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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

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

Giving a Photograph a Name: Identifying Mary Swift Lamson in the MHS Photo Archive

The photograph collections in the MHS library never fail to excite me. Dabbling in photography as a hobby has allowed me to better appreciate the laborious processes of early photography, and how beautiful the resulting images turn out.

Recently, two unidentified photographs caught my interest while searching for images on behalf of a remote researcher. The initial search for images of Mary Swift Lamson in our online catalog ABIGAIL only turned up one result; a companion portrait of Mary accompanying portraits of her husband Edwin and her young son Gardner drawn by Matthew Wilson in the 1850s. However, I knew our library holds the Lamson family papers, and with them the Lamson family photographs. This collection is comprised of three carte de visite albums, one box of loose portraits, and ambrotypes and daguerreotypes stored separately.

Many of the ambrotypes and daguerreotypes from the Lamson family are unidentified, primarily of children, taken in the mid-19th century. I looked through several of these unidentified photographs in my search for Mary. Two of these photographs were reminiscent of the 3 companion portraits; photographs of a young couple and a mother with her child. With the help of our Senior Cataloger Mary Yacovone, these two photographs have now been identified and cataloged with additional information in our online catalog ABIGAIL.

         

Mary Swift Lamson, son Gardner Swift Lamson, and husband Edwin Lamson. Each by Matthew Wilson ca. 1855-1858. Currently on loan to the Parkman House, Boston. Images taken from the catalog Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Oliver, Hanson, and Huff, eds. (Boston: MHS, 1988.)

 

The portrait of the young couple was the most striking to me. The young woman’s direct gaze and the hint of a smile playing at her lips stands out from the many portraits with eyes averted. Mary’s pursed lips and Edwin’s pronounced brow crease stood out to me immediately as part of their defining features in their painted portraits. With this photograph identified, it was easy to notice the young mother in the other photograph was Mary. While infants are more difficult to pin down, the child has a similar appearance to Gardner in his painted portrait (although perhaps Matthew Wilson took liberties with painting him in a more flattering light, his hair is perfectly groomed).

   

The photographs, previously labeled as “Unidentified man and woman” and “Unidentified woman with child” can now be found in our library catalog as Mr. and Mrs. Edwin and Mary Swift Lamson, ca 1846 and Mary Swift Lamson with child, ca. 1855-1856. The child is tenuously identified as Gardner in the catalog description. Now that the photographs are better described and thus more easily accessible, I hope this will aid researchers in their research into this winsome family.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 24 February, 2015, 1:00 AM

From Russia with Love: LCA’s Journey from Russia to France

This month marks the 200th Anniversary of Louisa Catherine Adams’s six-week and nearly 2,000-mile trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris, France. Travelling by carriage across a war-torn Europe and in the midst of Napoleon’s Hundred Days after his escape from his exile on Elba, trying to reach her husband, John Quincy, who, negotiating an end to the War of 1812 in Ghent, she had not seen for a year, Louisa’s story is an amazing one.

Louisa’s journey began on Sunday, February 12, 1815—her fortieth birthday—setting out with her seven-year-old son, Charles Francis, and a few servants she didn’t know if she could entirely trust. Despite what she knew would be an arduous and dangerous journey, Louisa started out in hope and expectation as she wrote to her husband:

I am this instant setting off and have only time to say that nothing can equal my impatience to see you some of my business is necessarily left undone but I hope that you will forgive all that is not exactly correspondant to your wishes and recieve me with as much affection as fills my heart at this moment for you. I could not celebrate my birthday in a manner more delightful than in making the first step towards that meeting for which my Soul pants and for which I have hitherto hardly dared to express my desire but in the full conviction that the sentiment is mutual.

