In 1855, on this day Filibusterer William Walker, at the recommendation of his associate, professional confidence man Parker H. French, determined to turn on his supporters and go for the "bigger con" by enticing millionaire shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt into supporting an American presence in Nicaragua.
William Walker Switches FundersWalker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824. He graduated from the University of Tennessee at fourteen, spent his teenage years traveling in Europe and studying medicine, and completed his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at nineteen. He turned to law, practicing in Louisiana for a time before moving on to journalism and heading to California. There, he began his dream of "filibustering", creating new colonies for the United States out of the Latin American countries, as had been seen with Texas a generation before. Walker's first attempt was the Republic of Sonora, conquered from the western part of Mexico in 1853, but he was soon chased out by the Mexican Army. Back in California, he was arrested for breaking the Neutrality Act of 1794 (designed to halt privateering against France) but was acquitted and hailed as a conquering hero.
Meanwhile, war had broken out in Nicaragua. The ruling Legitimists held conservatively to power even though the more democratic Liberals had made great leaps in popularity. The Liberal president, Francisco Castellón, invited Walker to march on the Legitimists with their capital at Granada. Walker was careful not to break laws this time, signing a contract as a "colonist" and not acting through American power, which he confirmed through notification to the Federal attorney's office in San Francisco. Walker and a band of fifty-eight calling themselves the "American Phalanx" sailed from San Francisco through stormy weather, landing at Realejo, Nicaragua, where he was reinforced by hundreds more volunteers, many local and others foreigners who wished for adventure.
To fund the expedition, Walker had been given 20,000 dollars by Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison of the Accessory Transit Company, which they had bought out from under legendary businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt while he vacationed in Europe with his family. Vanderbilt's company had made tremendous amounts of money by controlling the key trade route to California during the Gold Rush by winning an overland contract with the Nicaraguan government. In exchange for this money, Walker would find a technicality to tear up the old contract and deliver a new contract to a new company owned by Morgan and Garrison. When Vanderbilt had heard of Morgan and Garrison's manipulations of stock and company rule, he sent them a telegram in 1853 reading, "Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt".
Vanderbilt had crushed enemies before and was currently running the Collins Line shipping business into bankruptcy despite government subsidies. Walker had been put into contact with Garrison through close friend Edmund Randolph, but French suggested he side with the businessman with deeper pockets. Upon seizing the Legitimist capital on October 13, Walker sent a telegram to Vanderbilt volunteering a charter for a Nicaraguan Canal, a project Vanderbilt had dreamed of for years since George Law had already achieved a stagecoach route across Panama. Vanderbilt, who had been planning to demolish American government support for Walker through his influence, instead showed his support to President Franklin Pierce.
Walker, meanwhile, had made significant enemies in Central America. His diplomatic gestures to the surrounding countries had been successfully construed as preludes to further conquest. President Juan Rafael Mora of Costa Rica declared war upon Walker and called up allies among Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and disenfranchised conservative Nicaraguans. Walker dispatched a preemptive invasion of Costa Rica, but was rebuffed and faced counter-invasion. The Allied Armies of Central America marched on Nicaragua, looking to end Vanderbilt's hopes of a canal. The businessman refused to be defeated and funded mercenaries while Walker invited reinforcements from across the American South. Despite a cholera outbreak, Walker's soldiers managed to hold Granada under siege until it was relieved and the 4,000-strong Allied army broken.
The war gave excellent pretense for further expansion, allowing Walker to march legally on each Costa Rica, then El Salvador, and finally Honduras. British Honduras (present-day Belize) was Walker's next thought of conquest, but Vanderbilt refused to fund such an expedition as it would spark war with Britain, who was already suspicious of such American activities in Central America after the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty forbade expansion there. Instead, Walker returned to his presidency in Granada and spearheaded Vanderbilt's Canal, making extensive use of prisoner labor. Walker died in 1874 after chronic bouts with malaria.
Upon the failure of the South to secede in the American Civil War, many wealthy Southerners fled to Walker's Great Granada, although Vanderbilt had encouraged Walker to maintain abolition when he suggested repealing it in 1856 and neutrality in the war, which proved the most money-making beyond the Union blockade. Vanderbilt became fixated with his canal, and routine visits to the harsh climate in the construction zone led to his death in 1867, one year before his wife. In the latter nineteenth century, renewed imperialism would make Granada American territory, along with Cuba, San Juan, and numerous Pacific islands. Armed revolutions plagued the region and drained American military resources until decolonization followed World War II.