Let’s Invade Mexico! Outbreaks of Filibuster Fever

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William Walker
  • William Walker

In the last half of the 19th Century, aliens eagerly crossed the U.S./Mexico border — into Mexico. Burning with what historian William B. Scroggs calls “filibuster fever,” they felt entitled “to swallow up every few years a province as large as most kingdoms of Europe with aggressive individualism.”

“Filibuster” comes from the Dutch, vrijubtier — a freebooter — and referred to pirates of the 15th and 16th centuries. After the Mexican war of 1846–’48, the Mexican government had to coin the term filibusteros for the armed invaders convinced that conquering vast territories was their manifest destiny.

The Knights of the Golden Circle

One of the most ambitious and least known filibusters, George W. Bickley, organized this secret society July 4, 1854, in Lexington, Kentucky. Within six years, branches of the Knights of the Golden Circle, called “castles,” grew throughout the South, Texas, and California.

Their name was their cause. They envisioned a vast empire with Havana, Cuba, in the center. Like a “great golden circle,” it would extend south from Maryland, through Texas, Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, down to the Amazon. Historian C.A. Bridges: “They wanted to build “a gigantic slave empire that would rival the power and prestige of ancient Rome.” This would give them a “near monopoly on the world’s supply of tobacco, cotton, sugar, rice, and coffee.” If annexed by the United States, it would “preserve slavery in the South from constant attacks by Northern Abolitionists.”

A member had to be American-born, Protestant, and “able to prove he is imbued with Southern sentiments.” As part of his initiation, he pledged to “participate in the wild, glorious, and thrilling adventures of a campaign in Mexico,” where they would exclude every Roman Catholic and priest from office and give the nation a “new and vigorous voice.”

Capturing and annexing Mexico, Bickley said in a speech, would add 25 new Southern states and 50 Southern senators to the Union. And if the North and South should separate, the South would “dominate the great dream-empire.”

In 1860, the Knights made two moves toward the Mexican border. In March, locals at Brownsville, Texas, noticed tall dust clouds from three caravans. “No doubt, a large army,” wrote the Galveston Telegraph, “well organized and equipped and moving in scores to their rendezvous.” Each night more campfires flickered on the outskirts of town.

“There are three or four hundred men encamped near here,” an unnamed Army officer wrote in April 18. “Supposed to be K.G.C.’s or filibusters. I don’t know what their designs are. I presume we will receive orders to prevent them from going into Mexico.”

Bickley never arrived and the force broke up. Reasons vary: volunteers grew impatient (many had been on the road without pay more than three months); lack of funds; rivalry over leadership. One that stuck: Sam Houston, governor of Texas, ordered them to disband. Though said to be a Knight himself, Houston rejected their anti-Union stance. He had his own ideas about a “protectorate” for Northern Mexico.

Word went out that Bickley changed the plan. They would invade Mexico in the fall with 16,000 armed men, each “immigrant” promised 640 acres of prime land. Not only that, Bickley signed a treaty with Manuel Doblado. The governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato would join the Knights at the border with 16,000 more troops. They would “Southernize” Mexico, rule by a “limited monarchy,” and “reduce the peon system to perpetual slavery.”

Bickley named September 15 for a rendezvous with Doblado at the Rio Grande River near Brownsville. On October 1, a small group would march on nearby Matamoros, the main one inland to Monterrey, where they would establish headquarters. Bickley chose October 1 because he ordered a large shipment of arms delivered to Matamoros on that date.

On October 10, Bickley arrived at Galveston, Texas, almost 400 miles from Brownsville. Word had it pockets of Knights were scattered from Goliad to the border. Bickley sent messages assuring everyone that the main body, over 1000 men, had been “unavoidably delayed” at New Orleans, as had the shipment of arms from Boston. No one had seen Governor Doblado or knew if he was coming. No one crossed the river.

Bickley called off the campaign. Those waiting at Brownsville who never got the word stayed for a while, then trailed home in disgust. The “Golden Circle” either disbanded or went underground. Some say Jesse James and John Wilkes Booth were members.

“What the knights might have done if the Civil War had not come can never be known,” writes Bridges. “As it was, the election of Lincoln, secession, and the Civil War were more than the knights could survive… the order had attracted not more than a few thousand champions. It was poorly financed, and even more poorly led.”

