William Walker: American Adventurer


Did you know that at one time an American ruled Nicaragua? This would be William Walker, who in his day was known as a “filibuster”, an independent colonizer who aimed to spread “Manifest Destiny” to Latin American countries. There were hundreds of these people, but Walker was by far the most successful of them. A Tennessean by birth, he was an ambitious and unusual man. Walker studied both law and medicine and at different times practiced as a doctor and a lawyer. In 1850, he was engaged to a deaf-mute woman named Ellen Martin, but she died. Thereafter Walker began his expansionism with his temporary takeover of Baja California, proclaiming the territory independent in 1853. The following year, he proclaimed the annexation of Sonora but he faced resistance and desertion and he and his forces had to retreat to the United States. Although Walker was indicted for violating U.S. neutrality laws, he was acquitted and was thus able to continue his adventuring while remaining a hero among Californians. He was a figure not funded by the U.S. government, but had a small private army and intended to colonize Latin American countries to spread Americanism.

In the next few years, Walker met with his greatest success. In 1856, he and his forces overtook the government of Nicaragua on the invitation of President Castellon and he ruled for ten months. Walker had the support of a coalition of Nicaraguans and during this time he declared English the official language of the nation, confiscated lands from his political opponents and sold them to Americans, encouraged immigration from the United States, and eliminated the nation’s constitutional prohibition of slavery. The latter was an effort to win support from pro-slavery Americans and he did through the recognition of his government by the Pierce Administration, which was hostile to abolitionism. However, he made some enemies along the way. Much of the population of Nicaragua was opposed to his rule, and he made an enemy of both the British, who feared he constituted a threat to their colonies in the region, and of the powerful railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt by confiscating his properties in the country and transferring them to rivals. Vanderbilt repaid Walker by sending an agent to Costa Rica with $40,000 in gold who persuaded the Costa Rican Army to invade Nicaragua and depose him. Ultimately, the military pressure from within Nicaragua as well as from Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, which feared they would be next on Walker’s territorial agenda, made long-term rule impossible. In the next year, after burning down the city of Granada to spite invading forces, he and his forces had to surrender to the U.S. Navy. By this time, the U.S. government had soured on him, with President James Buchanan stating, “That man has done more injury to the commercial & political interests of the United States than any man living” (Carlson).

The flag of Nicaragua under Walker’s rule

Walker was not one to give up, and he continued his “filibustering” after his departure, trying again to become Nicaragua’s leader. In 1860, he was arrested by British Naval Commander Nowell Salmon after landing in Honduras and instead of extraditing him to the United States, he turned him over to Honduran authorities, who executed him by firing squad. Walker was 36 years old.

William Walker was the foremost figure who tried to spread Manifest Destiny southward rather than westward and serves as an unofficial example of American imperialism, simply because he was never a representative of the U.S. government. Yet, he served as a representative of romantic American expansionist ideals and was a hero in the minds of many Americans of the time.


Carlson, P. American Schemers: William Walker. HistoryNet.

Retrieved from

American Schemers: William Walker


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