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William Walker

By Miss Fanny Juda
Member of the Class in California History
at the University of California

INTRODUCTION: ...How many Californians today realize that this state was the rendevous par excellence for daring bands of filibusters, who, whether in pursuit of mere individual wealth and adventure or in furtherance of what seemed to them an ideal, risked their lives in bold invasions of Hispanic lands? It is with this story that Miss Juda deals in the present article.... And since Miss Juda’s article was written there has come the not unrelated factor of bills in Congress, proposed respectively by Senator Ashurst of Arizona and Representative Elston of California, for a negotiated purchase of that Baja California which American filibusters have so often sought. This, then, is more than romance. It is the necessary background of a living vital issue— Dr. C.E. Chapman, Assistant Professor of Hispanic American History, University of California.

Photograph of William Walker - filibustererWilliam Walker, the greatest of American filibusters, was another visionary adventurer, imbued with the desire of founding a colony in Mexico, near the American border. His aim, however, was to obtain the independence of Sonora and Baja California for the ultimate annexation to the United States, and for the extension of slave territory so as to maintain the balance of power for the South. He, like Raousset, was an unlicensed, would-be conqueror, burning with a desire for fame and carried away by a firm belief in his own destiny to rule. As a boy, Walker lived in Tennessee, where he studied at the University of Nashville, and thus was naturally a strong Southern sympathizer. Having a desire to study medicine, he went aboard and attended the universities of Edinburgh, Göttingen, Heidelberg, and Paris. He was present in Europe during the various revolutions of 1848, and there is no doubt but that his filibustering schemes were influenced by the revolutionary doctrines of Massini, Garibaldi, Marx, Feuerbach, and Blanc, which were being spread broadcast over the continent at that time. Upon his return to America, he practiced medicine in Philadelphia, but finding this distasteful to him, he went to New Orleans to study law, and in 1850 came to San Francisco. After serving as a newspaper man for some time, he moved to Marysville, where he practised law. He was always a firm slavery advocate, eager for its retention and its extension. This caused him to look with some apprehension upon the efforts of the French filibusters, for the slavery party regarded the American conquest of Mexico as a matter of manifest destiny, to which French interference would serve as a serious obstacle.

It was party for this reason that Walker went to Guaymas in the summer of 1853, seeking a grant from Mexico, where he could establish a military frontier colony, to serve as a bulwark against the Indians. The Mexican government, always suspicious of American enterprise, refused, and so Walker returned to San Francisco, bound to carry out the scheme on his own account. Raousset’s plan for a second expedition spurred Walker on to immediate action. He thereupon opened a recruiting office in San Francisco. Recruits flocked to join his band, many of whom were from Kentucky and Tennessee, and were therefore adherents of slavery and the manifest destiny doctrine. Hundreds of people bought the scrip which he issued and which was to be redeemable in lands in Sonora. With the funds thus raised, he helped to finance his expedition. Walker now cast aside all ideas of founding a buffer colony and stated his intention of forming a republic in Sonora and Lower California, with the idea that it would eventually apply for admission into the Union. He chartered the brig “Arrow” and prepared to set sail with his followers, when he was arrested by General Hitchcock, military commander of the United States forces on the Pacific Coast. Lithograph of Gen. John Ellis WoolThe Federal officials at San Francisco, sympathizing with Walker, caused the vessel to be released, and General Wool was soon sent out by Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, to replace Hitchcock in command. Headquarters were moved to Benicia, from which place interference with the actions of the filibusters was almost impossible.

Walker, meantime, had succeeded in making his escape on another vessel, the “Caroline” and with forty-eight followers he left on October 16th for Guaymas. Three weeks later he reached the Gulf of California, and landed at La Paz, which was less likely to offer resistance. Here he was reinforced by two hundred men, and so he took possession of the country and proceeded to set up a government. Then he proclaimed the independence of the “Republic of Lower California” from Mexico, and extended over it the laws of the state of Louisiana, thus permitting slavery, should anyone care to bring slaves into the country. Some writers have taken the opportunity here to point out that Walker really was not a strong slavery advocate, and that the slavery clause merely was part of the code of laws with which he was most familiar. But had Walker so desired, he could have omitted the slavery clause, or could have extended the laws of Alta California, with which he must have been familiar in order to practice law in Marysville.

