William Walker in Nicaragua

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and career of American adventurer and conqueror William Walker as he tried to take over Central American nation Nicaragua. Test your knowledge about Walker, Central America, and the turbulent era of the mid-1800s.

Who was William Walker?

Today, the idea of a single person deciding to raise a private army to take over another country might seem a bit…overzealous? Insane? Absurd? Probably all of the above. In the mid 1800s, however, this was not such a radical idea. Filibustering, the unauthorized military invasion of foreign nations by an individual, was an idea that many people embraced. After all, might makes right, right?

William Walker (May 8, 1824- September 12, 1860) was an American filibuster in the 1850's. Although he attempted to seize parts of Northern Mexico, he is most remembered for his campaign into Nicaragua. Walker was president of Nicaragua from 1856-1857, before being defeated by a group of Central American armies and executed in Honduras. He was motivated by money, power, an enthusiasm for revolutions, and a desire to help the American South keep slavery going strong.

William Walker: Early Life and Major Influences

William Walker was born May 8, 1824. He was obviously very intelligent and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at only 14 years old. He earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania when he was 19. After practicing medicine, he studied law in New Orleans, and was a journalist in San Francisco. Walker lived during a time when lots of people were inventing new political and revolutionary theories, and he seems to have been influenced by many of these. Walker witnessed revolutions in Europe in the 1840's and was inspired by the idea of military conquest. Additionally, Walker was heavily influenced by the American idea of Manifest Destiny, a belief that Americans were destined to expand across the entire continent and take all lands for the United States. The 1840's were an important time for American pioneers who spread across the plains and mountains of the West. Many were turning their eyes on Canada and Mexico as well.

William Walker
Photo of William Walker

In this spirit of American awesomeness and greatness, William Walker got the idea to colonize northern Mexico and make it part of the United States. He was inspired by Texas, which had left Mexico as an independent country and later joined the USA. Walker's goal was to create new states for America that supported slavery. By adding southern slave states, he could make southerners more powerful in American politics, where the anti-slavery debate was really heating up. In 1853, Walker asked the government of Mexico if he could set up a colony in the Sonora state of Northern Mexico, to protect the US border from Indian raids. Mexico saw Walker's plan as an attempt to steal their lands, and refused. Later that year, Walker returned with a private army of 45 men and took control of Baja California for three months, before being forced to run back to the United States. Walker was arrested and put on trial for conducting an illegal war because he had violated the 1794 Neutrality Act, which made it illegal to invade foreign nations who were friendly towards the United States. However, so many people believed in Manifest Destiny that Walker was found not guilty. A lot of people saw him as a hero.

William Walker in Nicaragua

After the failed attempt to take Sonora from Mexico, Walker turned his focus towards Nicaragua. At this point, the United States did not have the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Panama Canal did not exist. Therefore, the quickest way to transport people and cargo from New York to San Francisco was not across the dusty, dangerous plains and mountains of the West but to sail from New York to Nicaragua, head up the rivers to Lake Nicaragua, and then use stagecoaches to move the cargo to the Pacific Ocean. From there, boats could quickly sail up the coast to California. This trade route was controlled by an American company under Cornelius Vanderbilt, so when civil war broke out in Nicaragua, Walker decided that he could try filibustering there.

In 1854, the two Democratic Parties of Nicaragua asked William Walker for military help against their opponents, the Legitimist Party. To make it legal, the Democratic president Francisco Castellón gave Walker a contract to bring American colonists to settle in Nicaragua, although really these men were just mercenaries to fight the war. In May of 1855, Walker arrived with 60 men from America, and met another 100 Americans already there. He immediately began fighting against the Legitimists, and several major victories. On October 13 of 1855, he conquered the capital city of Granada and defeated the Legitimists. President Castellón had died of cholera earlier that year, so Walker chose a new president who would be his puppet, Patricio Rivas. In 1856 Walker rigged the elections and had himself elected president of Nicaragua. He made slavery legal, declared English to be the country's language, and tried to Americanize Nicaragua as best he could.

Walker

William Walker Made Enemies

Everything seemed to be going great for William Walker. He defeated the Legitimists, became president, and in 1856 the United States president Franklin Pierce even officially recognized Walker's government as the only legitimate government in Nicaragua. The only problem was that in order to win the war, Walker had made some very serious enemies. First was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the man who owned the trade routes. Two of Vanderbilt's men, C. K. Garrison and Charles Morgan, had betrayed him and given Walker all of Vanderbilt's ships and resources. In exchange, Walker gave them Vanderbilt's trade routes. Vanderbilt was enraged and sent men to Costa Rica with a plan to steal back his steamships, which Walker relied on to transport his armies and cargo.

Map of Central America
Map of Central America

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