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Turmoil in Nicaragua once swirled around an adventurer from Tennessee

Nicaragua has been in the news lately, with U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warning that President Daniel Ortega’s tyranny has placed the nation on the same path to ruin as Syria and Venezuela.

But chaos is nothing new to this troubled land, which has seen more than its share of desperate dictators, including an ex-newspaper man from Tennessee.

William Walker was born in Nashville in 1824. Well educated, he dabbled in medicine, journalism and the law before joining the ‘49ers in California. He pursued his legal and newspaper career in San Francisco, but soon grew bored.

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This was the era of Manifest Destiny. The Mexican War had just ended, adding the sprawling Southwest to the United States. Like many Americans, Walker wanted more.
First target: Mexico

He traveled to the Mexican state of Sonora and petitioned the government there to let him establish an American colony. Unsurprisingly rebuffed, he returned to San Francisco, rounded up a few dozen disenchanted gold miners and war veterans, and invaded.

Engraving of William Walker (Photo: State of Tennessee)

The gang captured La Paz, on the tip of the Baja peninsula, and raised the banner of the Republic of Lower California. But within six months, Walker had fled back across the border, where he was arrested and tried for violating the neutrality laws of the U.S. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the jury acquitted him in eight minutes.

Walker then set his sights on Nicaragua.

Land of opportunity

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In these pre-Panama Canal days, Nicaragua was a land of opportunity, the favored route across the isthmus, where Cornelius Vanderbilt already had built a rail-steamship crossing.

Walker landed in 1855 with 57 Americans. They joined with some Nicaraguan rebels, attacked the city of Granada, and captured the forces there by surprise.

This sent adventurers from the United States rushing south to support Walker, and by 1856, he had seized the presidency, declared English the official language and legalized slavery.

Map of Nicaragua during William Walker’s time (Photo: National Archives)

Unfortunately, his acquisitive nature spooked neighboring Costa Rica, which attacked. Walker appropriated Vanderbilt’s steamships to use in the fight — a big mistake. The richest man in America threw his support behind Costa Rica, and in 1857, Walker was forced to surrender into the custody of the U.S. Navy.

Was William Walker finished? Far from it.

He returned to the U.S., was acquitted of neutrality violation again, wrote a book, mustered fresh troops and returned to Central America before the year was out.

Never say die

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This time the Navy seized him soon after he landed in Costa Rica. He was sent back to the U.S., acquitted again, and again gathered a fresh shipload of freebooters.

They wrecked on the coast of Belize.

Never say die. Walker, now 36, launched his fourth invasion of Central America in 1859, landing in Honduras. This time, though, his troops faltered. Walker fled to the British Navy, who turned him over to the Hondurans.

They shot him.

Article originally appeared at knoxville News Sentinel.

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