The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The King of the Filibusters

Filibuster, n. 1. An irregular military adventurer, esp. one in quest of plunder; a freebooter; -- orig. applied to buccaneers infesting the Spanish American coasts; later, an organizer or member of a hostile expedition to some country or countries with which his own is at peace, in contravention of international law.

On September 12, 1860, an American lawyer and journalist, an adventurer and filibuster, was executed by firing squad in Trujillo, Honduras. This is his story in brief.

William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824. Pushed by his parents to a good education, he graduated from the University of Nashville at the age of 14. By 1843, at 19, Walker received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He continued his medical education in Paris and toured several cities in Europe before returning to Nashville to practice.

Dissatisfied with his career in medicine, Walker changed his focus to law and, shortly after taking up studies, moved to New Orleans. While he attained the bar in Louisiana, his practice there was even briefer than his medical practice and he soon moved into the field of journalism. In the winter of 1848, Walker became an editor and proprietor of the conservative New Orleans Crescent.

The following year, like so many other intrepid young men, Walker responded to the lure of the West and settled in San Francisco, arriving in June, 1850. He continued his work as a journalist, speaking loudly against the judicial authorities in San Francisco for failure to roll back a tide of lawlessness and crime. His vocal stance raised the ire of district judge Levi Parsons who declared the press a nuisance and, after much wrangling, judged Walker guilty of contempt and set a fine on him. Now, Walker’s legal experience came to the fore as he defended himself in open court against the charges, with much popular support, and was ultimately vindicated.

Shortly after, Walker moved to the nearby and quickly growing town of Marysville where he practiced law with Henry Watkins. By this time, many men of California were already engaging in filibustering in Latin America. This practice, prominent during the 1850s, was an aggressive and idealized effort to expand the influence of the United States in fulfillment of manifest destiny.

Over the next several years, Walker pursued this activity with fervor. In 1853 he attempted an invasion of Mexico with a small band of men, barely escaping alive. The United States tried him in violation of the neutrality act but he was quickly exonerated. In 1855, he set his sights on Nicaragua. This locale was coveted by many as the key to linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. No less a man than Cornelius Vanderbilt invested heavily in transporting goods across the narrow country. 

Landing with a small force of Americans, Walker supplemented his force with sympathetic liberal Nicaraguans and demanded independent command. With a lot of luck and small amount of daring, Walker and his men took the city of Granada and made hostages of its conservative leaders. 

Over the next several months, Walker used various schemes and local proxies to consolidate power in his own hands, eventually raising the alarm in neighboring Central American countries. In April 1856, Costa Rica occupied the Nicaraguan city of Rivas in order to drive Walker out but, with the aid of an outbreak of cholera, he forced them into retreat.

Throughout the next year, Walker’s course of action greatly alienated him from his supporters in American business. So it was with the financial backing of Vanderbilt that, in spring of 1857, an alliance of Central American countries besieged him at Rivas, forcing him to surrender to an American naval officer, at which time he and his men were delivered out of the country.

Still, he was not finished. By this time, Walker was something of a folk hero in the United States, meeting acclaim wherever he went. In November 1857, he tried to invade and was met by the US Navy which forced a quick surrender. In 1860 he made one last effort. This time, the Royal Navy captured him and delivered him to the nearest authorities, the Hondurans. In September of that year, William Walker finally met his end. 

The story of William Walker was unknown to me until I recently watched a film from 1987 called simply Walker, with Ed Harris in the title role and directed by Alex Cox. Though a fictional take on the actions of the man, it raised my awareness and piqued my curiosity. If you are interested in learning more about Walker and other 19th century filibusters, see below for some resources 

 

Sources at the MHS

-        The destiny of Nicaragua: Central America as it was, is, and may be, Boston: S.A. Bent & Co., 1856.

-        Scroggs, William O., Filibusters and financiers: the story of William Walker and his associates. New York: Macmillan, c1916.

-        Wells, William V., Walker’s expedition to Nicaragua…, New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1856.

