Friday, July 12, 2013

July 12 - A Big Day for an Infamous Tennessean

Here’s a quick trivia question: Can you name five Tennesseans who became president?

If you’re a good student of the state’s history, you probably won’t have any trouble naming former U.S. presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson or James K. Polk. But a fourth or fifth?

It’s a trick question, because there were also Tennesseans who later became presidents of foreign countries, such as Sam Houston, who led the briefly-independent Republic of Texas, and William Walker, who was inaugurated as president of Nicaragua on this date in 1856.

Walker’s life is highlighted in one of the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ online exhibits. The exhibit can be found at

Walker isn’t as famous as some Tennesseans chronicled at the State Library and Archives, but in his day, he was quite infamous for his efforts to colonize Central America.

Known as the "Grey-eyed Man of Destiny, " Nashville-born President of Nicaragua, William Walker was executed by the Honduran government at Truxillo, Honduras on September 12, 1860. In this studio portrait, Walker is seated with props symbolizing his expansionist vision: a telescoping spyglass and map. Library Collection Photo.

Three years before he became president of Nicaragua, the Nashvillian led a group of 45 men who landed in Baja California, Mexico. Walker declared the land to be the Republic of Lower California and proclaimed himself to be the new country’s president. Mexican forces soon threw him and his troops out of the country and he was tried (but acquitted) for violating U.S. neutrality laws when he returned.

Walker then led a group of 57 soldiers into Nicaragua. After fighting a number of battles and eventually becoming president, he launched a plan to “Americanize” the country by declaring English the official language and encouraging U.S. residents to immigrate there. He was later ousted by the combined forces of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. After unsuccessfully attempting to regain the presidency of Nicaragua, he was eventually captured and turned over to the Honduran government, which executed him for piracy.

“The story of William Walker is one of thousands that can be found at the Tennessee State Library and Archives,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. “Because his life is chronicled in one of our online exhibits, it is accessible to Tennesseans free of charge, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. I encourage people to visit our web site and learn more about the resources that are just a few mouse clicks away.”

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.


  1. I have read that chattel slavery was one of the reforms Walker wished to intitute as part of his drive to "Americanize" Nicaragua.

    Does the historical record address this issue?

  2. Thanks for that great question! You are correct. William Walker supported the institution of slavery, and wished to extend the institution to Central and South America. Soon after Wakler’s inauguration, he reinstated slavery in Nicarauga, declared English as the official language, and reorganized the country’s fiscal policy to encourage immigration from the United States. A more complete biography of William Walker and a discussion of his views on slavery can be found in Chapter 5 of Richard Harding Davis’ book, Real Soldiers of Fortune. Davis was a journalist who covered the Spanish-American War and WWI, and was a popular writer of fiction and drama. A link to this chapter in his book can be found here: