William Walker


A study of William Walker's early life gives one little indication of how this man came to be the scourge of Central America . Walker was graduated from the University of Nashville at the age of 14, and by the time he was 19, he held both a law and a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania . He followed this memorable academic record with two years of post-graduate study in Paris and Heidelberg .

His success stopped there, however. Returning from Europe , Walker quickly failed as a doctor, lawyer and journalist. He had an ill-fated courtship with a beautiful deaf-mute New Orleans socialite, then in 1849 turned up as a gold miner in California . He didn't fare well in this occupation either, and soon started working as a hack writer in several California cities.

At this point, something happened in the mind of William Walker, and he launched himself into a career as a soldier of fortune. From then on, he succeeded in creating chaos wherever he took his five-foot, three-inch, one-hundred-pound frame.

In the early 1850's, Walker sailed with several hundred men on a "liberating expedition" to the Baja California peninsula and Mexico . The expedition was financed by the Knights of the Golden Circle , a movement bent on promoting the "benefits" of slavery. Walker spent a year in Mexico during which time he awarded himself the military title of Colonel and proclaimed himself "President of Sonora and Baja California "

Back in the United States after several encounters with the Mexican army, he was arrested for breaking the Neutrality Act of 1818. His acquittal of the charge gained him fame and willing followers. His next expedition was to Nicaragua .

Walker went with two main goals. One was to convert Central America into slave territory and annex it to the southern USA the other was to conquer Nicaragua and ready it for the construction of a trans-ischemic canal. The new riches that were being discovered in California attracted a lot of Easterners, but crossing the United States by land was slow arid- difficult. Walker had made contacts with a group of economically powerful North Americans who thought that a sea route could be more efficient and profitable. Southern Nicaragua would be a perfect site for the isthmus crossing; ships could sail up the San Juan River that formed the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, cross lake Nicaragua, and then pass through a to-be-built 18-mile canal from the lake to the Pacific.

His contacts arranged for an invitation to Walker from the Liberal Party of Nicaragua, which was embattled with the Conservatives. In June, 1855, he landed in Nicaragua with 58 men. After losing his first encounter with the Conservatives, Walker held out until several hundred reinforcements arrived from California , bringing new model carbines and six-shooters. They soon overpowered the Conservatives, and after an "open" election, Walker became "President of the Republic of Nicaragua ".

Central Americans from throughout the isthmus rose to fight Walker and his band of filibusteros . In February, 1856, President Juan Rafael Mora of Costa Rica declared war on Walker , but not on Nicaragua . Mora raised an army of 9000 in less than a week. This "army", led by the President and his brother-in-law Jose Maria Canas was composed of campesinos , merchants and government bureaucrats ill-dressed for combat, armed with farm tools, machetes and old rifles. They marched for two weeks to Guanacaste . Three hundred filibusters were resting at the Santa Rosa hacienda (now a national monument in Santa Rosa National Park ), after they had invaded Costa Rica , preparing to conquer San Jose . The Costa Rican army, by then diminished to 2500 men, attacked the filibusters, who fled back to Nicaragua after 14 minutes of battle.

Two thousand Costa Ricans followed Walker up to Nicaragua and, in a generally masterful campaign, fought him to a standstill. The turning point was in Rivas , Nicaragua . Walker and his band were barricaded in a large wood building from which they could not be dislodged. Juan Santamaria , a drummer boy, volunteered to set fire to the building and succeeded in forcing Walker 's retreat. In his action, Juan lost his life, and became Costa Rica 's national hero.

Walker 's attempt to convert Nicaragua and the rest of Central America into slave territory was backed by US President James Buchanan, and his failure angered the President. When Walker confiscated the trans-isthmic transportation concession that US financier Cornelius Vanderbilt had already started installing, Vanderbilt began to finance some of Walker 's enemies, This was the beginning of the end of Walker 's career.

After another engagement in late 1856 on Lake Nicaragua where the Costa Rican army brilliantly cut Walker off from his support troops, the rag-tag filibustero forces were near defeat. The first of May, 1857 , Walker surrendered to a US warship.

The adventurer traveled to Nicaragua again in late 1857, but he was taken prisoner before he could wreak any havoc. When he was released in 1860, he sailed to Honduras , where upon landing he seized the custom house. This brought a British warship to the scene, on board of which Walker , pursued by the Hondurans, eventually took refuge. Offered safe conduct into US hands by the British commander, Walker insisted he was the rightful president of Honduras . The British therefore put him ashore again, and Walker was taken by the Hondurans and promptly shot.

The net result of Walker 's Central American marauding was the death of some 20,000 men. The inscription on William Walker's tombstone reads, "Glory to the patriots who freed Central America of such a bloody pirate! Curses to those who brought him and to those who helped him."

Juan Rafael Mora is now acclaimed for having saved Central America from Walker and the interests he represented, but he wasn't so popular when he returned from battle. People accused Mora of having been too ambitious and blamed him for an epidemic of cholera that infected Costa Rican soldiers in Nicaragua and spread to kill almost 10% of the population.

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