Today, the word “filibuster” is associated with senators wasting even more time than usual. In the nineteenth century, though, “filibuster” meant daring adventurers and obvious violations of international laws. Filibusters attempted to seize control of territory without the approval of the U.S. government. The most famous and unsuccessful of these filibusters was William Walker.

Walker was born in 1824, and he was a firm believer of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was meant to expand and bring “civilization” to the world. While some thought that they simply were meant to expand from coast to coast in North America, Walker wanted to see American influence elsewhere.

In 1853, Walker was living in California practicing law. However, he saw an opportunity to bring more territory to the United States in the borderlands of Mexico. The Mexican-American War had ended in 1848, and aside from expanding U.S. territory, it also left Mexico struggling to maintain its border region. For William Walker, this meant he had a chance to claim territory for his own.

Wiki Commons

“They'll retreat like my hairline!”

Now, invading a country with whom the U.S. was at peace may seem like it would be breaking laws, and that would be correct. It was a direct violation of the Neutrality Act. This did not stop Walker, though, who recruited a small group of adventure seekers (who were really just looking for opportunities after failing to get rich from the Gold Rush) and found a ship to sail from the Bay Area to Baja California in Mexico. His original ship was taken by the American military, which was cracking down on filibusters, but the ambitious Walker simply found another and snuck away with a makeshift army of fewer than 50 men.

On November 3, 1853, after landing in Baja California, Walker captured the state capital of La Paz and proclaimed the region the Republic of Lower California. The new country, which was never recognized as a country, needed a leader, and Walker was, naturally, made the president. This invasion may have been viewed as highly illegal by both American and Mexican authorities, but the American public loved it. Filibusters were cool. They embodied Manifest Destiny in a way that no one else did. Because of this support, people actually traveled to Mexico to join Walker’s territory.

With this ambitious spirit, Walker changed the name of his unrecognized state to the Republic of Sonora and aimed to expand beyond his borders. His “army” went further into Sonora, but they achieved no success and were ultimately forced to retreat not just to Baja California but back into the U.S.

A major issue that Walker encountered was that, to the surprise of no one reading this, locals did not want him there. He may have thought that he was bringing civilization, but to everyone who already lived in the territories he invaded, he was a nuisance. This meant that the only allies he had wherever he went were the men who left the U.S. to fight with him.

On May 8, 1854, having failed to capture Sonora, Walker arrived back in the United States. He was arrested for his filibustering and put on trial in San Francisco. However, he was found not guilty in a jury deliberation that took eight minutes. He may have violated the law, but he was still viewed as a hero to many (racists).

Legally free, William Walker decided that the natural thing to do was to go back to filibustering. Mexico was a failure, so this time, Walker went to Nicaragua. In May 1855, Walker traveled with 57 men to join in the Nicaraguan civil war. Walker was a terrible military commander, but when the dust settled, Walker became president of Nicaragua, a title that the United States recognized. 

Library Of Congress

And a free house.

In his grand tradition of failure, though, Walker only held on to power for 10 months before once again getting kicked out. This time, though, he angered not only locals but also railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt

When he got back to the United States after this retreat, he was still celebrated by the American public. That sweet Manifest Destiny fever had not worn off just yet. This would be the last time that he returned, as his next filibustering expedition would prove fatal.

In 1860, Walker landed in Honduras, where he was captured by British forces. They gave him to the Honduran government, and Walker was executed on September 12, 1860. 

Walker’s death did not alone signal the end of filibustering, but the practice died down soon after. Once the American Civil War broke out, there were no more filibusters, and when that war ended, unauthorized invasions never picked up their popularity again.

Top Image: Library Of Congress

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