The William Walker Saga

William Walker was 1.65 meters (5 feet, 5 inches) and 55 kg (120 pounds) of cocky intellect and ego. Born in Nashville in 1824, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.D. at the age of 19, then went on to study in Paris and Germany. He tried his hand unsuccessfully as a doctor, lawyer, and writer, and even joined the miners and panners in the California Gold Rush. Somewhere along the line, he became filled with grandiose schemes of adventure and an arrogant belief in America's "manifest destiny"--to control other nations. During the next decade the Tennessean freebooter went on to become the scourge of the Central American isthmus.

He dreamed of extending the glory of slavery and forming a confederacy of southern American states to include the Spanish-speaking nations. To wet his feet, he invaded Baja California in 1853 with a few hundred cronies bankrolled by a pro-slavery group called the Knights of the Golden Circle. Forced back north of the border by the Mexican army, Walker found himself behind bars for breaking the Neutrality Act. Acquitted and famous, he attracted a following of kindred spirits to his next wild cause.

During the feverish California Gold Rush, eager fortune hunters sailed down the East Coast to Nicaragua, traveled up the Río San Juan and across Lake Nicaragua, and thence were carried by mule the last 12 miles to the Pacific, where with luck a San Francisco-bound ship would be waiting. In those days, before the Panamá Canal, wealthy North Americans were eyeing southern Nicaragua as the perfect spot to build a passage linking the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The government of Nicaragua decided that both the traffic and the proposed canal were worth a hefty fee.

Backed by North American capitalists and with the tacit sanction of President James Buchanan, Walker landed in Nicaragua in June 1855 with a group of mercenaries--the "fifty-six immortals"--and the ostensible goal of molding a new government that would be more accommodating to U.S. business ventures. Perhaps some of Walker's men thought they were fighting simply to annex Nicaragua to the United States; others may have believed they were part of the great struggle to establish slavery in Central America. But Walker, it seems, had other ambitions--he dreamed of making the five Central American countries a federated state with himself as emperor. After subduing the Nicaraguans, he had himself "elected" president of Nicaragua and promptly legalized slavery there.

Next, Walker looked south to Costa Rica. In March 1856, he invaded Guanacaste. President Mora, backed by the Legislative Assembly, called up an army of 9,000 to join "the loyal sons of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras," who had combined their meager and bickering forces to expel the invaders. President Mora and his brother-in-law, José María Cañas, took personal charge of Costa Rica's band of campesinos and makeshift soldiers (Cornelius Vanderbilt, stung by Walker's seizure of his Trans-Isthmian Transit Company steamers, reportedly bankrolled the effort). Armed with machetes and rusty rifles, they marched for Guanacaste and routed Walker and his cronies, who retreated pell-mell. Costa Rica still celebrates its peasant army's victory. The site of the battle--La Casona, in Santa Rosa National Park--is now a museum.

Eventually, the Costa Rican army cornered Walker's forces in a wooden fort at Rivas, in Nicaragua. A drummer boy named Juan Santamaría bravely volunteered to torch the fort, successfully flushing Walker out into the open. His bravery cost Santamaría his life; he is now a national hero and a symbol of resistance to foreign interference.

With his forces defeated, Walker's ambitions were temporarily scuttled. He was eventually rescued by the U.S. Navy and taken to New York, only to return in 1857 with even more troops (filibusteros). The Nicaraguan army defeated him again, and Walker was imprisoned. Released three years later and unrepentant, he seized a Honduran customs house. In yet another bid to escape, he surrendered to an English frigate captain who turned him over to the Honduran army, which promptly shot him, thereby bringing to an end the pathetic saga.

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