William Walker: American Filibuster

In modern political parlance, a filibuster is a commonly-used tactic in parliamentary or legislative processes whereby a member of the legislative body intentionally delays a vote by talking for an extended period of time with the goal of ultimately obstructing the passage of a piece of legislation.  This definition of the word only emerged in the 1850s.  Prior to this, a ‘filibuster’ referred to a person, not necessarily but usually American, conducting individually-arranged unauthorised military expeditions in nearby foreign lands. Notable filibusters included George Rogers Clark, who mounted two failed attempts to capture portions of Spanish Louisiana in order to open up the Mississippi River to US traffic; James Long, who mounted an 1819 expedition into Spanish Texas to attempt to form a republic; Narciso López, which tried to capture Cuba from Spain and ally it to the United States (Lopez’ flag is still used as the flag of Cuba); and Gregor MacGregor of ‘Poyais’ fame, a Scotsman and Venezuelan war hero who invented a fake colony in South America and bilked hundreds of would-be settlers of their life savings.  While these filibusters achieved varying degrees of success, the filibuster most remembered by history is the infamous William Walker.


Standing just 160 cm (5’2”) and tipping the scales at a measly 55 kg (120 lbs), Walker more than made up for his physical shortcomings with a forceful demeanour that made him both an excellent speaker and a born leader.  He was also a precocious learner and child genius, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at all of 14 years of age, and earning his medical degree by age 19 (including two years of study in various European universities), after which he studied law, became a newspaperman in New Orleans, was present in Europe for the revolutions of 1848, became a reporter in San Francisco, and then a lawyer in Marysville, California; all of this by the age of 25.

Despite this globetrotting, Walker’s sensibilities were still old-fashioned; during his time in northern California, he fought three duels (he was wounded twice).  He was also an ardent advocate of slavery and Manifest Destiny (a belief that emerged among many in the 1840s that the United States was destined to conquer the entire continent), and by 1853 was already crafting ways in which new slave states could be added to the United States in order to swing the balance of power away from the northern free states.  The solution he arrived at was, as you have likely guessed, becoming a filibuster.  Walker’s goal was to detach territories from northern Mexico and have them annexed to the US as slave states.

His plan began with a request to the Mexican government in 1853 for a grant to start a buffer colony near the Sonoran city of Guaymas in order to ensure US protection from Native Americans in the area. When this plan was denied, Walker went ahead anyway, opening a recruitment office for his would-be colony in San Francisco.  Hundreds of like-minded supporters of slavery and manifest destiny (especially from Walker’s neck of the woods in Kentucky and Tennessee) quickly joined in Walker’s scheme, purchasing scrip to be redeemed for land in Sonora.  Soon, Walker’s vision for a buffer colony transformed into one for an independent republic – one that could then apply for union with the US – and the goal became to conquer all of Sonora and Baja California.  In October 1853, Walker and 48 men set sail for the Gulf of California, landing at La Paz, the capital of Baja California, three weeks later.  Here, backed up by 200 reinforcements already in the town, Walker took possession of La Paz and declared the Republic of Lower California.  Proclaiming independence from Mexico on 10 January 1854, declared the republic to the share the laws of Louisiana, making slavery legal.

200px-Flag_of_the_Republic_of_Lower_California 200px-Flag_of_the_Republic_of_Sonora

Flags of the short-lived Republic of Lower California and Republic of Sonora.

While Walker and his men would move their capital further up the Pacific coast to Ensenada for security reasons after a skirmish with Mexican troops, the would-be government never actually made it to Guaymas and Sonora.  Nevertheless, this did not prevent Walker from folding the Republic of Lower California into a larger Republic of Sonora less than three months after ‘independence’.  When news of the Mexican skirmish reached San Francisco, a wave of public support for the filibuster resulted in hundreds of men heading south to join up with Walker.  Walker’s crew, meanwhile, was left stranded when the ship on which they sailed to Baja California took off with all of their supplies inside, leaving them to battle with local ranchers and farmers over provisions.  When the new recruits showed up, it only served to stretch the limited resources even further.  Men began deserting (some were arrested by Walker for treason and shot), the Mexican government continued to hound them, and a planned march into Sonora failed when only 35 men were left by the time the company reached the Colorado River.  Defeated by their own poor planning, Walker and his men marched back into California and gave themselves up to US authorities for violating US neutrality laws; Walker was acquitted in just eight minutes thanks to his large public support in the wake of the manifest destiny movement.

Walker did not sit in San Francisco for long.  Once again, he turned his eyes south, this time to Nicaragua.  In the days before transcontinental rail travel and the Panama Canal, Nicaragua’s location as one of the narrowest possible transit points between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans made it a vital link for international shipping, as well as for transcontinental shipping between San Francisco and New York.  With the presence of the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua, only a 42 km (26 mi) isthmus needed to be crossed to connect the oceans, leading to speculation over the possibility of a canalControlling transit through Nicaragua would be a major strategic advantage for whoever possessed it, and both the United Kingdom and the United States attempted to do just that throughout the 1840s and 1850s.  Ultimately, the UK ended up controlling the port town of San Juan del Norte (Greytown), and the US, via tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, had control of transportation vessels, hotels, and restaurants along the transit route.  At the same time, civil war had broken out between the Granada-based conservative Legitimist Party and the Leon-based Liberal Democratic Party.  With the Legitimists winning and the Democratic leader having passed away due to natural causes, the reeling Democrats went shopping abroad for further military support, contracting with Walker in 1855 to bring as many as 300 ‘colonists’ (actually mercenaries) to bolster their ranks.  Walker saw it as an opportunity for another land grab, and was eager to the task.


An envisioned route for a potential Nicaragua Canal.  Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NSRW_Nicaragua_Canal.png.

In May 1855, he and 56 men headed for Nicaragua and landed at San Juan del Norte.  Reinforced by other American and Nicaraguan recruits, Walker and his men actually manage to seize Granada.  The Legitimists surrendered, and the Democrats declared a new government with Walker as head of the army.  Walker obtained control of the Vanderbilt transit assets in Nicaragua and turned them over to two men who had been working for Vanderbilt in exchange for their logistical help. The conservative governments of the other Central American states were rather wary of the new situation in Nicaragua, and, encouraged by the UK, began plotting the overthrow of the new government.  Costa Rican troops declared war on Walker’s army in early 1856, but were decimated by cholera and were turned back.  Walker seized the opportunity, using this victory to stage a farcical presidential election, have himself declared president of Nicaragua, and quickly began encouraging colonisation of the country by Americans.  He also revoked the 1824 slave emancipation law, and once again began rallying support from the southern US. Walker soon lost US recognition of his government after Vanderbilt, incensed by the loss of his Nicaraguan assets, put pressure on the US government to do so.

Ultimately, the amount of enemies Walker had made in his short time in Central America all made sure that his reign in Nicaragua would be rather short.  All of the other government leaders in Central America sought his ouster; Vanderbilt was determined to get his transit company back; Nicaraguans hated his pro-slavery, pro-US stance (Walker had even declared English to be an official language); the UK wanted to remove US influence from the region; even the US government itself wanted nothing to do with Walker, fearful of adding more fuel to the slavery debate back home were Nicaragua to be annexed to the union.  By December 1856, a coalition of Salavdoran and Guatemalan troops had surrounded the capital of Granada, causing Walker to raze it, and in early 1857 Costa Rica resumed its invasion, backed by Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemalan troops and partially funded by Vanderbilt.  As the conflict escalated, his troops deserted him, and his transit steamers were captured, Walker surrendered to the US Navy in May 1857 and returned home.  A failed attempt to re-invade Nicaragua that November was stopped by the US Navy before it even began.

Walker’s last stand as a filibuster was a failed 1860 attempt to create an English-speaking government on the Honduran island of Roatán, where he was recruited by British colonists fearful of tighter Honduran control.  Arriving in Trujillo, Walker was quickly forced to surrender by the British navy, who had a large presence in the area due to their control over the Mosquito Coast and British Honduras (Belize).  Instead of handing Walker over to US authorities, the British handed him over to the Hondurans, who tried him via court martial six days later and executed him on the spotMuch of the ill will toward the United States in Central America can be traced directly to Walker.  With his death, and with the defeat of the pro-slavery side in the American Civil War, the era of the American filibuster was ended.

Further Reading

Finch, R.C. (2011).  William Walker.  The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture (2nd ed.).  28 February 2011.  Available at http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.php?rec=1453.  Accessed 30 December 2011.

Fuchik, D. (2010).  The Saga of William Walker.  The California Native.  Available at http://www.calnative.com/stories/n_walk.htm.  Accessed 30 December 2011.

Juda, F. (1919).  California Filibusters: A History of their Expeditions into Hispanic AmericaGrizzly Bear 21(4).  Available at http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/walker.html.  Accessed 30 December 2011.

Minster, C. (n.d.).  The Biography of William Walker: The Ultimate Yankee Imperialist.  About.com: Latin American History.  Available at http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/historyofcentralamerica/a/wwalker.htm.  Accessed 30 December 2011.

Pike, J. (2011).  Walker’s Expeditions.  GlobalSecurity.org.   Available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/walker.htm.  Accessed 30 December 2011.

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