William Walker (1824-1860) was a United States adventurer and filibuster in Central America. His armed intervention in Nicaragua gave liberals temporary advantage in their internal war with conservatives and inflamed the slavery controversy in the United States.
William Walker was born in Nashville, Tenn., on May 8, 1824. He earned a medical degree (1843), spent 2 years in Europe, returned, and began a career in law. In New Orleans and, after 1850, in San Francisco, however, he engaged chiefly in newspaper work. A reputation as a crusading journalist and lawyer gave him political potential; but his restlessness and the example of French adventurers who launched from California a colonizing-filibustering venture in Sonora, Mexico, embarked him on another career.
Walker's filibustering began in Mexico. With a small force he invaded Baja California in 1854 and declared that province and Sonora an independent republic, but he was forced to seek refuge in the United States.
A "colonization" contract granted by a Nicaraguan political faction offered Walker new opportunity. With 58 (tradition says 56) armed men—"the immortals"— recruited to aid the Democrats (liberals) in their attempt to overthrow the Legitimists (conservatives), he sailed from San Francisco in May 1855. In Nicaragua he seized control of the Accessory Transit Company's interoceanic route, his sole source of supplies and recruits from the United States; captured Granada, the Legitimist capital; and mollified the factions and established a provisional government with Patricio Rivas as president and himself as commander in chief of the army. The United States recognized his regime in May 1856.
In July, after systematically disposing of everyone who could challenge his power, Walker broke with Rivas and had himself elected president. He initiated a number of measures to promote development—United States style. The most controversial was reinstitution of slavery, ostensibly to attract United States investors to acquire and develop Nicaraguan land.
Walker now tampered with the Accessory Transit Company. From Cornelius K. Garrison and Charles Morgan, who managed the company, he had accepted cash advances and transport of recruits and supplies against the debt the company owed Nicaragua. When, incident to their maneuver to oust Cornelius Vanderbilt from control of the company, they approached him to revoke the Vanderbilt charter and reissue it to them, he obliged.
The choice was fatal. Vanderbilt diverted company service to Panama, isolated Walker, and aided the Central American coalition operating against him. Defeated, and his cause hopeless, Walker surrendered to a U.S. naval officer in May 1857 and was returned to the United States.
Twice again Walker returned to Central America. In November 1857 he reached Greytown but was arrested by Commodore Hiram Paulding and again returned to the United States. He made his final attempt against Honduras in August 1860 but was taken prisoner by the commander of a British vessel and turned over to the Honduran authorities, who executed him on Sept. 12, 1860.
Further Reading on William Walker
The old, but still standard, work on Walker is William O. Scroggs, Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates (1916). Other biographies are Laurence Greene, The Filibuster: The Career of William Walker (1937), and Albert Z. Carr, The World and William Walker (1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Bolanos Geyer, Alejandro, William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny, Lake Saint Louis, Mo.: A. Bolanos-Geyer, 1988-1991.
Gerson, Noel Bertram, Sad swashbuckler: the life of William Walker, Nashville: T. Nelson, 1976.
Rosengarten, Frederic, Freebooters must die!: The life and death of William Walker, the most notorious filibuster of the nineteenth century, Wayne, Pa.: Haverford House, 1976.
Walker, New York: Perennial Library, 1987.