The "filibusters" took the town of Cabo San Lucas in 30 minutes, captured the Mexican governor, ransacked the town archives, and replaced the Mexican flag with their own — a red and white banner with two stars, symbolizing Lower California and Sonora.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
The thirty-four ragged, starving, and poorly armed American soldiers of fortune squatted in the dust of what is now the city of Tijuana. They could clearly sec their destination, the international border, about a mile in front of them. A crowd of thrill-seeking San Diegans had gathered on a hill overlooking the scene — ringside seats for the battle they were hoping would soon take place. The date was May 8, 1854, coincidentally the thirtieth birthday of the leader of the American contingent, William Walker.
A force of forty or so Mexican irregulars under a tough hombre named Antonio Guadalupe Meléndrez had harassed and taunted and insulted the Americans all the way north from Ensenada. They even burned the long grass and chaparral to try to panic the gringos. Nearing the border,
Meléndrez notified the military commander at San Diego, Major J. McKinstry, that the gringo invaders must lay down their arms or they would become his captives. McKinstry informed Meléndrez that he would not interfere in any way. In any case, Walker had earlier refused the same offer from his Mexican antagonist.
The Mexicans then formed a line in front of the road leading to San Diego. Walker, wearing torn boots and breeches and a high-crowned hat of white beaver, sent for Timothy Crocker, a slim and red-haired youth in his command. Crocker gathered around him a dozen men who still had rifles and proceeded to walk silently with this group toward the Mexican skirmish line. Then they broke into a trot — emitting what six years later would be known as the rebel yell — and fired a volley. Meléndrez and his men scattered quickly, and the Americans walked into San Diego. They signed a pledge that they would later present themselves at San Francisco for violation of American neutrality laws.
So ended William biker's incredible invasion of Baja California. In retrospect, it was to be a mere dress rehearsal for his later and better-known adventures in Central America.
The Hollywood matinee-idol image conjured by the term “American conquistador” was not validated by the physical appearance of William Walker. He was about five foot four and weighed no more than 110 pounds. His face was washed with freckles, but his most singular feature was what his biographers usually referred to as his “cold and brilliant gray eyes.” In the journalism of the Nineteenth Century, he was often called “the Filibuster.”
Walker disliked this sobriquet and much preferred the appellation “gray-eyed Man of Destiny.” He was later to use this striking physical characteristic to make allies among the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, whose legends foretold of a “gray-eyed man” who would deliver them from oppression and misery.
There was also nothing in Walker’s childhood to indicate the course of his later career. He was born on May 8, 1824, in Nashville, the eldest of four children. As a youth. Walker was serious and studious. When his mother became an invalid, he would spend long hours reading to her. To a family friend he seemed “very intelligent and as refined in his feeling as a girl.”
Walker graduated from the University of Nashville at age fourteen. He toyed with the idea of entering the ministry but decided instead upon a medical career. After eighteen months at the University of Pennsylvania, he received a medical degree and then departed for Paris to continue his studies. But after six months in France, he abandoned medicine and traveled around Europe for another year and a half. A political career had appealed to him since boyhood; from Europe he wrote to a friend that the idea of entering politics “often ... reappears to me, in my waking dreams, leaving me uncertain whether it be an angel of light or an angel of darkness.”
Walker returned to America determined to be a lawyer. After a course of study, he was admitted to the bar in Louisiana in 1845. When this palled, he turned to journalism and became an editor of the New Orleans Daily Crescent, which was widely considered in the antebellum South to be a paper that printed pro-Yankee and antislavery views. Walker himself once wrote an editorial condemning an invasion of Cuba by a private army and the efforts of the invaders to introduce slavery on that island nation. He also took an affirmative stand on women’s suffrage.
While in New Orleans, Walker was befriended by Edmund Randolph, the grandson of George Washington’s attorney general. Randolph introduced Walker to Ellen Martin, a beautiful, intelligent, and charming young woman from a well-to-do family. Ellen loved the social whirl; her life was a continual round of parties and dances. She was also a deaf mute. Walker, much in love, learned sign language to communicate with her and to press his suit. A wedding date was set, but before the event could take place, Ellen was struck down by a yellow fever epidemic.