They did have the distinction, wrote the New York Times, of devising “a plot which, for audacity and wickedness has rarely been surpassed in the long history of conspiracy.”

Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon

Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon

Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon: The Sultan of Sonora

Mexico’s northern territories, depleted by the war of 1846–’48, made them vulnerable to raiding parties of rustlers and Apaches. To create a buffer zone to keep invaders out and secure abandoned mines, the Mexican government encouraged colonization of Sonora, Sinaloa, and Lower (Baja) California by non-Americans. Count Gaston Raoul de Raousset-Boulbon (1817–1854) saw colonization as an excuse to invade Northern Mexico. He was not the first filibuster to cross the border with a private army, or even the first Frenchman.

In 1850, it was said that every tenth man in California came from France, often the result of the Revolution of 1848. Most had military training and refused to become American citizens. When they heard tales of Sonoran mines richer than California’s, they banded in large groups and headed south. Marquis Charles de Pindray — who left France “under a cloud for dueling and other less scrupulous doings” — led the first in 1851. The second group, led by Lepine de Signoids, found little gold and disbanded. Raousset headed the third in 1852. They called him “Le Petit Loup,” the “little wolf.”

His name reflects his smallish stature, also a wild nature. At 18, with his mother’s inheritance he rented a houseboat on the Seine River. He hired a master chef and musicians, ordered fine wines and sybaritic delights. The party ran day and night until his “cup of honey” ran out.

Raousset had light brown hair and a goatee, liquid blue eyes, and an inability to be calm. He would calm down, he boasted, “when I am dead.” He had a streak of idealism and could inspire others. Even when impoverished, he never let anyone forget he came from nobility.

With his father’s inheritance, he wanted to colonize parts of Algeria. A severe argument about his beard, however, “killed my hopes” of making a new fortune. His father disowned him. So Raousset took what funds remained and sailed to California, where he vowed to seize Northern Mexico, make it an independent state, and rule it as “the Sultan of Sonora.”

On May 19, 1852, Raousset left San Francisco Bay with about 270 men: French mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, and, a newspaper wrote, “the dregs of creation.” He called them the “Rastauradora Company of the Arizona mines,” after his French backers in Mexico City. He was convinced beyond any doubt that the Sonorans would worship him as their savior.

When the schooner entered the sheltered bay at Guaymas, a port on the Gulf of California, the whole town greeted it. Raousset came ashore in full military regalia. “I have permission to colonize Northern Sonora,” he told a translator. The crowd broke into cheers, flying hats, and volleys of gunfire.

Miguel Blanco, captain general of Sonora, whose “word was law,” became suspicious. Raousset’s force didn’t look like homesteaders. Blanco issued an ultimatum: they could explore the mines but not take possession; they must renounce their nationality; and Raousset must reduce his company to 50 men, who would work as laborers for La Rastauradora (“the renewer”). Blanco then resorted to stalling tactics to keep the Frenchmen camped just outside Guaymas.

After a month of 100-degree heat, brackish water, and “enforced idleness,” the expedition left Guaymas. Their goal: capture Hermosillo, capital of Sonora, about 90 miles from the gulf, as the condor flies. They marched with eagerness, though that first night the native mule-drivers deserted, taking valuable supplies with them.

In a pass through the barren mountains they came upon an odd sight: maybe 30 starving, half-clothed Frenchmen: all that remained of Pindray’s filibusters. He began with 150 men. Skirmishes with Apaches and Mexican troops, along with illness and internal dissent, wiped them out. Pindray, they said, died from a bullet to the head, either by suicide or assassination. No one knew which, though both were plausible.

Months passed, due in large measure to an affair Raousset had with Maria-Antonia, blonde daughter of the prefect at Magdalena. She called him the “chief of pirates”; he called her “the rose in a bouquet of black tulips.” Asked why he took so long to reach Hermosillo, the Count said it was necessary to make friends with the Sonorans.

They had a volatile break-up. Soon after, Raousset ordered a forced march to Hermosillo, promising that his men would walk on “piles of piasters and sacks of gold” in the streets. The company covered 52 Spanish leagues in seven days. Many wore sandals woven from reeds, since they had no shoes.

