Walker, William (1824–1860)

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Walker, William (1824–1860)

William Walker (b. 8 May 1824; d. 12 September 1860). The most famous American filibuster, Walker conquered Nicaragua in 1855–1856. His various expeditions to Mexico and Central America from 1853 to 1860 fostered anti-Americanism in the region. In particular his impact upon Nicaragua, which suffered extensive property destruction and much loss of life because of his involvement there, was especially profound and lingers to this day. Walker's expeditions interrupted normal transit across Nicaragua's isthmus and embroiled the United States in disputes with Mexico, the countries of Central America, Colombia, and Great Britain.


Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated from the University of Nashville in 1838. He received an M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1843 and furthered his medical education in Europe, after which he spent several years in law, journalism, and politics in New Orleans and California. Perhaps curiously, given his later military escapades, surviving documents describe the slightly built Walker as a shy, somewhat effeminate youth. Several scholars have argued that the death in 1849 of Ellen Galt Martin, a deaf mute with whom he had fallen in love, radically transformed Walker's personality and paved the way for his filibustering career.


The self-proclaimed "Colonel" Walker's filibusters began on October 1853, when, aboard the schooner Caroline, he departed San Francisco with forty-five followers bound for Mexico's Baja (Lower) California but actually intending the eventual conquest of the Mexican state of Sonora. Walker captured La Paz on 3 November, raised a flag with two stars signifying Lower California and Sonora, proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Lower California, and soon announced himself president. Mexican resistance forced Walker to flee to Ensenada, which he proclaimed his capital. Reinforcements from California arrived there, but Walker experienced supply deficiencies and made the mistake of provoking resistance from Antonio María Melendrez by attacking the ranch of Melendrez's father.

On 18 January 1854, Walker proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Sonora, consisting of the states of Sonora and Lower California. In March, Walker and about one hundred filibusters set out for Sonora. He crossed the Colorado River into Sonora on 4 April but soon returned to Lower California. Harassed by Mexican guerrillas, Walker retreated northward, crossing the U.S. border with his thirty-three remaining followers on 8 May and surrendered to U.S. military authorities. In October, a jury in San Francisco acquitted Walker of violating American neutrality laws. By threatening Mexico with uncompensated territorial losses, however, Walker's expedition may have helped persuade Mexico to cede, in a treaty signed on 30 December 1853, the territory which became known as the Gadsden Purchase.


Though Walker became one of the most despised figures in Central American history, he initially entered Nicaragua's affairs by invitation. Locked in conflict with the Legitimist, or Conservative, ruling party in Nicaragua, that country's Democrats, or Liberals, contracted in 1854 for Walker to bring three hundred filibusters (described as colonists, to avoid flagrantly violating U.S. neutrality statutes) to Nicaragua and occupy 52,000 acres of land. Walker and fifty-seven men calling themselves the Immortals departed San Francisco on 4 May 1855 and arrived in Nicaragua in June. As colonel of La Falange Americana (the American phalanx), Walker captured Granada, the Legitimist capital, on 13 October.

In a subsequently negotiated agreement, Walker became commander in chief of the Nicaraguan army under a coalition government. When he came into possession of letters by Minister of War Ponciano Corral, the former Legitimist Army commander, soliciting intervention from other Central American states to oust Walker, he had an excuse to eliminate his most formidable rival by having him executed for treason. From November 1855 to June 1856, Walker ruled Nicaragua through a figurehead, President Patricio Rivas. Walker received reinforcements, assisted by the Accessory Transit Company, an American enterprise holding a monopoly over isthmian transit across Nicaragua. The weekly English- and Spanish-language publication El Nicaragüense testified to Walker's Americanization of the country. To encourage native support, the paper dubbed Walker the Gray-eyed Man, after a Mosquito Indian legend.

In May 1856, the United States recognized Rivas's government. Following Rivas's break with Walker that June, the filibuster was elected president on June 29 in a controlled election. Inaugurated on 12 July, Walker entertained visions of one day ruling all Central America. However, the loss of U.S. recognition, growing U.S. interference with his supply of reinforcements, armed interventions by other Central American states receiving support from Great Britain, the opposition of shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and epidemic disease combined to undermine Walker's cause. His reestablishment of slavery in a 22 September decree won him increased favor in the slave states of the American Union, but this move could not save his regime. Forced to evacuate Granada, Walker had the city destroyed.

On 1 May 1857, Walker surrendered to U.S. naval captain Charles H. Davis and subsequently returned to the United States. Still claiming the presidency of Nicaragua, Walker devoted the rest of his life to filibustering schemes.

In 1860, landing at Trujillo, Honduras, by way of Ruatán and Cozumel, Walker eventually surrendered to British naval commander Norvell Salmon, who in turn handed him over to Honduran authorities. He was executed at Trujillo by a local firing squad on 12 September 1860.

See alsoFilibustering; United States-Latin American Relations.


Charles H. Brown, Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters (1980).

Albert Z. Carr, The World and William Walker (1963).

Frederic Rosengarten, Jr., Freebooters Must Die! The Life and Death of William Walker, the Most Notorious Filibuster of the Nineteenth Century (1976).

William O. Scroggs, Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates (1916).

William Walker, The War in Nicaragua (1860; repr. 1985).

Additional Bibliography

Bolaños Geyer, Alejandro. William Walker, the Gray-eyed Man of Destiny. Lake Saint Louis: A. Bolaños-Geyer, 1988–1991.

Harrison, Brady. Agent of Empire: William Walker and the Imperial Self in American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Montúfar, Lorenzo, and Raúl Aguilar Piedra. Walker En Centroamérica. Alajuela: Museo Histórico Cultural Juan Santamaría, 2000.

                                        Robert E. May