William Walker (1824-1860) was an American adventurer, filibuster and soldier who became President of Nicaragua in 1856-1857. He tried to gain control over most of Central America, but failed. He was executed by firing squad in 1860 in Honduras.
Born into a distinguished family in Nashville, Tennessee, young William was a child genius. He graduated from the University of Nashville at the top of his class at the age of fourteen. By the time he was 25, he had a degree in medicine and another in law, and was legally allowed to practice both as a doctor and a lawyer. He also worked as a publisher and journalist. William was very restless, taking a long trip to Europe and living in Pennsylvania, New Orleans and San Francisco in his early years. Although he stood only 5'2," Walker had a commanding presence and charisma to spare.
In 1850, Venezuelan-born Narciso López led a group of mostly American mercenaries in an assault on Cuba: the goal was to take over the government and later attempt to become one of the United States. The state of Texas, which had broken off from Mexico a few years before, was an example of sorts of a region of a sovereign nation that had been taken over by Americans before gaining statehood. The practice of invading small countries or states with the intention of causing independence was known as filibustering. Although the United States Government was in full expansionist mode by 1850, it frowned on filibustering as a way to expand the nation's borders.
Assault on Baja California
Inspired by the examples of Texas and López, Walker set out to conquer the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California, which at that time were very sparsely populated. With only 45 men, Walker marched south and promptly captured La Paz, capital of Baja California. Renaming the state "The Republic of Lower California," (later to be replaced by the "Republic of Sonora"), he declared himself president and applied the laws of the State of Louisiana (which included legalized slavery) to the new republic. Back in the United States, word of his daring attack had spread, and most Americans thought that Walker's project was a great idea. Men lined up to volunteer to join the expedition. Around this time, he got the nickname "the grey-eyed man of destiny."
Defeat in Mexico
By early 1854, Walker had been reinforced by 200 Mexicans who believed in his vision and another 200 Americans from San Francisco who wanted to get in on the ground floor of the new republic. They had few supplies, however, and discontent grew. The Mexican government, which could not send a large army to crush the invaders, nevertheless was able to muster up enough of a force to skirmish with Walker and his men a couple of times and keep them from getting too comfortable in La Paz. In addition, the ship that had carried him to Baja California sailed off against his orders, taking much of his supplies with it.
In early 1854 Walker decided to roll the dice: he would march on the strategic city of Sonora. If he could capture it, more volunteers and investors would join the expedition. Many of his men deserted, however, and by May he had only 35 men left. He crossed the border and surrendered to American forces there, never having reached Sonora.