 

Useful online resources

-        Stiles, T.J., “The Filibuster King: The Strange Career of William Walker, the Most Dangerous International Criminal of the Nineteenth Century,” History Now 20 (Summer 2009). The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.gilerlehrman.org/history-by-era/jackson-lincoln/essays/filibuster-king-strange-career-william-walker-most-danerous-i  

-        Tirmenstein, Lisa, “Costa Rica in 1856: Defeating William Walker While Creating a National Identity,” Accessed March 12, 2015. http://jrscience.wcp.muohio.edu/FieldCourses00/PapersCostaRicaArticles/CostaRicain1856.Defeating.html  

-        Judy, Fanna, “William Walker,” The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/walker.html  

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 13 March, 2015, 8:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

On Tuesday, 10 March, there is an Environmental History Seminar beginning at 5:15PM. All are welcome to join us for "Fear of an Open Beach: The Privatization of the Connecticut Shore and the Fate of Coastal America." This seminar features Andrew W. Kahrl of the University of Virginia, with Karl Haglund, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, providing comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

Then, on Wednesday, 11 March, is the next installment of the Landscape Architecture Series. In this program, Keith Morgan, Director of Architectural Studies - Boston University, presents "The Brookline Troika: Olmsted, Richardson, Sargent and the Planning of a 'Model Community.'" A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. This talk is open to the public with a fee of $10 (no charge for Fellows and Members of the MHS, Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Nichols House Museum). Registration is required; Please RSVP

And on Saturday, 14 March, come in at 10:00AM for a free tour. The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through the public spaces here at the Society and provides some background on the art, history, collections, and architecture of the MHS. The tour is free and open to the public. Larger parties (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org. While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition, "God Save the People!” which explores events leading up to the American Revolution. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 7 March, 2015, 10:40 AM

Untangling North Atlantic Fishing, 1764-1910, Part 1: British Claim to the North Atlantic Fishery

Boundaries on land are largely man-made. These lines scribbled on paper or enclosed by transient fences signify what is claimed. Borders change over time. Geography shifts with natural disaster into or out of the ocean. Land boundaries are surprisingly fluid but not as immaterial as the open ocean, which poses the indeterminate question:  Who owns the sea? Who has the right to fish the ocean?

In a five-post blog series, I aim to examine the claims over the North Atlantic fishery from 1764 to 1910. I cannot identify who owns the ocean. You may want to ask Poseidon or Neptune. My goal is to tell the story of claims and contestation of this “American fishery” between Great Britain, Canada, and the United States through our collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The contestation truly begins with the coming of the American Revolution.

In the North Atlantic, various claims to the plentiful fishing waters off the Newfoundland coast to the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts Bay caused great strife between Great Britain and its colonies. Great Britain’s economy relied heavily on Atlantic fish trade especially that of dried, salted cod. The growth in population and life expectancy in New England throughout the 18th century also increased the numbers of New England fishermen and their fishing vessels, and thus increased Atlantic fishing. In response to this additional competition in the Atlantic, British fish merchants cornered the market by prevailing upon Parliament to protect their interests in the “American” fishery. To this end, Sir Hugh Palliser became Governor and Commander-in-Chief at Newfoundland in 1764 and intensified the removal of New England fishing vessels from the coastal waters in support of a British fishery in the North Atlantic.

Massachusetts resident William Bollan published a treatise entitled The Ancient Right of the English Nation to the American Fishery in the same year as Palliser’s appointment. This publication summarizes a history of naval conflict in the North Atlantic in an effort to persuade his London audience of their might over the pitiable French. In establishing the English right to this fishery, he then asks to share these waters with the enemy:

“…I cannot forbear recolleƈting that the eagles grief was encreased on her finding that she was shot with an arrow feathered from her own wing; and that my cordial wishes for the future happy fortunes of my prince and country are accompanied with concern that after obtaining so many important victories, whereby the enemy was so far enfeebled and disarmed, and the sources of her commence and naval strength brought into our possession, there should be prevailing reasons for putting into her hands so large a portion of this great fountain of maritime power.”

Bollan’s use of the eagle shot with an arrow feathered from her own wing in hindsight unintentionally reflects the growing revolutionary sentiments in the British North American colonies during the 1760s.