At 8:00 a.m., October 14, 1852, Raousset positioned his army outside the city walls. “I shall enter Hermosillo in two hours,” he proclaimed. “And at 11:00 sharp, I shall be the master of it, if the city was defended.”

Three hours later, at the cost of 18 men and his 3 favorite lieutenants, Raousset captured the capital of Sonora. To his surprise, the people didn’t praise his name or kiss his ring. Instead, they ran in a thousand directions with every valuable possession they could carry. The conquerers were too weak to chase them down, almost too weak to raise the new, red, white, and blue striped “Independance de Sonore” flag.

Raousset among them. During his 12 days at Hermosillo, he developed a severe case of dysentery. Too dignified for such a lowly malady, he swore he drank bad coffee.

Governor Blanco brought 500 men to Hermosillo. Declaring illness, which a majority of his cohorts now shared, Raousset asked for safe passage back to Guaymas, which Blanco granted. After a long recovery, Raousset returned to San Francisco in January. Many newspapers declared him a hero.

William Scroggs: “Like all others [Raousset] was infected with the filibustering fever: the disease is incurable; hardships and suffering seem only to aggravate the symptoms.”

Though “cordially detested” south of the border, Raousset planned another heroic crusade — even if it killed him.

“For a year,” he wrote to a friend, “one thought has possessed me: conquer the Indians and secure the mines of Sonora…. At this hour, the future is in the balance. If I succeed, I can hope for a great fortune; if I fail, I shall at least finish up with a catastrophe worthy of me.”

On April 1, 1854, 400 Frenchmen sailed to Guaymas on the challenge. Most believed they would create a colony in Sonora, not capture it.

Raousset sailed later on the Belle. The creaky, 12-ton schooner capsized twice. Her long sails kept her afloat and saved the cargo — and 180 rifles. The night after the second mishap, they beached the ship for repairs. But the tide came in, sucked her from the sand, and tugged her out to sea. Landing crafts made a harried chase and saved her once again.

Fearing he’d be recognized, around midnight Raousset snuck into Guaymas disguised as a laborer.

José María Yáñez, military governor of Sonora, knew that some of the Frenchmen were legitimate colonizers. When fights broke out in the streets, however, he ordered his troops to assemble in a half-moon before Raousset’s camp near the shore.

On July 13, Yáñez asked for “surrender without bloodshed.” Somehow convinced he could frighten the enemy, lined three deep and fully armed, Raousset ordered his men to fix bayonets, unleash a volley, and charge the fleeing troops.

They did, with some effect. Then Yáñez’s men returned fire. About 50 muskets popped and cracked, pelting the filibusters. Then 50 more pocks and little puffs of smoke. The full bore fusillade sent half of Raousset’s men scrambling to the American vice consul’s home for sanctuary.

At least a dozen others tumbled into skiffs and rowed out to the Belle, chased by mini-geysers of musket balls. They sailed off, never heard from again.

His men deserting in greater and greater numbers, Raousset saw his chance for glory: he thrust his saber to the sky, shouted “Vive la France!” and charged. “He seemed to be seeking death,” wrote an observer. Less than 15 followed, soon to be slaughtered. Although “bullets cut his hat and clothing,” Raousset made it into the town. He tried to rally what troops remained for a last-ditch shootout. But “all made excuses” about no ammunition and surrendered “like sheep.”

Enraged, Raousset broke his saber over a knee. Shortly after, vice consul Joseph Calvo pushed a white flag on a stick out the door and begged for mercy. Yáñez said he would grant it if they gave up all their arms. Rifles, pistols, daggers, and an occasional spear flew into the street. Then the men came out, made safe by the flag of truce.

During the three-hour battle of Guaymas — remembered to this day as the “Trece de Julio” — Yáñez’s men killed 60 and wounded 78 filibusters. The Mexican government deported all but Raousset. They even had a choice of destinations: San Blas, Martinique, or San Francisco.

At his war tribunal, every witness but one testified against Raousset. He was found guilty of violating Mexican law and sentenced to death by firing squad. Offered the chance to commit suicide, he declined. That was “the coward’s way out.”

