William Walker: Ultimate Yankee Imperialist

Walker Aimed to Take Over Nations and Make Them Part of the US

William Walker. Public Domain image

William Walker (1824-1860) was an American adventurer and soldier who became president of Nicaragua from 1856 to 1857. He tried to gain control over most of Central America but failed and was executed by firing squad in 1860 in Honduras.

Early Life

Born into a distinguished family in Nashville, Tennessee, William was a child genius. He graduated from the University of Nashville at the top of his class at the age of 14.

By the time he was 25, he had a degree in medicine and another in law and was legally allowed to practice as both a doctor and lawyer. He also worked as a publisher and journalist. Walker was restless, taking a long trip to Europe and living in Pennsylvania, New Orleans and San Francisco in his early years. Although he stood only 5 feet 2 inches, Walker had a commanding presence and charisma to spare.

The Filibusters

In 1850, Venezuelan-born Narciso Lopez led a group of mostly American mercenaries in an assault on Cuba. The goal was to take over the government and later attempt to become part of the United States. The state of Texas, which had broken off from Mexico a few years before, was an example of a region of a sovereign nation that had been taken over by Americans before gaining statehood. The practice of invading small countries or states with the intention of causing independence was known as filibustering.

Although the U.S. government was in full expansionist mode by 1850, it frowned on filibustering as a way to expand the nation's borders.

Assault on Baja California

Inspired by the examples of Texas and Lopez, Walker set out to conquer the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California, which at that time were sparsely populated.

With only 45 men, Walker marched south and promptly captured La Paz, the capital of Baja California. Walker renamed the state the Republic of Lower California, later to be replaced by the Republic of Sonora, declared himself president and applied the laws of the State of Louisiana, which included legalized slavery. Back in the United States, word of his daring attack had spread, and most Americans thought that Walker's project was a great idea. Men lined up to volunteer to join the expedition. Around this time, he got the nickname "the gray-eyed man of destiny."

Defeat in Mexico

By early 1854, Walker had been reinforced by 200 Mexicans who believed in his vision and another 200 Americans from San Francisco who wanted to get in on the ground floor of the new republic. But they had few supplies, and discontent grew. The Mexican government, which could not send a large army to crush the invaders, nevertheless was able to muster up enough of a force to skirmish with Walker and his men a couple of times and keep them from getting too comfortable in La Paz. In addition, the ship that had carried him to Baja California sailed off against his orders, taking much of his supplies with it.

In early 1854 Walker decided to roll the dice: He would march on the strategic city of Sonora.

If he could capture it, more volunteers and investors would join the expedition. But many of his men deserted, and by May he had only 35 men left. He crossed the border and surrendered to American forces there, never having reached Sonora.

On Trial

Walker was tried in San Francisco in federal court on charges he violated United States neutrality laws and policies. Popular sentiment was still with him, and he was acquitted of all charges by a jury after only eight minutes of deliberations. He returned to his law practice, convinced that he would have succeeded if he had only had more men and supplies.

Nicaragua

Within a year, he was back in action. Nicaragua was a rich, green nation that had one great advantage: In the days before the Panama Canal, most shipping went through Nicaragua along a route that led up the San Juan River from the Caribbean, across Lake Nicaragua and then overland to the port of Rivas.

Nicaragua was in the throes of a civil war between the cities of Granada and Leon to determine which city would have more power. Walker was approached by the Leon faction -- which was losing -- and soon rushed to Nicaragua with some 60 well-armed men. Upon landing, he was reinforced with another 100 Americans and almost 200 Nicaraguans. His army marched on Granada and captured it in October 1855. Because he was already considered supreme general of the army, he had no trouble declaring himself president. In May 1856, U.S. President Franklin Pierce officially recognized Walker's government.

Defeat in Nicaragua

Walker had made many enemies in his conquest. Greatest among them was perhaps Cornelius Vanderbilt, who controlled an international shipping empire. As president, Walker revoked Vanderbilt's rights to ship through Nicaragua, and Vanderbilt, enraged, sent soldiers to oust him. Vanderbilt's men were joined by those of other Central American nations, chiefly Costa Rica, who feared that Walker would take over their countries. Walker had overturned Nicaragua's anti-slavery laws and made English the official language, which angered many Nicaraguans. In early 1857 the Costa Ricans invaded, supported by Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as Vanderbilt's money and men, and defeated Walker's army at the Second Battle of Rivas. Walker was forced to return once again to the United States.

Honduras

Walker was greeted as a hero in the U.S., particularly in the South. He wrote a book about his adventures, resumed his law practice, and began making plans to try again to take Nicaragua, which he still believed to be his.

After a few false starts, including one in which U.S. authorities captured him as he set sail, he landed near Trujillo, Honduras, where he was captured by the British Royal Navy. The British already had important colonies in Central American in British Honduras, now Belize, and the Mosquito Coast, in present-day Nicaragua, and they did not want Walker stirring up rebellions. They turned him over to Honduran authorities, who executed him by firing squad on Sept. 12, 1860. It is reported that in his final words he asked for clemency for his men, assuming the responsibility of the Honduras expedition himself. He was 36 years old. 

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Minster, Christopher. "William Walker: Ultimate Yankee Imperialist." ThoughtCo, Aug. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-biography-of-william-walker-2136342. Minster, Christopher. (2017, August 30). William Walker: Ultimate Yankee Imperialist. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-biography-of-william-walker-2136342 Minster, Christopher. "William Walker: Ultimate Yankee Imperialist." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-biography-of-william-walker-2136342 (accessed December 16, 2017).