Her death in 1849 seemed to have deeply affected Walker. His “angel of darkness” now hovered more closely. Friends reported that he became extremely melancholy, sometimes paranoid, and that he seemed determined to take the reckless and daring action that previously he may have only daydreamed about.
In 1850 Walker left the Crescent and headed for San Francisco, at that time a mecca for gold-seekers and other adventurers. Through his friend Randolph, who had also moved to California, he obtained work as the editor of the San Francisco Daily Herald. It was a tempestuous position. Walker ended up fighting a duel, being charged with contempt of court by a San Francisco judge he had accused of being too lenient with criminals, and getting jailed for refusing to pay the contempt fine. After his brief incarceration, he relocated to Marysville, north of Sacramento, again to practice law. He spent two serene years in Marysville, but he had not come to California to be a quiet country lawyer.
In northern California at this time, there was much talk, both privately and in print, about forming American colonies in the Mexican state of Sonora. There were also calls for the mounting of a “filibuster” on Mexican soil. In the Nineteenth Century the word had a much different meaning than it does today. Rather than a hot-air marathon on Capitol Hill, a filibuster (possibly derived from the Dutch word for freebooter or pirate) at that time described an armed expedition and invasion, by civilians, of a country with which the United States was at peace.
Rumors of colonizing and filibustering fell on eager ears in the San Francisco of the early 1850s. Many of the forty-niners had become disillusioned in their fruitless quest for a rich strike. Others who had drifted into the city were desperados, rootless opportunists, and veterans of the recently concluded Mexican-American War, disinclined to return to a life behind a plow after the taste of action and adventure.
The American character was shaped by a hunger for expansion. When the brash and cocksure Americans reached the Pacific, it was for some almost a disappointment. England watched over Canada in order to insure that these hotheaded Americans did not move northward. But to the south there lay a huge land mass, sparsely populated by what some Manifest Destiny publicists called “an inferior people.” Puritan cant combined with filibuster ambitions: the savage Apaches were committing numerous atrocities against settlers in Sonora, and American-style civilization would be a boon to the region. And although the American government believed it had reached the limits of its geographical expansion, this did not deter individual citizens who were not themselves signatories to any peace treaty with Mexico.
There had been filibusters before Walker, organized mainly by South American and French residents of California, and there would be several tragic filibustering expeditions into Mexico after Walker. But none caught the public imagination more than those of “the Filibuster.” Walker was the personification of Manifest Destiny and its greatest practitioner.
While Walker practiced law in Marysville, he became interested in a Sonora colonizing effort that was being engineered by a déclassé French nobleman who had been living in San Francisco. This man, Count Raousset, had made a deal with Santa Anna to bring 500 Frenchmen to the state to “protect” the people there from the Apaches. But the count’s scheme was actually a secret filibuster, designed to detach Sonora from Mexico. When Santa Anna became suspicious, he tossed the Frenchman and his cohorts out of the country.
Raousset turned down Walker’s offer of assistance; gringos were so hated in Mexico, the count explained, that Walker’s presence would only incite the Mexicans. The Frenchman was probably correct: the treaty that had ended the imperialist Mexican-American War had resulted in the cession of over half of Mexico’s territory to the United States.
In 1852 several men in Placer County conceived the idea of colonizing Sonora with Americans. After Count Raousset’s misfortunes, they optimistically decided it was a propitious time to approach authorities in Sonora with the plan. Walker and his law partner, Henry Watkins, were selected as emissaries.
Walker and Watkins, equipped with Mexican passports, landed in Guaymas in July of 1853. Mexican authorities there had been warned about Walker by the Mexican consulate in San Francisco and denied him permission to travel around the state, despite Walker’s pretensions that he was only a businessman. After a month of diplomatic wrangling, the two men went home, disgusted and determined to obtain by force what they could not obtain by persuasion.
Walker’s true purpose in attempting to gain colonization rights in Sonora was to have a pretext for shipping men and arms to Mexico without appearing to violate American neutrality laws. Even before Walker and Watkins went to Guaymas, their backers had publicly offered for sale in San Francisco bonds for the “Republic of Sonora,” the profits to come later, once the state had been ripped from Mexico. Walker’s cool reception in Sonora was due to Mexican diplomats in San Francisco having seen these bonds.