He even had two demands for his execution. He wanted to stand tall (the condemned had to kneel), and he refused to wear a blindfold. He wanted to see his executioners.

On August 12, 1854, as he stood before 12 riflemen, Raousset squared his shoulders, raised his chin, and said: “Shoot, my friends, but hit my heart.”

The Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny

By the time he was 21, William A. Walker (1824-1860) had degrees in law and medicine and had a legal practice at Marysville, California. But Stephen J. Field, a lawyer-colleague at the mining camp, said he was “a brilliant speaker and possessed a sharp but not very profound intellect. He often perplexed both court and jury with his subtleties but seldom convinced either.”

Somehow this “insignificant-looking specimen” — five-foot-two, 120 pounds, gray eyes and yellow freckles shadowed by a wide-brimmed black felt hat — convinced his followers he could conquer Lower California and the state of Sonora. Not only that, he told law partner Henry P. Watkins, “thousands would rush to our aid…and I, being an officer and a man of intelligence, would have an ample share in the distribution of spoils.”

“Nothing could be easier,” he assured Watkins, his first lieutenant. The people will worship their “gray-eyed man of destiny.”

Late on the night of October 16, 1853, the schooner Caroline slipped out of San Francisco Bay with the First Independent Battalion for Lower California: 45 heavily armed soldiers of fortune (“human derelicts,” one newspaper said). Fed up with failures in the gold fields, they were eager for plunder. Walker’s ultimate aim: conquer Sonora and create an independent state. But Lower (Baja) California came first. On November 3, the Caroline negotiated the roiling currents around Cabo San Lucas and entered the harbor of La Paz, flying the Mexican flag.

Pretending he was a merchant on business, Walker disembarked with several men. They strolled into governor Rafael Espinosa’s quarters, drew firearms from their long coats, and took him prisoner. In less than 30 minutes, the filibusters seized all public offices and fortified the town.

Walker ordered the Mexican flag lowered. In its place rose “our flag”: two thick, horizontal red stripes, a white one in between, and two stars, one for Lower California, the other for Sonora.

With this act, Walker established the Republic of Lower California. He declared the entire Baja peninsula “Free, Sovereign, and Independent, and all Allegiance to the Republic of Mexico is forever renounced.” He named himself president and vowed to run his new domain according to the Code of Louisiana. As with most filibuster schemes, the code legalized slavery.

Then he encouraged his men to loot La Paz, but “only the houses of better appearance.”

For three days they ransacked at will. When the people began to revolt, it became clear that Walker’s small band couldn’t hold the town, let alone invade Sonora. So they boarded the Caroline on November 6 and took Governor Espinosa along.

Before they could sail away, the Neptune arrived from Guaymas with Espinosa’s replacement, Juan C. Rebolledo. Walker sent a small detachment to the ship. Instead of a cordial welcome, they held the new governor at gunpoint and kidnapped him.

Walker sent a shore party to find wood. As they returned to the ship, Lieutenant Manuel Pineda and a small group of “enrolled citizens,” armed with pistols, rifles, sticks, and stones, fired on the rowboats.

Walker unleashed the ship’s ordnance on the town. As cannon balls bashed adobe walls and bored small craters on the dusty streets, Walker rowed ashore with 30 men. For an hour and a half, they fought the Battle of La Paz.

Pineda had to retreat when ammunition ran low. He lost seven men. Although others swore some Americans died, Walker said no: “Our men did not so much as receive a wound, except from cacti.”

The filibusters left La Paz with both governors and all the public records.

The Caroline reached Cabo San Lucas November 8. Since the village was too small, and since the Mexican military cutter Garra had been spotted on the horizon, Walker decided to make Ensenada his new capital.

A story syndicated in American newspapers hailed “The Battle of La Paz” as “another advance toward that manifest destiny of the Anglo Saxon race.” “The term filibuster no longer means a pirate,” one asserted. “It means the compassing of the weak by the strong. Anyone rumored to be planning a filibustering expedition in Mexico is a hero.”

Many of Walker’s company, however, said the trek north was a retreat. A man calling himself “The Corporal,” who sent dispatches to the San Diego Herald, went further. “The expedition had but one object: to enrich certain capitalists, and satisfy the ambition of William Walker, Colonel and President.”

