William Walker Born: May 8th, 1824 (Nashville, TN) Died: September 12, 1860 (Trujillo, Hondorus)
Born in Tennessee during the summer of 1824 to James Walker (a Scottish immigrant) and Mary Novell, the young William Walker showed no indication of wanting to be the notorious filibuster he would become in his later years. In fact, many of his neighbors saw him as quite effeminate, taking care of his mother, who became an invalid early on in his life.
Walker had three siblings, Norvell, James, and Alice. His two brothers would later join him in Nicaragua (James dying of cholera soon after landing), while their sister would go on to marry a Kentuckian).
Walker wasn’t a particularly great statesman, never being one to pay attention, but that didn’t stop him from setting many lofty goals in his life. “By the time he was 25 he had already tried three professions: medicine, law, and journalism.”1
By the age of 14, Walker had completed his “preparatory education” at the University of Nashville (which would be considered a glorified high school in our modern era). And by 1843, he had earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania. His parents, wanting to make sure that their son had a well-rounded education, sent Walker to Paris to further his study in medicine after graduation. From there he spent his next two years traveling around Europe while studying.
After his adventure in Europe, Walker returned back to Nashville (1845) where he practiced medicine for a bit until he decided he wanted to try something new. He settled on law and moved to New Orleans to study. In 1848, Walker decided to move away from law and became the co-owner/editor of the New Orleans Crescent, where he and fellow associates J.C. Larue and W.F. Williams published their conservative works. The Crescent, unfortunately, went under just a year later (1849) and was sold. Thus ending Walker’s stint in New Orleans.
In 1849, Walker decided to head west to San Francisco, seeking out an editor (from a Spanish-American paper, La Patria) after a publication that he had taken personal offense to. Can’t say exactly what happened to that poor guy but after arriving in San Fran, in June of 1850, he became an editor for the Daily Herald. Walker managed to land himself in jail briefly after being accused of libel, in a particular publication, directed towards a local judge. Walker had refused to pay the fine, so jail it was. On March 9th, 1851, however, protestors, who disagreed with Walker sentence, helped change the court’s decision and he was set free.
After his jail time, Walker decided that journalism was not his forte and moved to Marysville, CA to practice law, once again, with Henry P. Watkins. That lasted from 1851-52.
While in New Orleans, Walker met a woman named Helen Martin. Their love story was shrouded in mystery, it would seem, but we do know that the two had gotten engaged, and had already set the date, when Helen fell ill with Yellow Fever and died. After her death, Walker, according to friends, had become reckless and depressed. Some speculate that it was after this time that Walker decided to explore a more adventurous career path (of filibustering). It would certainly explain his spontaneous move to San Francisco.
Walker’s militant career choice may have also been influenced by the war stories told by the men in his family, perhaps glorifying his view of the life of a soldier. In particular, Walker wanted to become a soldier of fortune, aka a filibuster. Filibusters supported the conquest of territories in the Caribbean and Central America in hopes that they could enter the Union as slave states.
Like many Americans during the mid to late 19th century, Walker was intrigued with the concept of Manifest Destiny and the “fairly untouched” lands of Mexico and Central America.
Walker started his military adventures in Mexico, particularly Southern California and Sonara. He was determined to make another Texas (and American colony in Mexico). In October 1853, he recruited Americans who were fond of Manifest Destiny and slavery to help him in his conquering. He managed to capture La Paz and Ensenada, where Walker deemed himself the president of the “Republic of Sonara.” Walker’s victory in Sonara was short lived as him, and his men, quickly ran out of supplies and were subsequently ran out of Mexico by the government.
Walker was not discouraged by this, though, and quickly set his sights on Central America, particularly Nicaragua.
Nicaragua was a prized target for Walker for a couple of reasons. Due to the gold rush in California, Nicaragua had become an important trade route that helped connect California to New York. Further, Nicaragua had just fallen into a civil war (1854) and one man in particular, the Liberal candidate for Supreme Director, Francisco Castellon, was eager for Walker’s help in securing the position of head of state.
Sailing with 57 fellow adventures, a group of men who went by the names the Immortals or the American Phalanx, Walker landed on the coast of Nicaragua where he was met with more backup. Castellon made Walker “colonel” and he began his attack on the opposition, also known as the Legitimists. On October 13th, 1855, Walker had managed to conquer Granada and took control of Nicaragua.
He spent the next year consolidating his power, using his men and his power of “deals, negotiation, and executions.” In July of 1856, he was inaugurated as president of Nicaragua and four months later, on November 10th, the Franklin Pierce administration recognised the William Walker administration.
Walker began to americanize Nicaragua and the talk of expanding his territory began to circulate. This alarmed the surrounding countries and in May 1854 a mixture of exiled legitimists Nicaraguans and mercenaries hired by Walker’s economic competitors managed to kick Walker out of Nicaragua.
Walker returned to the United States, but in 1860, Walker returned to Central America, settling in Honduras. Central America was not thrilled to have him back and on September 12, 1860, Walker was captured by authorities in Trujillo and was executed by gunfire.
On October 5, 1860, The New York Times published an article on Walker’s execution. In the article he was described as a steady, unshaken man, not afraid to face death.
Since his death, twenty-one novels, histories and other literary works have been published on him, and in 1987, the movie Walker was released, which was loosely based on his exploits.
Norwell, John E. “How Tennessee Adventurer William Walker Became Dictator of Nicaragua in 1857.” Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History. 24, no.4 (2012): 149-155.
Accessed February 11, 2020. http://www.thenashvillecitycemetary.org/william_walker_article.pdf
Scroggs, William O. Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates. The Macmillan Company (1916). New York.
1 John E Norwell, “How Tennessee Adventurer William Walker Became Dictator of Nicaragua in 1857,” Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History. 24, no.4 (2012): p.4.