The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From the Reference Librarian 

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

Symbiosis at the Society: Fellows and Librarians Learn Together

A few weeks ago the Beehive featured an item about the 2014-2015 Fellowship recipients and their research projects for the coming year. This great opportunity for scholars to come and do funded research also is an opportunity for the MHS librarians to expose ourselves to subjects and collections that we otherwise do not interact with.

Each year, the reference librarians here look at the projects to be undertaken by the incoming research fellows and divide them up so that we can serve as individual liaisons for the various fellows. We choose which fellows to liaise with based on our own interest and background knowledge of the projects. This benefits the fellows by providing a specific person to contact if they have trouble navigating our collections or just need someone to bounce ideas off.  

Over the next year, I will be liaising with at least eleven different fellows to help them utilize the resources here at the MHS. The projects cover a wide range of subjects, including alcohol production, throat epidemics, Revolutionary War campaigns, antislavery texts, and religious reform. They also cover a long span of time, from the earliest days of the English colonies to the dawn of the Civil War.

This presents two challenges for me: to help fellows access materials they already identified using our catalog and to help them discover additional material in our collection that they missed. Perhaps I am familiar with a collection that they did not find in their search; maybe I can show them resources that are not available via our online catalog; in some cases, I can suggest another institution whose collections complement the Society’s.

Again, this exchange benefits both the fellows and the MHS staff. I know already from reading through some project descriptions that I will be exposed to topics that are completely new to me or that the fellow is looking at in a new way. And with some relevant materials already identified by the research fellow, I will learn more about the collections we have here. As I scour our catalog to find more resources for the fellow, I learn more about our holdings and about strategically searching our collections, information that will certainly come in useful down the road.

Back in January I wrote a piece for the Beehive about using the Researcher as Resource. Working with our research fellows each year is another way for our librarians to expand their knowledge and to learn even more about the collections here at the MHS. 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 16 May, 2014, 3:00 PM

Reader Services By the Numbers

As the fiscal year comes to a close it is time to examine the statistics the reader services staff compiles over the course of the year.  Here is a quick rundown of what FY2011 brought to the MHS library. 

 The library was open 287 days with an average daily attendance of 9.6 researchers.      

 We were visited by 1353 individual researchers for a total of 2766 research visits.

 718 of our researchers were using the MHS library for the first time.          

 Of those first time visitors, 314 were Massachusetts residents, 357 were out-of-state visitors, and 47 were foreign nationals.  In all we had visitors from 40 different states and more than 20 countries.

The reader services staff paged 2888 manuscripts requests and 1900 printed materials requests.  Considering that most requests require multiple boxes or volumes, that is a lot of material paged.

 Because not every researcher that uses MHS resources can visit us in person the reader services staff also answered 1335 reference emails, 70 mailed reference letters, and 1260 reference phone calls.  

The library has been experiencing a steady increase in both total readers and new readers over the past few years.  Here is hoping that trend continues into FY2012     

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 7 July, 2011, 8:00 AM

Emailed Reference Queries Not Received

We have recently experienced a problem with the MHS website email.  All emailed queries submitted to the library through the "Contact Us" page on the MHS website between August 19 and September 7 did not reach the library staff.  This includes emails sent to "Ask a Reference Question," "General Inquiries," and "Rights and Reproductions." 

 Unfortunately all of these queries have been lost to the ether.  There is no way to trace the messages nor can the library staff determine who sent them.  If you submitted a query during that time period please re-submit the query either through the repaired "Contact Us" page or by sending an email directly to me at reference@masshist.org

Our library staff strives to provide timely and thorough reference service to all queries.  We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this email problem. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 10 September, 2010, 1:00 AM

A Summer of Surprises

Librarians love tracking statistics and studying trends. Here at the MHS our statistics show that July is typically the busiest month of the year and February is typically the slowest. Generally speaking we use this information to make informed decisions about scheduling staff, arranging vacations, planning for long term projects, and determining how to best serve our researchers.

This summer everything the library staff thought they knew about summer trends flew out the window. As I mentioned, July is traditionally our busiest month of the year. Looking back at the statistics for the previous five summers, we averaged 380 daily visits to the library in the month of July. Last year, we had a record setting 444 daily visits from 202 individual researchers.

This summer the reader services staff was set, mentally and physically, to weather the July storm. We had extra part-time hours scheduled; we told everyone to wear their sneakers for ease of running up and down the stairs to the stacks; staff meetings were filled with pep talks and words of wisdom from veteran staff members. Then the storm appeared to pass us by. Our July numbers were way down. We had only 334 daily visits, by 141 individual researchers. Far below our averages! We scratched our heads wondering where the researchers had gone. Perhaps it was a sign of the struggling economy -- lack of funding available for extended research trips or family vacations to Boston. We did not know.

But the storm was waiting, gathering strength. It struck in August. Statistically speaking August is a refreshing change of pace after the July rush. The past five years show an average of 260 daily visits in the month. Last summer we had only 220 daily visits from 124 individual researchers. So far this month we have already seen more than 340 daily August visits from 148 individual researchers.

Along similar lines, it is almost unheard of to have a day where twenty or more individual researchers visit the reading room in August. In July it is typical, but in the last five Augusts it has only happened once -- August of 2009. This summer we have already had five days with twenty or more researchers, hitting a 2010 high of twenty-six researchers on August 12th.

Long story short, what looked like it was shaping up to be a slow summer, was indeed just a statistically unusual summer, proving to be the busiest summer we have seen in the recent past. Perhaps the airlines and hotels were offering better fares in August this summer. We will need to look at why this happened. Yet with two business days remaining in the month, the library already surpassed the total number of researchers for the combined months of July and August for the past five years, reaching 675 total visits as of Saturday.

Now we must wait until next summer to see if this is an emerging trend, or just a statistical anomaly.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 31 August, 2010, 1:00 AM