William Walker: American President of Nicaragua

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed some of the backstory I’d uncovered while researching how the protagonist of my story would travel from St. Louis to San Francisco in 1854. The research led me to Central America and it’s troubled history.

In Part 1, Britain and the United States signed an 1850 agreement guaranteeing unimpeded travel across Nicaragua’s isthmus and thus providing opportunities for the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt and his Accessory Transit Company to provide travel services in the form of ports, hotels, restaurants and a fleet of Pacific steamships. Nicaragua, impoverished by an oppressive Spanish occupation and embroiled in political unrest, anticipated some benefit from their agreement with foreign enterprises. Little did they know that things were about to get much worse.

Western Expansionism and Manifest Destiny

Even before Vanderbilt and his cronies began building their transportation empire, Americans had been swept up in western expansion fever, a vision of controlling all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific. It was a decree “allotted by Providence” for Manifest Destiny “to overspread the continent.” Driven by greed and religious fever as much as by patriotic commitment, Americans swarmed over the western United States and beyond.

Ostensibly inspired by such lofty ideals, bands of American privateers: mercenaries, freebooters or, to use the term of the time, filibusters, began raiding foreign territories. When successful, they often might claim the land for the U.S. Just as often, they claimed it for themselves.

Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of William Walker by Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 The Rise of William Walker

Arguably the most ambitious filibuster of that age was a young man from Nashville, Tennessee by the name of William Walker. Early in life, Walker demonstrated remarkable ambition and brilliance, earning degrees in law and medicine by the time he was 25. A diminutive  5’2″ in stature, he relied on his robust charisma and commanding presence to develop a following.

Flag of the Republic of Lower California By Marrovi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

Flag of the Republic of Lower California By Marrovi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

Walker’s first assault occurred on October 15, 1853 when, backed by an army of 45 men, he attacked the Mexican territory of Baja. Baja was sparsely populated and fell with little resistance. Walker christened the area the Republic of Lower California and promptly appointed himself President.

The Baja victory was simply a prelude to seizing the larger territory of Sonora. After enlisting more men, both Mexicans and Americans, Walker attacked and won the capital city of La Paz. That action finally drew the attention of the Mexican government, which retaliated with vigor and drove Walker’s forces back to the American border.

Intervention in Nicaragua

While Walker licked his wounds and regrouped in San Francisco, the discord between Nicaragua’s two dominant political factions intensified. The leftist Democrats, having heard of Walker’s antics in Mexico, hired him to lead an assault on their better equipped conservative opponents. Walker assembled another ragtag band of 57 mercenaries and sailed for Nicaragua on May 4, 1855.


William Walker Residence in Granada

The initial battles Walker waged  in Nicaragua were long, hard fought, and complicated. Having no military experience himself, he made numerous tactical errors and his troops suffered staggering casualties. Walker persisted and, through cunning, daring, and outright deception, gained control of Granada. As he’d done after vanquishing Baha, he assumed the office of President of the country. President Franklin Pierce, an enthusiastic supporter of Manifest Destiny, formally recognized Walker’s administration.

With unbridled ambition, Walker continued his bold exploits and expanded his campaigns into the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Honduras over the next few years. But with untrained and undisciplined troops and no real experience himself, his luck could hold out only so long. After a failed assault on Honduras, Walker and his surviving soldiers were rescued from a Honduran beach by a British naval vessel that promised safe passage. Mid-voyage, the British captain had a change of heart and delivered Walker and his men to the Hondurans instead. Walker was executed by a firing squad on September 12, 1860.


Nicaragua and Honduras have remained politically and economically destabilized since the 19th century and developed countries have continued to capitalize on that unrest. Despite the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, numerous parties, both public and private, continue to pursue the development of a Nicaraguan Canal.

3 Replies to “William Walker: American President of Nicaragua”

  1. What primary sources can you recommend to read more about this time? I am interested in what passage was like in fall 1851 to early 1852. Many thanks!

    • Thanks for dropping in, Connie. If you haven’t done so already, you should read Part 1 of this posting because it focuses mainly on the route itself. Then I’d recommend TJ Stiles’ The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, which won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer. Stiles says he became overly fixated with Nicaragua history while writing that book and had to cut a lot of it out. Hubert Bancroft’s History of Central America 1883-87 covers that period from a more immediate perspective. You can read about Nicaragua through William Walker’s eyes in his War in Nicaragua, which is available for reading online. There are a number of other histories that include this period but aren’t limited only to the time between the colonial and independence periods. Mark Twain made the crossing a decade later in returning to Missouri from San Francisco. I found it very insightful to read that part of Innocents Abroad. I hope that’s helpful. I also found it enlightening to seek out similar history in other Latin American countries at the time, including Honduras and Panama. Good luck.

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