William Walker: The American Mercenary Who Named Himself President of Nicaragua

By: Dave Roos  | 

William Walker
William Walker, the original 'filibuster' who briefly named himself president of Nicaragua, is shown with a government map of the country ordered in 1856 by Walker and then-President of Nicaragua, Patricio Rivas. HowStuffWorks/Library of Congress/Map-Historic Maps/ullstein bild /Getty Images

Standing a little over 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall and weighing a scrawny 120 pounds (54 kilograms), William Walker didn't look the part of a brash adventurer or military man. But the Tennessee native with the piercing gray eyes was arguably the most successful of the 19th-century American "filibusters," men who believed that it was the "Manifest Destiny" of the United States to stretch south into Mexico and Central America.

In the 1850s, Walker invaded Mexico twice with a private army and briefly installed himself as president of Nicaragua. His exploits were breathlessly followed by American newspapers, which either hailed Walker as a hero or condemned him as a pirate. Eventually, Walker's misadventures in Central America landed him in front of a firing squad, but his legend lived on as the "Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny."

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The Original 'Filibusters' Weren't Senators

Long before the word "filibuster" came to mean a long-winded Senate speech to block passage of a bill, it was a colorful term for rogues and mercenaries who tried to raid foreign territory and claim it for their own. "Filibuster" was derived from the Dutch word vrijbuiter or "freebooter," which the Spanish changed to "filibustero."

In the first half of the 19th century, dozens of American filibusters launched failed expeditions into "Spanish Texas" (before it was part of Mexico), Mexico and Cuba. This was before the U.S. Civil War, when the Missouri Compromise barred the addition of new slave states above the Mason-Dixon Line. While some filibusters only sought fortune and fame, others hoped to claim southern territories that could then be annexed by the U.S. as slaveholding states.

William Walker fell somewhere in the middle, says veteran journalist Scott Martelle, author of "William Walker's Wars: How One Man's Private American Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras." Walker originally got into filibustering for the personal glory, but ultimately "he wanted to create a Central American/Caribbean empire that would still have slavery."

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From Newspaperman to Newsmaker

Walker came from a wealthy and politically connected family in Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated from college at 14, studied to become a doctor by 17, then traveled Europe for two years before settling in New Orleans to practice law. After the untimely death of his fiancée, Walker became an editor at the New Orleans Daily Crescent (where Walt Whitman was briefly a colleague).

By this time, filibustering was all over the headlines. In 1848, the Venezuelan-born filibuster Narciso Lopez attempted to invade Cuba with a private army of American recruits and financial backing from southern plantation owners. Since Lopez was in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1818, the U.S. government sent warships to scuttle the raid. In an editorial, republished in Martelle's book, Walker took the filibuster's side:

There is no law of nations, recognized in this country at least, nor or morals, which deprives a man of the right of expatriating himself if he pleases, to take his share in a foreign quarrel, which appeals to his love of liberty, or detestation of tyranny, or even to his mere sordid estimate of glory and gain.

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Walker and the 'Republic of Sonora'

In 1853, Walker was living in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, a magnet for young adventurers looking to strike it rich in the untamed West. By this time, Walker was seriously entertaining his own career as a filibuster. Walker and other would-be invaders set their sites on the northern Mexican state of Sonora, right across the southern U.S. border.

"There was a common belief at the time that the Mexican government wasn't in control of the border territory on their side," says Martelle. "From the filibusters' perspective, it was land for the taking. If they could impose a government, then it would be theirs to defend."

Walker tried diplomacy first, sailing to the Baja Peninsula to request permission for the establishment of a private mining colony in the neighboring state of Sonora. But someone tipped off the Mexican authorities that Walker had grander plans for an American empire in Mexico, and he was kicked out.

Walked sailed back to San Francisco with a new plan. "He would return to Sonora not as a putative settler," writes Martelle in his book, "but as a conqueror."

In San Francisco, Walker and his associates openly recruited men to the cause and equipped a ship called the Arrow with weapons and provisions for a proper invasion. The U.S. authorities caught wind of Walker's plan and seized the Arrow, but in a midnight raid Walker's men were able to steal back some of their supplies and set sail on another vessel, the Caroline, for Mexico.