With the money gained from the bond sale. Walker began to line up volunteers for the filibuster and to purchase supplies and arms. These were loaded onto the Arrow, a brig Walker had bought. However, General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, the military commander of San Francisco, had received word from President Fillmore to put a halt to any filibuster scheme originating in his jurisdiction. The general thereupon seized the Arrow after learning that a large number of armed men were waiting to board.
Walker went to court to try to secure the release of the ship, and he enlisted the aid of sympathetic politicians and newspapers. (Local sentiment much favored Walker and his proposed filibuster.)
Hitchcock remained adamant, and while the case was before the courts. Walker decided not to waste any more time. He hastily outfitted a schooner, the Caroline, and slipped out of San Francisco harbor on October 12, 1853, with forty-five men aboard. Due to his precipitous departure, he neglected to bring sufficient food, and he had no maps at all of the area he was to invade. Although lacking military experience, he now called himself Colonel Walker, and he dubbed his ragtag troops the First Independent Battalion of the Republic of Sonora.
Because his hasty departure left him with a much smaller force than he had hoped for. Walker now decided first to conquer Lower California before making an attempt on Sonora. His military inexperience, however, was soon to show in his directionless wanderings in Baja.
The Caroline touched briefly at Cabo San Lucas, on the southern tip of the peninsula, before proceeding up the Gulf of California to La Paz. The filibusters took this town of 1000 in thirty minutes, captured the Mexican governor, ransacked the town archives, and replaced the Mexican flag with their own — a red and white banner with two stars, symbolizing Lower California and Sonora. Walker then issued a proclamation: “The Republic of Lower California is hereby declared Free. Sovereign, and Independent, and all allegiance to the Republic of Mexico is forever renounced.” Subsequent decrees issued over the next few days announced that the new republic would practice free trade with the entire world and that the civil code as practiced in Louisiana would be the new legal system. These proclamations, and others Walker would make later, were published in several California newspapers, including the San Diego Herald.
After three days in La Paz, Walker opted to return to Cabo San Lucas. Just at this stage, a Mexican vessel entered the harbor carrying a new Baja governor. Colonel Robellero, whom Walker also took prisoner and brought aboard the Caroline. Before leaving La Paz, the Filibuster sent some men into town to obtain firewood. This gathering party was fired on by about a dozen townsmen, and Walker sent out a larger force against them. This initial military action of the campaign lasted an hour and a half. None of Walker’s men were hurt; the Mexicans suffered six dead.
On November 8, Walker disembarked at Cabo San Lucas, where he evidently expected reinforcements from San Francisco to be waiting. Finding none, he sailed up the coast to Ensenada. At this time, Ensenada was “a sparsely settled country of impoverished ranchos,” as one historian describes it; the nearest semblance to a town was Santo Tomas, thirty miles south. Nevertheless, Walker was determined to make Ensenada the seat of his government. By this time, he had also appointed a secretary of state, war, and navy and had given military ranking to his most trusted aides. Although the whole business thus far had the appearance of an opera bouffe, to the Filibuster in pursuit of destiny, it was a deadly serious enterprise.
Walker’s “great victory” in La Paz electrified public opinion in the United States. A San Francisco paper hailed the filibusters for “releasing Lower California from the tyrannous yoke of declining Mexico and establishing a new republic.” A recruiting office was opened in that city; in a few hours, hundreds of men had volunteered for service (“rowdies and loafers,” according to one writer of the time). Several hundred well-armed adventurers, many of them drunk, sailed toward Ensenada on the brig Anita, which slipped out of port on December 7.
Meanwhile, Walker, ever the journalist with an ear for public opinion, had issued another proclamation. On November 30, from Ensenada, he explained to Americans why he had mounted his filibuster. Because the Mexican government was inept in its rule over the territory, Walker wrote, Lower California “would forever remain wild, half-savage and uncultivated, covered with an indolent and half-civilized people, desirous of keeping all foreigners from entering the limits of the State. When the people of a Territory fail almost entirely to develop the resources nature has placed at their command, the interests of civilization require others to go in and possess the land. They cannot, nor should they, be allowed to play the dog in the manger, and keep others from possessing what they have failed to occupy and appropriate.”