During her trip, Louisa faced poor lodgings, broken down and lost carriages, and news of murders on the roads she was travelling. Still she recalled the scenes she passed in her retrospective Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France: “The Season of the year at which I travelled; when Earth was chained in her dazzling, brittle but solid fetters of Ice, did not admit of flourishing description, of verdant fields, or paths through flowery glebes; but the ways were rendered deeply interesting by the fearful remnants of mens fierry and vindictive passions; passively witnessing to tales of blood, and woes.” Finally, as she approached Paris, a unit of soldiers loyal to Napoleon, seeing that her carriage was of Russian origin, threatened to seize and kill them. Louisa, fluent in French, was able to show them her passport and explain that she was an American and diplomatically shouted, “Vive Napoleon!” to appease the troops and guarantee her safe passage. At last, late in the evening of March 23, a “delighted” John Quincy reunited with his wife and child.

You can read more of Louisa’s recollections in A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams.

Images: LCA to JQA, 12 Feb. 1815; LCA’s French Passport issued 10 March 1815; and the first page of LCA’s Narrative of a Journey

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 February, 2015, 9:58 AM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Cairo to Aysut

As Boston digs out from yet another heavy snowfall this week, it warms my imagination to return to our anonymous journey up the Nile by steamship -- a pleasure cruise documented in the diaries of an anonymous American traveler during the winter of 1914-1915. Our diarist’s narrative begins shortly before Thanksgiving, as she and her travel companions board the steamer Egypt, likely in Cairo.

Nov. 25. Steamer Egypt, sailed at 10 a.m. & we went on board earlier with Mrs Phelps &  daughter also from our hotel. Had lunch early at 11.30 & right after started out on donkeys - first to site of ancient Memphis saw two statues of Ramses II lying down & a new sphinx discovered in the summer by Prof. Petrie. Then rode to steps pyramid of Sakkara on by Mariette’s house to tomb of Thi then the Serapheum with 24 sarcophagis. Got back to ship at 5:30 & had tea on deck.

Nov. 26. Saw beautiful sunrise from my window. Made no stops today, but several times stuck in the sand. Nothing of especial interest but very beautiful sunset with color on the water.

Nov. 27. Thanksgiving. Went on shore - soon after breakfast at Benihasan. Rode donkeys to  rock temple of Speos Artemidos, temple of Goddess Pekhet, then on further & climbed hill to tombs of Benihasan hewn in the rock. [...illegible phrase…] back just for lunch. On boat in p.m.

Nov. 28. Boat got stuck in forenoon & it took over two hours to get it started so made us later at Assuit. Had [...illegible phrase…] trek to get there & arrived about 4 p.m. Took donkeys & rode out through the town to a large rock  tomb of a Prince Hapzefai. Then on a hill & a fine view from there over Assuit then rode back through the bazars to ship in time for tea. Very dusty ride. Met “Arabia” at Assuit.

Nov. 29. Beautiful sunrise. Spent morning sewing in my room. Sailing all day.

Nov. 30. Boat got stuck on sand before ten & would not move for fully five hours. Dr. Hodson conducted services [...illegible phrase…] at 10:30. Did not land.

This initial week of entries sets the tone for our diarist’s record: We are appraised of distances covered and modes of transportation, the time and place of meals, details of the weather, and provided with a list of archeological sites visited. One of the most basic observations to make about our traveler’s account is that her encounter with Egypt is a highly curated on. In its record of ancient sites, her amateur travel narrative hews closely to a number of commercial guidebooks. The table of contents to Cook’s guidebook The Nile (1901) provides entries for most of the sites, and its description of the country isalmost entirely mediated by archeology and ancient history.

I find myself wondering, though, how our diarist’s narrative compares to published travel narratives, of which there were many, covering the same ground. In six weeks’ time we will take a comparative look at several such narratives, alongside the next seven daily entries from our own narrator.

Note: My rough-and-ready transcriptions of the diary entries are not authoritative; if you seek to use this source in your own work, I recommend contacting the MHS for reproductions of the original. Some English-language spellings of Arabic place-names have changed since 1914. I have retained the diarist’s spellings throughout.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 4 February, 2015, 12:00 AM

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