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FILIBUSTERING. To Americans of the 1840s and 50s, the term filibusters referred to irregular armies of U.S. "adventurers" and the individuals who comprised them. Such bands often claimed to be acting on behalf of U.S. interests. But in most cases, filibusters acted without U.S. government authorization and sought conflicts with nations with which the United States was at peace. While some filibuster armies targeted Canada, most marched or sailed toward Latin America.

"Filibusters" derives from the Dutch word Vrijbuiter, itself descended from the English term "freebooter." During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, filibusters referred to English buccaneers, maritime pirates who plied the Caribbean hunting for Spanish quarry. The term did not become associated with private clandestine armies until the late 1840s, but historians have retroactively applied it to earlier figures of U.S. history such as Aaron Burr and James Wilkinson. Like their later counterparts, these early filibusters worked independent of—and, in a few cases, even conspired to wrest territory from—the federal government. In other cases, early filibusters acted with the tacit approval of—in some cases, with quiet support from—the federal government.

Filibustering's heyday, however, took place during the 1840s and 50s—the era of "Manifest Destiny," a period during which U.S. policymakers spoke unapologetically of building an "American empire," and in which the nation's boundaries seemed to the general public ever fluid, ever expanding. During that era, editors of the nation's penny newspapers enlivened their pages with countless stories about such colorful filibusters as Narciso López, William Walker, Henry A. Crabb, and Joseph Morehead. To thwart filibuster armies, that era's federal government employed, at various times, presidential proclamations, spies, federal Neutrality Act indictments, and the U.S. Navy. Among the filibusters, López and Walker achieved the greatest notoriety.

The son of a prosperous plantation owner, Narciso López was born in Venezuela in 1797. After fighting there in the Spanish army during its unsuccessful campaign to defeat rebel José Martí, López fled to Cuba. During the 1830s he rose to high positions in civil and political offices in both Spain and Cuba. In the late 1840s, disaffected with Spain in the wake of personal, political, and business reversals, López conspired to overthrow Cuba's colonial government.

In the wake of that insurgency's collapse, López fled in July 1848 to the United States, where he plotted to invade Cuba. Between 1848 and 1851 López raised four successive expeditionary armies. The federal government broke up two before they could leave the United States. The other two reached Cuba and fought the Spanish garrison. The final landing, with about four hundred filibusters, reached Cuba on 12 August 1851. All of the putative conquerors were killed in skirmishes with Spanish soldiers, executed, or captured and sent to prison. López was executed on 1 September in Havana.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824, William Walker directed his filibustering expeditions toward Latin America. In 1853, after Mexican authorities rejected his plans to establish an American colony in that nation, he led an expedition of forty-five filibusters. Sailing from San Francisco, they seized the coastal town of La Paz, at the southern tip of Baja California, which Walker soon declared an independent republic, with himself as president.

On 18 January 1854 Walker declared the annexation of the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora—a brazen declaration in light of the fact that he had yet to set foot there. His Mexican empire, however, evaporated as quickly as it had been declared. U.S. officials quickly acted to block the shipment of supplies to Walker and his loyalists, and they soon faced starvation. Furthermore, Mexican officials forced the filibusters northward, where they surrendered to federal authorities at the U.S. border. The federal government subsequently tried Walker on Neutrality Act violations, but a San Francisco jury acquitted him of all charges.

In 1855, ever determined to preside over his own empire, Walker accepted a commission from a faction in a civil war then raging in Nicaragua. Sailing from San Francisco, he and fifty-seven filibusters landed on that nation's northern coast in May and soon joined the fighting. During the conflict Cornelius Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company, which operated a rail line across the country, agreed to transport American reinforcements to the battle theater free of charge. When his faction triumphed, Walker became commander in chief of the army, and in May 1856 his new government won U.S. diplomatic recognition. In due course Walker was sworn in as the nation's president. He soon came into conflict with Vanderbilt, however, and the U.S. government ended relations with Walker's government and joined the opposition led by Vanderbilt. In May 1857 Walker surrendered to the U.S. Navy. Three years later, Walker led two more expeditions—one to Nicaragua and another to Honduras. The first was quickly ended by the U.S. Navy, the second by the British Navy. Walker was executed in Honduras in September 1860.

Young, white, single, native-born Americans, as well as European and Latin American immigrants, tended to dominate filibuster armies. Motives of recruits ranged from republican idealism to a quest for adventure to sheer greed—a quest for land and other material gains. Although earlier historians identified filibustering—in its mid-nineteenth-century, anti–Latin American incarnation—with Southern, Democratic Party, planter interests, recent scholarship suggests that leadership and funding for the phenomenon tapped a broader, national base, one that crossed regional, economic, and party categories.

By 1861, and the commencement of the American Civil War, the phenomenon had largely ended. By the late nineteenth century, the term filibuster—with its connotation of lawless enterprise—had been transformed into a derogatory term for protracted parliamentary debate intended to obstruct the passage of legislation.


Brown, Charles H. Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Chaffin, Tom. Fatal Glory: Narciso Lópezand the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

May, Robert E. The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854– 1861. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

Owsley, Frank Lawrence, Jr., and Gene A Smith. Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800–21. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.


See alsoManifest Destiny .

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