In a separate proclamation to the people of Lower California, Walker wrote that the object of his filibusters was the “amelioration of your social and political condition, and the improvement of the country, by all the arts which conduce to the civilization of a people.”
From history's rearview mirror, these declarations seem preposterous and cynical, and they give grounds to those who see Walker as some kind of swindler or, as one recent chronicler stated, a man motivated by “private greed and driven by a pirate’s spirit.” However, a mere swindler is interested only in money; Walker’s aim was power. Also, a swindler would not risk his life; Walker had little regard for personal risk to life or limb. And to label him a “pirate” seems as superficial as Walker’s own description of his Baja nemesis Meléndrez as a mere “bandit and outlaw.”
Walker was imbued with the puritan spirit, and he doubtless believed his high-sounding phrases while he was uttering them. He also probably firmly believed that he was sacrificing himself to bring the blessings of his civilization to what he considered a beautiful but benighted land. The same spirit may have earlier motivated him to court a lovely but handicapped woman.
Some historians have also questioned whether Walker was interested in bringing slave states into the Union, a widely debated issue of the time. But Walker had stated several times that he had no intention of merging his conquered territories into the American Union, and he can be believed on this score: He wanted to rule a country, not be a delegate for some faraway government. In his book about his Nicaraguan expeditions, published a few months before his death. Walker did put forward some specious arguments for slavery in Central America, but by that time he was desperately trying to raise men and money for yet another invasion, and he was appealing to the prejudices of the region in which most of his support lay. Yet many of his supporters and officers were Midwesterners, New Englanders, and Europeans. Walker likely had no real emotional stake in slavery — he’d issue such ad hominem appeals only if they served his purpose and would decry them if they did not.
While Walker waited in Ensenada for reinforcements from San Francisco and busied himself with penning ringing declarations, a rancher near the village of Santo Tomas, some thirty miles to the south, was taking a dim view of the presence of armed gringos in his country. A Mexican writer described Antonio Meléndrez as a man possessing “an iron body and great courage." He had a local reputation as a fearless Indian fighter and had no doubt done his share of cattle rustling. But at the time of Walker’s incursion, he had apparently settled down somewhat to tending his herd of steers.
Meléndrez raised a troop of men from his neighborhood, mostly rancher friends and relatives, and combined this force with those of Colonel Castillo Negrete, the military commander at Santo Tomas. With about seventy men, they marched to Ensenada in early December to drive the filibusteros out of Baja.
Surprised and outnumbered, the Americans retreated to an adobe house owned by a local family — then the only building in what is now downtown Ensenada. For eight days, they were trapped inside. Walker decided to lead a break-out but was dissuaded from this by Timothy Crocker, his fanatically loyal attendant, who volunteered to lead the charge himself. The Mexican sentry had fallen asleep, and Crocker and nineteen others succeeded in scattering the besiegers, with the loss of three American dead, including one Lt. McKibbon. Walker renamed the adobe house “Fort McKibbon.” Meléndrez’s counterattacks were futile, and the Mexican forces lost eight men, their only field piece, forty guns, and eleven horses. However, when the triumphant filibusters looked toward the harbor, the Caroline was gone. The two hostage governors had bribed the crew during the melee and made their escape, taking with them what remained of the La Paz archival papers, which the Americans had been using as cartridge wadding. After this skirmish, one of those fighting with Walker wrote the San Diego Herald that “the Colonel does not talk much, but with all his quietness, has more go-a-headativeness in him than any man of his age." On the Mexican side, Castillo Negrete had departed for San Diego, apparently convinced by an Ensenada resident that the American military there was about to sail for Ensenada to arrest the filibusters. He turned full command over to Meléndrez before leaving.
A few weeks after the siege was broken, the Anita docked in Ensenada, bringing from San Francisco several hundred eager filibusters and one woman, the wife of an officer already with Walker. The Filibuster was sorely disappointed that they had not thought to bring edibles; now he had a sizable army and no means to feed them.
