Sunday, July 8, 2012

Death by Firing Squad

The majority of Scottish people think with a clear, logical mind, but William Walker was a little different. Intelligent, educated, charismatic, he lost it all to a firing squad in Nicaragua.

William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1824. His father, James, was the son of a Scottish immigrant. Mary, his mother, was a daughter of Lipscomb Norvell who was an officer in the Revolutionary War from Virginia. He was taken prisoner at Charleston. It is believed that Lipscomb Norvell was the first Revolutionary War officer buried in the Nashville City Cemetery. There is a branch of the Norvell family that is Scottish, but I don’t know about this Lipscomb Norvell.

William graduated from the University of Nashville, summa cum laude at the age of fourteen. He spent the next two years in Europe and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and other universities in Germany and Paris. Revolutions were occurring all across Europe in 1848 as people demanded more freedom and the right to rule themselves. Walker must have been influenced by the political thoughts of this time. Later, he received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced briefly.

Medicine did not appear to interest him so he moved to New Orleans to study law and apparently did practice for a short time. But once again, he changed professions and became part owner of a newspaper, The New Orleans Crescent. By 1849, he was on the move again, this time to San Francisco where he was a journalist. He fought three duels in San Francisco and, while the reason is unknown, he was wounded in at least two duels. He was a restless soul looking for something that would satisfy.

Here is the strange part of his life. He decided to conquer the Mexican territories of Baja, California and Sonora. With an army of 45, he captured LaPaz, and declared himself to be the President of the new Republic of Lower California. He put his captured territory under the laws of Louisiana and moved his capital to Ensenada. A lack of supplies and resistance by the Mexican government forced him to retreat back to U.S. territory where he was put on trial for conducting an illegal war. It took eight minutes for the jury to find him innocent.

The Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story on January 10, 1854, about “president” Walker and a manifesto he had just released. “The document is a rich one, and causes a smile at its absurdity, though we feel indignant at its presumption.” What Walker was doing was called “filibustering,” which is an attempt by a privately funded military expedition “to take over countries at peace with the United States.” It obviously is a violation of the law. We now understand the word as a parliamentary procedure used in Congress which occasionally is also at war.

William Walker was still being moved by some ideology because his next attempt was to take over Nicaragua. This was before the Panama Canal was built and before a railroad was constructed across the land separating the Atlantic from the Pacific. Interestingly, Nicaragua had given the rights of transport across this strip of land to a company controlled by Cornelius Vanderbilt. The story gets rather complicated now because William Walker shows up with 300 “colonists.” His downfall came because he sought to take control of Vanderbilt’s company and he should never have tried that. After the third attempt to take Nicaragua, he was captured and put before a firing squad. He survived the first round from the firing squad and was finally killed with a single bullet to the head. You have to wonder what he could have accomplished in the field of medicine with a different mind set.

This intelligent, educated, charismatic Scottish American is buried in the Cementerio Viejo, in Trujillo.

(Walker’s exploits have been used in two movies: “Burn!” starring Marlon Brando (1969) and Alex Cox’s “Walker” in 1978. He is also mentioned in “Gone with the Wind”, Part V, Chapter 48.)

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
Scottish American History Club

August 4, 2012 - Scottish Home picnic. We will have the museum open from 10-2

Next week our blog will be about the Eastland disaster and a Scottish connection



  1. This is fascinating stuff! I love reading your blogs - keep it up.

  2. William Walker was my first cousin 3x removed, son of my Great Great Aunt Mary Norvell Walker. The Norvells were a Scots family, for more information see my blog

  3. William Walker was my first cousin 3x removed, the son of my great great Aunt Mary Norvell Walker. The Norvells were also a Scots family coming over before 1650. For my information see my blog