With tensions rising over the Sugar Act in 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765, British seizures of American fishing vessels in Newfoundland waters increased the building momentum of riotous debate over colonial rights.  In the summer of 1766, Captain Hamilton of HMS Merlin boarded the colonial schooner Hawke and demanded to know what business skipper Jonathan Millet had in the Newfoundland waters. The New England fishermen were there for cod fishing. Upon the response, the captain promptly seized the vessel and fish, according to Jonathan Millet’s deposition from 13 September 1766, “…[Captain Hamilton] threatn’d that if he ever Catch’d any New England Men Fishing there again that he wou’d seize their Vefsells & Fish and Keep all the Men, beside inflicting severe Corporal Punishment on every man he took,….” Spurred by his foul treatment at the hand of the captain, skipper Millet recounted his impressment grievances to the Justices of the Peace Benjamin Pickman and Joseph Bowditch in Salem for this deposition. 

A plethora of impressment grievances appear in the 1760s in the MHS collections. In fact, William Bollan personally knew of impressment as a major issue of contention. Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote to Bollan in the latter’s capacity as colonial agent in London on the issue of impressment in 1756. This letter was written a decade prior to the Hawke impressment.  British inattention to colonial rights and the impressment of colonial fishermen certainly led to rebellion. But the contestation over Newfoundland fishing rights continued well into the 19th century.

In the next blog post, I will examine the fishing in the Early Republic as New England fishermen become citizens of the United States, and Britain’s continued impressment until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.

 

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 6 March, 2015, 3:07 PM

This Week @ MHS

At last it is time to leave February behind. As the snow starts to melt, why not come in to the MHS for some history?

On Tuesday, 3 March, there is an Early American History Seminar taking place at 5:15PM. Join us as Elizabeth Cover of Boston presents "Degrees of Britishness: The People of Albany, New York, and Questions of Cultural Community Membership," with Lisa Wilson of Connecticut College providing comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

On Wednesday, 4 March, at noon is a Brown Bag lunch talk given by Robert Shimp of Boston University. The talk is titled "John Quincy Adams and the Paradox of Anglo-American Relations in the Early Republic: The London Years, 1815-1817." Brown Bags are free and open to the public. Pack a lunch and stop on by!

Also on Wednesday, join us at 6:00PM for "Charles Eliot and the Modernization of Boston's Landscape," part of the Landscape Architect Series. This talk is given by Anita Berrizbeitia, Professor of Landscape Architecture - Harvard Gradute School of Design. The event is open to the public with a $10 fee, registration required (no charge for Fellows and Members of the MHS, Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Nichols House Museum). Please RSVP. Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM. 

Finally, on Saturday, 7 March, come by at 10:00AM for a free tour. The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led tour of the public spaces at the Society, touching on the art, collections, architecture, and history of the MHS. No reservations required for individuals or small groups. However, parties of 8 or more should please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition, "God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill," open to the public Monday-Friday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, free of charge. 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 12:42 PM

Attention All Cartophiles

Back in Novermber I posted on the Beehive about the MHS library staff field trip to Worcester's American Antiquarian Society. The motivation behind the trip was to learn more about the AAS collections, policies, and how their services can benefit our researchers. We, the staff, also selected many other local institutions to visit to gain better understanding of the resources available to our researchers when they need to get beyond our holdings. 

Yesterday, my colleague Kittle and I had the pleasure of visiting the Norman Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. While there, we learned about their collections (over 200,000 maps), their accessibility (open to the public), and their short history.

The Map Center's holdings range from the late 15th century all the way up to the present day, from some of the earliest printed maps to modern metropolitan planning maps. The materials are all cataloged online via the BPL Bibliocommons. In addition, the Leventhal Center has over 7,000 items digitized and viewable on their website. And for those that enjoy a more whimsical view of things, they also hold a collection of maps from fiction. These chart the geographies of places like Middle Earth and Narnia, detail the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and map out the course of Captain Ahab and the Pequod. These fictional maps are the focus of the Center's current exhibition. 

After we learned about the public side of the Map Center, the gracious staff also toured us through the background, showing us the secured storage spaces where these important collections are housed and preserved. 

Learning more about the Leventhal Map Center allows now to better direct our own researchers who need cartographic resources that the MHS does not hold. And not only did we get to learn about the wonderful collections but we got to introduce ourselves and meet some of our neighbors. Stay tuned for more installments from our staff site visits to see who we meet and what we find!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 12:00 AM

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