Having learned from Ensenada residents that Meléndrez had led the Mexican attackers and that he owned a ranch near Santo Tomas, Walker on December 29 sent out a raiding party of sixty-five men to seize cattle and horses from Meléndrez and other settlers in the area. From that time forward, the gringos lived on beef and corn, and Meléndrez lived with the hope of revenge.
The commander of the freebooters also gave himself a new title. On January 21, 1854, the San Diego Herald published several of Walker’s decrees, which declared that the “Republic of Sonora" was to be divided into two states, Sonora and Lower California, and that he was now the president of this rump republic.
Shortly after issuing these manifestos. Walker was faced with a mutiny in the ranks. The company of a Captain Davidson had captured and broken some wild horses, and now they wished themselves to be cavalrymen rather than foot soldiers. Walker felt otherwise, and he gave the horses to another company. The camp became divided into acrimonious factions and. fearing a filibuster civil war within his army. Walker made an impassioned speech to the troops, promising them future glory if they would but remain faithful. He ended by asking everyone to give him a personal oath of allegiance. Forty-five men refused to take the oath, and Walker ordered them from camp, insisting that they leave their weapons with him. When the rebellious men refused, a loyal company aimed a field cannon at them. Walker strode through the throng of malcontents, urging them to take food but to surrender their arms. Most first smashed their rifles on the rocks before dropping them at the feet of the Filibuster and taking off in the direction of San Diego.
At this time two gunboats, one Mexican and the other American, arrived at the Ensenada harbor to observe the filibuster army. Short of food, his ranks thinned by desertion and sickness, and worried about the gunboats. Walker decided to move his 130 remaining men to San Vicente, fifty miles south of Ensenada, and from there cross the mountains into Sonora, at the mouth of the Colorado River. They arrived at San Vicente on February 17. In the courtyard of the ruined mission, Walker set up a table flanked by two flags of his filibuster republic. His cabinet assembled around the table while his men rounded up sixty-two local Mexicans. Walker read out a stirring proclamation, filled with the usual promises that he would defend them from the savage Indians and the unjust taxation of the Mexican government, and then he requested their oath of allegiance to his new state. With the troops threatening any recalcitrants, the Mexicans marched forward to take the oath. Apparently Walker also asked the locals to supply food and other provisions, as one of them appended to his declaration of loyalty this statement: “We request of your Excellency that the provisions we have on hand, and may receive in the future, be subject to your orders when the requisitions are properly signed by your commissary, which requisitions will always be cheerfully complied with, confident that we will be reimbursed hereafter.”
Although Walker was in command of a disparate army composed variously of adventurers, idealists, and riffraff, he insisted on military etiquette and discipline. This became apparent two days after the San Vicente convention, when Walker faced another mutiny. A loyal private had reported to him that four men intended to blow up the ammunition stores, steal the horses and cattle, and escape to Fort Yuma, in Arizona. Walker ordered two of the men executed and drummed the other two out of camp.
At the precise moment of the San Vicente convention, the American government began to move against the filibuster organization in California. The recruiting headquarters in San Francisco were raided, and Walker’s former law partner, Henry Watkins, was arrested. The filibuster secretary of state, Fred Emory, was apprehended in San Diego while trying to raise troops and purchase supplies. Walker knew nothing of these events and continued on his quixotic chase after destiny. In mid-March, after leaving a detachment of twenty to guard the San Vicente headquarters, he led one hundred men across the mountains with the intention of seizing Sonora. The army drove before them a herd of cattle, their only food supply other than a little corn.
The journey took two miserable weeks. At one point, Cocopa Indians pretended to join their ranks but soon departed with thirty head of cattle. (The descendants of these Indians now live on a reservation in Arizona and are scattered in northern Mexico; they number about 700.) A few of the Apaches that Walker intended to subjugate also showed up and pilfered some steers. When the exhausted and ragged army reached the Colorado, about fifty miles south of what is now Yuma, they were crushed to see the river so deep and rapid that it could be crossed only by rafts. Walker alone seemed unperturbed, and he ordered the construction of the rafts. The men made it across, but most of the cattle were swept away in the currents.