Realizing that his position here was not secure, and that he was exposed to easy attack on the part of the Mexicans, he retired up the peninsula towards Ensenada, after a skirmish with the Mexicans at La Paz. He made Ensenada his headquarters, and from here he issued a new proclamation, abolishing the Republic of Lower California and establishing the Republic of Sonora, which was to consist of the two states of Lower California and Sonora. Walker, himself, was to be president, his partner, Watkins, vice-president, and Emory, secretary of state.

Meantime the news of Walker’s exploits reached San Francisco. The skirmish at La Paz was regarded as a great victory. The California newspapers and periodicals greatly applauded him. Judge Lott, writing for the “Pioneer,” says: “The term filibuster no longer means a pirate ... It means the compassing of the weak by the strong... The term filibuster is now identical with the pioneer of progress... If these regions ... do not soon become a portion of the United States ... some other nation, stronger than Mexico, will grasp them.” Soule, in the “Annals of San Francisco,” says in commenting on Walker, “America secures the spoils won to her hand, however dishonestly they may have come. That is only her destiny ... America must round out her territory by the sea.”

The enterprise soared in popularity. Hundreds of men flocked from the mines to join the expedition. The flag of the Republic of Sonora was raised on the corner of Kearny and Sacramento streets. Enlistment offices were opened and the bonds of the company were openly sold. Indeed, it was worth a man’s popularity at the time to oppose filibusterism. Pedro C. Carrillo, one of the influential Democrats in the State Legislature, was in great danger of losing his constituency by introducing a resolution in the Senate, condemning filibusterism.

While Walker was waiting in Baja California for recruits, for some unknown reason his vessel, the “Caroline,” sailed away with the greater part of his supplies. Matters became worse, when two hundred recruits arrived from San Francisco, and since his supplies were already so greatly depleted, he was forced to send a band of men on towards Todos Santos Bay, on a foraging expedition. At Guilla, near Santo Tomas, a battle was fought, for the natives did not care to give up their cattle and provisions in return for scrip in Walker’s company. Walker now began to drill his band in preparation for a march on Sonora. But discontent had broken out in his party. The new-comers were disappointed that there was no plunder to be had. Food was insufficient and coarse. Men began to desert. Four of those deserters he arrested, shot two of them, and had the other two publicly flogged. This act by no means made the expedition more popular, and some weeks later it was with a force of only one hundred men that Walker started for Sonora, and by the time they reached the Colorado River only thirty-five men remained in the party. It would take more than this mere handful to hold the country, and so Walker decided to abandon the project. On May 8, 1854, the party crossed the frontier near Tia Juana, and surrendered themselves to the United States officers stationed there. They were granted their parole, and were permitted to depart for San Francisco. Had Walker’s party reached Sonora, and gotten any kind of a foothold there, so many volunteers would probably have joined them that there would have been a repetition of the Sam Houston affair, and Sonora and Lower California would have become territories of the United States.

Walker himself said that it was almost impossible to succeed in the venture because of the enormous difficulties encountered, such as lack of resources, ignorance concerning the country, the desert which had to be traversed, etc. Of course, there was no defense for his action. There is no reason why he should be lionized, as he has been, for his exploits in Baja California. In fact, he is to be condemned, for it was for no altruistic reason that he went there. Even though he himself declared that he was going to Sonora to protect the people from the Apaches, the people of Sonora, were they given a choice in the matter, would have taken the Apaches in preference to the American filibusters, whom they so despised and feared.