With a ragtag brigade of just 45 men, Walker landed in the port city of La Paz and quickly seized the governor's office, where they lowered the Mexican flag and raised one of Walker's own design for his new country. "The Republic of Lower California is hereby declared free, sovereign and independent, and all allegiance to the Republic of Mexico is forever renounced," Walker declared, giving himself the title of president.

Hundreds of reinforcements sailed down from San Francisco, eager to join Walker's fledgling empire, renamed the Republic of Sonora, and to stake a claim to lucrative mining rights. But once the men arrived, they found an ill-equipped army without a solid game plan. Local ranchers took up arms against Walker's underfed troops, who began deserting in droves.

"Walker had excessive confidence in his ability," says Martelle, and he could be brutal. He shot two of the deserters and ordered that others be flogged. But by the spring of 1854, even Walker realized that the invasion had failed, so he and his exhausted men marched north and surrendered to U.S. authorities at the border.

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Next Comes Nicaragua

Walker was charged with violating the Neutrality Act, but was summarily acquitted. Martelle says that the U.S. government saw Walker as "a pest" and nothing more. He would soon prove them wrong.

In the late 1850s, Nicaragua was locked in a civil war between two opposing political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. The Liberals had the support of a former American newspaperman named Byron Cole, who pitched the idea of hiring the now-famous Walker to capture the Conservative stronghold of Granada.

Nervous of being tried a second time for breaking the Neutrality Act, Walker said that he would only come if he and his men were invited as "colonists" and given land grants, says Martelle. The Liberals agreed and Walker sailed down with a mercenary band of fighters, mostly veterans of the Mexican American War, and took Granada after heavy fighting.

William Walker
The Costa Rica National Monument represents the five united Central American nations carrying weapons and William Walker fleeing.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

"Through political chicanery, Walker managed to make himself the head of the Nicaraguan military," says Martelle. When Nicaragua's puppet president fled after an invasion by neighboring Costa Rica, Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua in 1856. Even U.S. President Franklin Pierce officially recognized him as the country's new leader. As president, Walker made English the national language of Nicaragua and legalized slavery.

Walker may have had a long and successful career as a Central American imperialist if he hadn't angered another American with a claim to Nicaragua. Before the Panama Canal connected the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt established a profitable shortcut transporting cargo and passengers across Nicaragua by river and land.

Walker seized Vanderbilt's steamships as property of Nicaragua, which didn't sit well with the New York millionaire. "Vanderbilt sent word to the Costa Rican military," says Martelle. "'I'll pay for your troops if you'll help me get rid of Walker.'"

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Walker's Adventures End in Honduras

Surrounded by Costa Rican troops and Vanderbilt's mercenaries, Walker negotiated a surrender in 1857 and sailed back to New York, where he was tried (and acquitted again) for violating the Neutrality Act. Walker wasted no time planning his triumphant return to Central America to take back Nicaragua.

His first two comeback attempts were dead in the water (literally). In one, Walker's ship struck a coral reef off Belize and had to be towed back to Mobile, Alabama, by the British Navy. Another ended with Walker arrested by the U.S. Navy when he tried to land in Costa Rica.

Walker was undeterred, though, and thanks to his fame in the newspapers he had no trouble recruiting 91 men for a fourth try at retaking Nicaragua. The plan was to land in the Honduran port of Trujillo and march south into Nicaragua, but Walker and his men met fierce resistance from the Honduran military, which was aided by a British Naval blockade that kept out American reinforcements.

With dozens of men wounded or dying from tropical diseases, and ammunition in short supply, Walker was convinced to surrender to the British Commodore Norvell Salmon, who assured the American that he would be spared the wrath of the Honduran military. But that's not what happened.

William Walker
The grave of William Walker is in the Old Trujillo Cemetery, Trujillo, Colón, Honduras.
Wikimedia Commons

"The captain of the ship screwed him over," says Martelle. In a matter of days, Walker was standing before a Honduran firing squad.

Walker was only 36 years old when he was executed in September 1860, and filibustering more or less died with him. Just months later, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union and the nation was soon embroiled in its own bloody Civil War.

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