History records William Walker’s birthplace as Nashville, Tennessee and his birth date as May 8, 1824. His life story reads like the imaginative product of the next century, one part pulp fiction and one part comic book. He has the alliterative name and even a marketing-friendly title: “the gray-eyed man of destiny.” In reading about him, I keep picturing him in tights and punching a gorilla with a ray gun A child prodigy, Walker graduated from the University of Nashville at the ripe old age of fourteen. He then spent two years in Europe, studying medicine in Scotland, the Netherlands, France, and the Grand Duchy of Baden before finally taking a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Walker’s time in Europe exposed him to the revolutions of 1848 and must have helped inspire his own romantic ambitions to begin the world anew.
Medicine did not suit Walker well enough, so he decamped from Philadelphia to read law in New Orleans. Law did not satisfy him and Walker turned to journalism, investing in and taking editorial control of the New Orleans Crescent. Then the Gold Rush drew him to California, where he worked as a crusading journalist in San Francisco. That work helped inspire a vigilante movement against crime in the lawless boom town. He did not let his five feet and two inches keep him from personal hazards either. Walker fought three duels and came away twice wounded. But California could not contain Walker’s restless spirit and he went south in 1853, seeking permission from Mexican authorities to establish a colony in the sparsely populated Mexican northwest as a hedge against Indian raids into California.
The Mexicans had heard this kind of proposal before. Few people lived up there, so why not import settlers? They would hold the territory, develop it, give up tax revenue, and keep it from the hands of land-hungry nations nearby. That worked out horribly for Mexico when Americans came into Texas. Why would it work better when Americans came into Baja California or adjacent Sonora, both hard up against the new American border? The Mexicans, understandably, passed.
Walker would not take no for an answer. He recruited a band of forty-five men, all armed to the teeth, largely from Kentucky and his native Tennessee, and funded their expedition with promises of land in Sonora, On October 15, 1853, a year to the day before the Ostend Manifesto , he and his band set sail. Three weeks later, they seized the local capital, La Paz. On November 3, 1853, Walker declared La Paz the capital of the Republic of Lower California, appointed himself president, and instituted the laws of Louisiana as the republic’s new code. In so doing, he voided Mexico’s abolition of slavery.
Walker’s success made him a sensation and soon two hundred more men joined him. His funding came in exchange for lands in Sonora. He held, to whatever degree two hundred and forty-five retreating men could hold it, only Baja California. Sonora waited across the Gulf of California and with it Walker’s chance to pay off his supporters and proceed with his mission to, in James McPherson’s words:
subdue the Apaches, bring the blessings of American civilization and Anglo-Saxon energy to these benighted Mexican provinces, and incidentally to exploit Sonora’s gold and silver deposits.
To achieve those ambitions, Walker annexed Sonora by presidential fiat and declared it and Baja California the two states of his new Republic of Sonora on January 10, 1854. With his small army, Walker then crossed mountains and the Colorado River to seize their new province. The Mexican government took an interest and clashed with Walker’s ill-supplied, inexperienced, and mutinous troops. Fifty deserted and the rest fell back from the Mexican advance. Thirty-four survivors accompanied Walker in May as he rushed back across the border to surrender to American authorities in San Diego.
The Americans put Walker on trial for violating the Neutrality Act. He had, after all, waged an illegal war against Mexico. But San Francisco, and plenty of Southerners back east, called Walker a hero. His jury listened to the evidence against him and weighed it carefully despite Walker’s local popularity. Doubtless they wrestled with deep concerns about law and morality, focused keenly on questions of fact, and did their utmost to fulfill their civic duty in the eight minutes they required to acquit him.