, Walker was tried and acquitted of violating the neutrality law set forth in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
After his acquittal, Walker returned to journalism in San Francisco for a short time, but, undaunted by his failure in Mexico, returned to his filibustering pursuits, this time with his sights set on Nicaragua.
Taking full advanatge of the civil war between the conservative Legitimatists and the Liberal Democrats then being waged in Nicaragua, Walker’s new partner, Byron Cole, was awarded a colonization grant by the president of the provisional government, Francisco Castellon. Hoping that Cole and Walker would aid them economically, the Democrats, led by Castellon, welcomed their plan.
But Walker had no intention of reestablishing a Nicaraguan government. When Castellon died Walker signed a treaty with the Legitimist General Ponciano Corral, and, after the country was reunited with Patricio Rivas as president, Walker became Rivas’s commander-in-chief of the army.
Not content with being mere commander-in-chief of the army, Walker used his influence within the Rivas cabinet to eventually oust Rivas and call for a new election, with himself as a candidate.
Never forgetting the notion of Manifest Destiny, Walker was planning to unite all five Central American states into a confederacy and to reintroduce slavery into the region in order to shore up that institution’s strength when his ultimate goal was achieved: the annexation of Central America by the United States.
Walker succeeded in becoming president in July 1856, but his success was short lived. Recognizing that Walker’s plans were to conquer the entire region, the Costa Rican government, led by President Juan Rafael Mora, organized an army to stop Walker’s band before it could invade Costa Rica. Nicaraguan patriots, also unhappy with the thought of becoming a part of the United States, rose up against Walker and joined the Costa Rican army in defeating him.
Walker surrendered to the U.S. Navy in May 1857 and was escorted back to the United States, leaving behind 407 of his American soldiers, many sick and wounded. Walker was once again acquitted for violating the neutrality laws.
Still set on conquering Central America and forging a union with the southern states of America, Walker spent most of 1859 and part of 1860 writing The War in Nicaragua, the sale of which helped to finance his final expedition in 1860. Working from Honduras, Walker made his last attempt at conquering the region when he was captured by the British Navy and turned over to the Honduran government.
Although Walker emerged from his American trials both victorious and lauded by many as a hero, he was not so fortunate in his final trial in Honduras. The Honduran government, unimpressed with Walker’s heroism and the idea of the United States’ Manifest Destiny, sentenced him to death. Walker was killed by a firing squad and buried in Trujillo.
Walker’s failure in Nicaragua and the Civil War at home prompted many filibusters and potential filibusters to rethink their plans, and filibustering as a heroic U.S. pursuit lost its appeal.
Though quite famous in the nineteenth century for his exploits—Walker’s fame even inspired a musical comedy on Broadway called “Nicaragua”—William Walker is all but forgotten in the United States today. In Nicaragua and Costa Rica, however, Walker’s exploits and subsequent defeat will never be forgotten.