After several skirmishes, Walker controlled Ensenada. He claimed its only building, owned by Francisco Gastellum, as the president’s mansion. Walker named the one-story adobe Fort McKibben, after a young lieutenant who died in battle.

Once again, Walker sent proclamations to American newspapers: “When the people of a territory fail almost entirely to develop the resources nature has placed at their command, the interests of civilization require others to go in and possess the land. They cannot, nor should they be allowed to play the dog in the manger.”

Walker felt more secure at Ensenada. Reinforcements could come sooner, and were trouble to brew, he was only 80 miles from the border.

On December 4, Colonel Francisco Negrette joined his 58 soldiers with volunteers led by Guadalupe Melendres: a local “bandit,” Walker wrote, who “refused to be liberated” by the American regime.

For eight days, Negrette and Melendres laid siege to Ensenada.

On December 14, during a foray, the two governors on board the Caroline took the first mate aside. The Americans are doomed, they told him. Flee now. Take us to La Paz and return the ship to its rightful owner at Guaymas.

Amid the curses of battle, the sporadic cackle of gunfire, and sponge-thick humidity, Walker watched his only vessel raise anchor, unfurl its sails, and steal out of Todos Santos Bay with his valuable prisoners and most of the supplies.

The filibusters fought off the besiegers at the cost of many lives. But loss of the Caroline squelched their elation. The siege of Ensenada lasted eight days.

On December 28, the Anita entered Todos Santos with 150 half-starved, seasick recruits. When the steamer Thomas Hunt towed the Anita out of San Francisco Bay, a line ripped the port bulwarks apart. Writes the Corporal: “Almost all on board were more or less drunk, and for management of the craft there were but two available hands, the Captain and his mate.”

An unstable front became a storm. Manic winds shredded the topsail and the jib. “The sober among us began to think we were booked for ‘the other side of Jordan.’”

Except for ship-bread (gem-hard biscuits), raw pork, and mackerel, food was in short supply. During the storm, 20 barrels of foodstuffs, and three men, went over the side. After that, “nothing occurred worthy of note,” writes the Corporal, “except at meal times, which came with great regularity, that is the times, not the meals.”

Walker and Lieutenant Watkins assumed that when they captured Lower California, the people would welcome them with food, shelter, and horses. Now they had 300 troops, but few supplies, little ammo, and no favor with the locals.

Writing for the San Diego Herald, “S.R.” was positive: “Except for a few trifling and worthless types, our men are in good health.” Many attended a “regimental riding school,” he added — they broke in wild broncos.

Contrary to S.R.’s optimism, disgruntlement spread through camp. While the officers dined on fresh bread, fruits, and vegetables, the Corporal wrote that troops ate: “fried beef for breakfast, stewed beef for dinner, boiled beef for supper.” Some dishes had no name, “and some deserved none.”

When the corn ran out, desertions began. Inactivity bred more unease. Walker was a “strict disciplinarian, and punctilious in matters of military etiquette to an exasperating degree.” (Alta California). He drilled his troops, some complained, around the clock.

A month after the Anita fish-tailed into the bay, the Corporal went to Fort McKibben with a request. He removed his hat and asked Walker to discharge a small group eager to leave.

Walker said no.

How about just me? the Corporal asked. When Walker said he was “too valuable a man,” the Corporal vowed to take his discharge even if Walker didn’t grant it.

“The penalty for desertion is death!” Walker steamed and ordered the Corporal confined to quarters.

The outburst inspired a near mutiny. Sensing trouble, at 1:00 p.m. Walker addressed the men. Those who want to leave may “any time within the next two hours.” Those who stay “must swear eternal fidelity” to their president. In turn, he would guide them to Sonora, where the “bi-starred banner” would “float in triumph on the walls of Guaymas.”

In the speech, later printed in the San Diego Herald, Walker reminded his men of their quest: “You Soldiers! are called upon to…make the country the abode of order and civilization…. In your chivalrous efforts, let the holiness of your cause move your arms and strengthen your souls. The God of Battles is with you. You will be strong and prevail against a host of enemies.”

