Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Roland E. Duncan

Committee Members

Ralph W. Haskins, LeRoy P. Graf, Harold S. Fink, N. Preston


In the decade following the Mexican War, Nicaragua became one of the focal points for American expansion. Manifest Destiny, commercial interests, the spirit of adventure, and the desire for a transit route--preferably a canal--across the Central American Isthmus all contributed to the attraction this small Central American state had for official and unofficial American expansionist sentiment.

The first efforts to establish a viable transit route through Nicaragua were made by Cornelius Vanderbilt who signed a treaty with the Nicaraguan government in 1849 calling for both the establishment of a land crossing and the construction of a canal. Later Vanderbilt reorganized his enterprise into three separate companies: the Vanderbilt Steamship Line to carry passengers from American ports to those in Nicaragua, the Accessory Transit Company to transport passengers across the Isthmus, and the American Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company to build the canal. For financial and technical reasons, the canal construction was never undertaken. Nonetheless, a land and water transit across Nicaragua was functioning smoothly by 1855. Before that time, however, Vanderbilt's control of the transit company had been challenged by former colleagues, and this dispute was never definitively resolved.

A soldier of fortune, William Walker of Tennessee, took advantage of the Liberal-Conservative civil war raging in Nicaragua in 1855 to make himself temporary master of that nation. He was finally dislodged in 1857 by Nicaraguan dissidents and the combined forces of the other four Central American republics, along with the intervention of the United States Navy.

Also in 1855, Henry L. Kinney of Texas took a group of American colonists to Nicaragua to settle a portion of the Caribbean coast which he purportedly had purchased. Encountering the enmity of Walker, Nicaragua, Great Britain, and the United States Department of State, the colony foundered and died within a few months.

Throughout the period, the United States government attempted to maintain a correct diplomatic posture toward Nicaragua and the other Central American states, blunt British commercial and imperialistic thrusts in the region, and restrict illegal activities of its own citizens while trying to protect their legitimate rights and interests. The State Department underwent severe frustration, having been unable to conclude a satisfactory treaty of friendship and commerce with Nicaragua during the entire decade. With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, American attention was diverted from the Isthmus, not to be renewed until the end of the century. For its part, Nicaragua emerged from the period with an increased sensitivity toward foreign intervention or entanglements, and with a heightened xenophobia directed at the United States.

The most valuable sources for this study were the New York newspapers, the State Department Archives, and the collected papers and published accounts of some of the participants. Unfortunately, Nicaraguan sources are sparse: the instability of the period, subsequent changes in archival locations, and finally, the 1972 earthquake have combined to make documentary material on the period negligible.

Files over 3MB may be slow to open. For best results, right-click and select "save as..."

Included in

History Commons