When Walker arrived in San Francisco he was tried in the Federal courts for the violation of United States neutrality laws. He was acquitted, however, and went back to his law practise until he was once more tempted to venture forth, this time to Central America. It is due to his exploits here rather than to the fiasco in Baja California that he became so famous. Walker’s reputation as a leader had gone as far as Nicaragua, where a revolution was in progress. Here the Granada and the Leonese factions were at war with each other, both wishing to obtain the upper hand in that country. The Granada faction was, for the time being, victorious, and so the defeated Leonese, bound to gain supremacy, sought the aid of Walker. Seizing this chance to bring himself once more into the limelight, he enlisted some sixty men, who were eager to follow him to Nicaragua, and with them he set sail, May 3, 1855. Although the United States Marshal had tried to prevent his departure, still the sympathies of the Federal officials were with him. Before sailing, Walker had met General Wool, military commander on the Pacific Coast, who had special powers from the President to suppress all filibustering expeditions. Walker told him about his plans, whereupon the general not only declared that he would not interfere, but also wished him success.

Filibusters in Central AmericaSome weeks later, Walker landed at San Juan del Sur, and almost immediately began to assert his authority. With the aid of sixty recruits, who had arrived from California under Parker H. French, and the Leonese troops, he soon succeeded in routing the opposite faction at the battle of Rivas. For his victories here, he was given the title of generalissimo, and soon after he declared himself president of Nicaragua. News of his success reached the United States, and the slavery advocates began a recruiting propaganda. Public meetings were held in some of the large Southern cities, money was raised, and even Tammany Hall voiced its approval of the enterprise. With the power now centered in his hands, Walker began to manage things to suit himself. He revoked the franchise by which the Vanderbilt Steamship Company sent passengers across Nicaragua, on their from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coasts, or visa versa, and gave the right of transit, with a twenty-five years’ permit, to Edmond Randolf. He then issued a proclamation reversing the anti-slavery laws which had existed in Nicaragua for the last thirty-two years. Because of this act, and others of a similar nature, revolts began to break out, fostered by Commodore Vanderbilt, who owned the steamship company. Costa Rica declared war against him. Finally, in May, 1857, he was forced to surrender and to leave Nicaragua, where he had remained two years.

The last two expeditions of Walker were not connected with California, except that many of his old followers of the previous enterprises joined him on his second Nicaragua campaign, and on his fatal trip to Honduras. His third undertaking, known as the second Nicaragua expedition, was organized at Mobile, Alabama. Going to Nicaragua, he landed at Punta Arenas in November, 1857. Upon his arrival he declared himself commander of the Nicaraguan army and began the war. But he was not allowed to proceed far, for Commodore Pauling of the United States squadron in the Caribbean, hearing of the expedition, landed in Nicaragua, forced him to surrender, and brought him back to the United States. President Buchanan even went so far, in his presidential message, as to condemn Walker as a filibuster. Walker was tried for violation of neutrality, but as usual the case was dismissed. Not satisfied to retire to private life, he organized another expedition in New Orleans and set sail for Central America. He landed near Truxillo, in Honduras, hoping to make his way eventually to Nicaragua. His men began to desert him, and being in a precarious position, he surrendered himself to the captain of a British naval vessel off the coast. The captain, instead of protecting Walker, as he had promised, handed him over to the authorities of Honduras. He was tried by court-martial, and shot September 12, 1860.

Although Walker was very much in earnest, and thrust himself heart and soul into these projects, he was bound to fail. He lacked too many of the essential qualities of leadership to be successful in his undertakings. He did not understand human nature, and above all he was neither a statesman nor a diplomat. Despite his firm believe that his destiny sent him out to conquer, still he failed because he could not measure up to the task. The one lasting result of his exploits was to bring upon the people of the United States a distrust and suspicion which Central America possesses to the present day [1919]. With his death, the glory of filibustering passed away, and from 1860 on, filibusterism was more or less sporadic, and entirely devoid of the romance of the previous decade. It failed on the whole to attract attention, and when the press did comment upon it, it was only to condemn it as un-American and unworthy of the ideals of Americans.

Excerpted from: California Filibusters: A History of their Expeditions into Hispanic America,
by Fanny Juda
In: The Grizzly Bear Official organ of the Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West
Vol. XXI., No. 4; Whole No. 142 : February 1919

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