The Corporal thought the speech looked “rather too far into futurity” and prepared to leave, along with 42 others.

Walker demanded their rifles. Before he handed over the weapon, the Corporal removed the sight and the unscrewed the lock. “I do not expect they are much richer for the robbery.”

The others surrendered their rifles also “in poor condition” and made a four-day hike to San Diego. The Corporal sold his revolver and bought steerage to San Francisco.

S.R. (who may have been Walker) said good riddance in the San Diego Herald. At San Diego, they “will be in fine humor to complain of the treatment they met with here. But rest assured these fellows are of no use either in the field or at home.”

The desertions left Walker with roughly 160 men, many sick or wounded. Negrette and Melendres’s combined force closed in. The Mexican war vessel Garra blocked the entrance to the harbor. On February 11, responding to a request by the Mexican government, the U.S.S. Portsmouth anchored in the bay. To avoid the threat of an international incident, Captain Thomas A. Dornin assumed a neutral stance and “advised” Walker to leave the territory.

Instead, Walker spiked and buried his field artillery. He left the wounded behind and marched south 20 miles to San Vicente. He declared the ruins of a mission on a small hillock his new capital.

Along the way, soldiers lagged behind, then ran off. Provisions were running out. The troops sensed another step backward, and Walker, possibly sensing one as well, sharpened discipline.

On February 17, he ordered the villagers to write a confession of faith and become “naturalized citizens.” Along with confidence that the new republic “will guarantee our property and interests for all time to come,” they pledged to hand all provisions over to Walker “and be subject to your orders.”

The Alta California told a different story: to intimidate the others, Walker had an Indian shot. “The poor natives were compelled, at the point of the bayonet, to sign or acknowledge the oath…. The signing of this highfalutin document was not the voluntary act of a single individual.”

A week later, the Herald said the filibusters “had to shoot T.F. Nelson and Arthur Morrison, both from Illinois.” They wanted to “go on a stealing and robbing and murdering expedition.” Two others, Theodore Ryan and Edward C. Barnes, received 50 and 25 lashes, respectively, “after which they were both drummed out of camp.”

Reduced to 120 demoralized men at a ruined mission, on March 20, Walker decided he had only one option: conquer Sonora.

He left 20 men behind as a garrison to guard the barracks. With 100 men, wagons, pack animals, and 100 stolen cattle, the expedition set out for the Colorado River. The 200-mile journey, across desert, over rugged mountains, on uncertain trails, took two weeks. Along the way, Melendres’s men picked off cattle and stragglers. Thirty Cocopa Indians offered to guide the filibusters safely to the Colorado. Six miles above the river mouth, the Indians rustled 30 head and herded them back to Baja.

The company stopped at a small promontory. The river was 400 yards across and deep, but not rapid. The men, who had no new clothes since sailing from San Francisco, were in rags, many shoeless (Walker had only one “dilapidated” boot), and ill.

They built rafts. In the first, Captain Douglas, holding a pint of corn, and an Englishman named Smith made it to the other side. When Douglas wasn’t looking, Smith stole the jar and buried it. According to the Los Angeles Star, “when Douglas ascertained Smith to be the thief, he drew his pistol and shot him dead.”

After about half the company reached the far shore and were technically in Sonora, Walker decided the cattle should swim across. Both sides watched the scrawny herd struggle, even in mild rapids. They either drowned, mired in mudflats, or floated south, bellowing around the bend.

Two-thirds of Walker’s men abandoned him en masse and made the windy trek upriver to Fort Yuma.

Walker had no choice: countermand the mission and return to San Vicente with a small sack of corn, eight or ten scrawny beef cattle, and (writes “Gila” in the San Diego Herald

) with “a force of twenty-five men, the flower of his brilliant army.”

Flag of the Republic of Lower California

Flag of the Republic of Lower California

San Vicente held another shock: the 20 men left behind were either dead or missing. Melendres’s volunteers gathered at the outskirts of the village and howled insults. Two dragged the flag of the republic through dry scrub and sage. Melendres sent a message: lay down your arms and you’re free to leave.

Walker tore it up and ordered a march to the U.S. border. Along the way, Melendres’s men hounded the expedition. There were few pitched battles. Instead the guerillas funneled the bedraggled procession toward San Diego, giving them no other outlet.

