Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 8: "...grey-eyed man of destiny."

Do you know who this is?

-He would receive a medical degree when he was nineteen.
-He led four invasions of Central America.
-He was executed by a firing squad at the age of 36.

He was a college graduate by the age of fourteen, a medical doctor, a lawyer, a newspaper editor and owner, and a man with a vision for conquering lands to rule. He travelled extensively in Europe, was a skilled swordsman, and embodied romanticized ideas of chivalry and honor.

He was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 8, 1824, to James and Mary Norvell Walker. His mother's heritage could be traced back to the founding of Williamsburg while his father was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in this country in 1820 and moved west to own - by 1822 - a 752-acre farm outside of Nashville.

William Walker was a highly intelligent child who graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the age of fourteen. At the age of nineteen he would receive a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and would practice medicine briefly in Philadelphia. He was greatly affected when he was powerless to help his mother, who died of a disease soon after he received his medical degree.

He would move to New Orleans to study law and was admitted to the bar by the time he was twenty-one, opening a partnership with his friend, Edmund Randolph. He would become co-owner and editor of a newspaper called the Crescent while in New Orleans, which would go bankrupt after the death ofhis fiancee, who died during a cholera epidemic that swept throug New Orleans.

After the newspaper went bankrupt, he moved to California - which had just been brought under the American flag - in 1849 and began working as a reporter in San Francisco, then setting up a law office in Marysville.

The idea of leading a private army to conquer lands in Latin America, which were to be ruled by white English settlers, entered William's mind as California became a new state in the Union. His first effort to dothis was supposedly in response to Indian attacks into Southern California from the Mexican state of Sonora. He had originally tried to get permission from the Mexican government to establish a colony in Sonora as a buffer to protect Californians from the Indian threat of raids. When Mexico refused to consider the offer, he organized a private "company" of about fifty men in 1853 to establish his Republic. His initial invasion to 'protect the people' was successful, with his capturing the capital of the Mexican province in a single day. He declared the province 'the Republic of Sonora', with himself as President, but discovered that he had no support among the residents. Irregular Mexican forces grew - as did the efforts of theMexican government - and eventually William and the remains of his army were driven back into California.

William was tried in California for violation of American neutrality laws with his invasion of Mexico, but was acquitted by the jury after eight minutes of deliberation. He became a minor national hero for his actions.

Effort number two would come soon after his acquittal. Chaos ruled in Nicaragua as two groups - Democrats and Legitimists - fought each other for control of the country. The Democrats invited William to recruit an army of volunteers and to go to Nicaragua to help them secure control of the country. He recruited a group of adventurers that came to be called by the press 'the Immortals', and landed in Nicaragua in 1855. Using his troops as well as rebel forces, William within a year captured the capital city of Granada, and repelled an invasion by Costa Rica. However, a war of attrition continued, and more soldiers on both sides died from disease than from any other cause.
William was elected President of Nicaragua on July12, 1856 - which was briefly recognized by the United States government - but was forced to flee the country due to a number of forces aligned against him. Men like Cornelius Vanderbilt - who had been snubbed by William - armed William's enemies in order to secure political leverage for control of the San Juan River-Lake Nicaragua route linking the Caribbean to the Pacific. The British navy harassed his re-supply efforts in an ettampt to exert their control of the region. Finally, other countries in Central America allied against him. On May 1, 1858, he surrendered to U.S. Navy Commodore Charles Henry Davis and was returned to the United States.

He was greeted as a hero upon his arrival, and was able to visit President Buchanan as well as to recruit for another foray into Central America. He raised another army, but was blocked during his third invasion of Central America by the British navy, and arrested by U.S. Navy Commodore Henry Paulding.
Returning to the United States for finances and support, William began to change his stance on slavery. While he had typically taken a mild anti-slavery stance during his lifetime, he realized that his best support for his expansionist ideas was from the South. Consequently, he wrote a book titled The War in Nicaragua, in which he advocated a strong pro-slavery stance, and received the needed support so that in 1860 he could again sail south.

He could not land in Nicaragua because of the British navy. Therefore he landed in Honduras with the intent of conducting an overland march into Nicaragua. However, the British captured him and turned him over to the Hondurans. On September 12, 1860, at the age of thirty-six, he was executed by a Honduran firing squad, ending the William Walker Saga. He is buried in the Cementerio Viejo in the coastal town of Trujillo, Honduras.


There are no local library resources available.



01. Latin American Studies: Portrait of William Walker
02. Map of Nicaragua: Library of Congress, Digital ID: g4850 ma001010


  1. Yet another man who couldn't rest on his laurels. It had to be the lack of television and the other distracting recreational activities we have now. Wears me out just reading about him.

  2. David:
    He did seem determined, and continued when good sense would say it was time to stop. Of course, the political intrigue and involvement against British interests finally got to him...
    Thanks for taking time to comment. I often with I had the talent you do for drawing - I'd love to include a sketch of the person to start each Biography. Something to work on in retirement, I guess...