Without food and in the middle of a desolate country, half the army figured that they had had enough, and they deserted to Fort Yuma. Then two of the loyalists got into a fight over some corn, and one was killed. After sitting forlornly on the banks for three days, the filibusters rafted back across the river and retraced their steps to San Vicente. What had started out months before as a great and glorious adventure had degenerated into a tragic farce.
Meléndrez had at this time joined his group with Colonel Mendoza, the new military commander of Baja. Their combined force numbered about sixty, including the sons of Don Juan Bandini of San Diego, who owned property in Baja. As the filibusters crossed the mountains, they raided small ranches for more cattle. The Mexican guerrillas succeeded in driving off many of these purloined steers, while the tired and dispirited Americans did little more than to shout “Thieves!” after the raiding parties. Bandini recounts that on one occasion Walker’s men stopped to rest at a ranch called Guadalupe de las Ojíos, six miles north of San Vicente, and were soon surrounded by Meléndrez and Mendoza. As at Ensenada earlier, a group of filibusters made a sally to lift the siege, resulting in three deaths on either side. Thereafter, writes Bandini, “Mendoza and Meléndrez adopted the plan of remaining always on the defensive, depriving the invaders of all means of sustenance, maintaining a stout watch on their movements, and leaving them always an unobstructed outlet to Alta California, and preventing them from taking any road that would lead to an easily fortified position.’’
In view of the condition of Walker’s troops, it seems unlikely that the filibusters were any longer much interested in defending a fortified position, particularly when upon reaching San Vicente they could find no trace of their headquarters or the detachment they had left behind to guard it. In fact, when Walker had departed for Sonora, thirteen of the twenty in the detachment immediately deserted to San Diego, and the other seven were hunted down and killed by Meléndrez. (One of the San Vicente deserters later said of Walker, “There was not a sensible man in the whole command who did not utterly despise him”)
Harassed constantly by Meléndrez, Walker and his men. starved and in tatters, laboriously made their way up the coast to San Diego. A few days after they crossed the line, one of the filibusters told a reporter that although he and his companions were “penniless, downhearted, naked almost, your citizens opened their big hearts to us and proved to our satisfaction that they were Americans, and San Diego will never be forgotten by us ” But the heart of his commander still appeared to be in Mexico: in the document of surrender to American military authorities in San Diego, Walker yet referred to himself as the “President of the Republic of Sonora.”
In October of 1854, Walker’s trial took place in San Francisco. He was defended by his old friend Edmund Randolph. The government had a strong case, but the idea of Manifest Destiny was still strong in California and overrode concern about the neutrality laws. The jury took eight minutes to acquit.
Meléndrez was not quite as lucky. Shortly after the Walker debacle, the Mexican fighter was appointed temporary military commander of the border area. Like Walker, he apparently was also a man with a significant capacity to make enemies, and he got into trouble with the regular army man sent from Mexico City. On June 28 of 1855, he was captured, tried, and hanged on the charge of attempting to sell to the United States the entire border area for two million dollars. Some historians believe the charge spurious. At the time of his death, a Mexican from Baja told an American reporter, “No man has done more than Meléndrez to preserve the liberties of his country, none deserved more than he did.”
After his acquittal, Walker returned to journalism in San Francisco. The owner of the paper for which he was editor was a New England man who convinced Walker that filibustering in Nicaragua would be more profitable than in Mexico. A few years later, Walker raised another force, invaded Nicaragua, and proclaimed himself president of that country. He then made the mistake of seizing property belonging to Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America. Vanderbilt represented the economic imperialism that was to be America’s stock in trade for decades; Walker’s freebooting military adventurism was a thing of the past.
With Vanderbilt, the British, and the nationalists of the Central American republics arrayed against him. Walker was ejected from Nicaragua, returned, and was again defeated. A third time he tried to come in by way of Honduras, where he was captured by a British ship. Refusing to acknowledge that he was American (which would have provided him safe passage to the U.S.), he instead insisted that he was “President of Nicaragua.” and the British turned him over to the Honduran government. After making his confession to a Honduran priest. Walker was taken before a firing squad and on September 12, 1860, finally met his destiny.