As they neared the tiny village of Tia Juana, Melendres sent word ahead to Major J. McKinstry and Captain H.S. Burton on the U.S. side. Melendres would capture Walker’s filibusters before they crossed the border. Do not intervene.

McKistry promised not to, though he did have a U.S. Army detachment — at least a dozen well-fed soldiers with shiny buttons and sabres, on fresh mounts — in readiness.

Though often vague on these matters, U.S. foreign policy claimed to be against intervention.

By the time Walker’s company approached the slender, white border monument, word had gone around: Walker’s coming! Dozens of Americans with picnic baskets clustered on a nearby hillside, anticipating a grand spectacle.

Melendres and his horsemen galloped around the filibusters and formed a line across the road.

“Just before we got to the monument,” writes Gila, “we knew our time had come. And that we never could get a step further. But we thought it advisable to try one time more, and our men walked to where these fellows were posted and — they left!”

Another account has Walker yelling “charge!” And his “tattered desperadoes” rushed forward. Their “ferocity startled Melendres’ soldiers” into breaking the line.

More likely, with a fully armed detachment of American soldiers not far away, Melendres may have found it prudent to let the filibusters cross the border.

Walker and 33 men surrendered to McKinstry. They signed a parole statement and promised to sail to San Francisco to stand trial. It was May, 8, 1854: Walker’s 30th birthday.

Walker got off and led two more expeditions, both to Nicaragua, where he declared himself president. During the second, he was captured in Trujillo, Honduras, and sentenced to death by firing squad on September 12, 1860.

Next week: The Fandango Filibuster of 1890


  1. Herbert Howe Bancroft: “Stories of the precious mountains of Sonora, the gold nuggets of the Gila, and the silver bullets of the Apaches, so current on the Mexican border, found ready acceptance among this class of fortune-hunters, who dreamed only of sudden and easy acquisitions.”
  2. Helen Broaghall Metcalf: “Mexican writers described the United States’ actions as ‘barbaric and Gothic aggressions.’ That usually characterized the country’s foreign policy toward Mexico.”
  3. William O. Scroggs: “These men were not made for our era. In the Middle Ages they would undoubtedly have passed for peerless knights, but the verdict of these more prosaic times denounces them as prodigal sons who wasted their substance in riotous living and had then gone forth into a far country.”
  4. William Walker: “As for the success of our enterprise, we put out trust in Him who controls the destiny of nations, and guides them in the ways of progress and improvement.”
  5. Pablo L. Martinez: “There are North American writers who depict this pirate with a halo of glory. It is certain that his retreat from La Paz was due to fear.”
  6. William O. Scroggs: “Of the two evils, the Sonorans would very probably have preferred Indians to filibusters.”


  • Bancroft, Herbert Howe, History of the Northern Mexico States and Texas, vol. 2 (San Francisco, 1889).
  • Bridges, C.A., “The Knights of the Golden Circle: A Filibustering Fantasy,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3 (Jan., 1941).
  • Brown, Charles H., Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters (Chapel Hill, 1980).
  • Crenshaw, Ollinger, “The Knights of the Golden Circle: The Career of George Bickley,” American Historical Review, 47 (October, 1941).
  • Kearney, Ruth Elizabeth, “American Colonization Ventures in Lower California, 1861-1917.” Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1944.
  • Keehn, David C., Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War (Baton Rouge, 2013).
  • Martinez, Oscar J, Troublesome Border (Tucson, 1988).
  • Martinez, Pablo L., A History of Lower California (Mexico, 1960).
  • Metcalf, Helen Broughall, “The California French Filibusters in Sonora,” California Historical Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1 (March, 1939).
  • North, Arthur Walbridge, The Mother of California: Being an Historical Sketch of the Little Known Land of Baja California (San Francisco, 1928).
  • Pomfrey, J.W., A True Disclosure and Exposition of the Knights of the Golden Circle (New York, 1861).
  • Scroggs, William O., Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates (New York, 1916).
  • Stout, Joseph A., Schemers and Dreamers: Filibustering in Mexico, 1848-1921 (Fort Worth, 2002).

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