Republic of Lower California
Photos: Mike Selsky
Words: Adam Johnston
The earth is round, like an orange. It is not flat, there are no four corners. But if the world had any ends, Baja would be one of them. It is a place to disappear, on the far side of history, populated with folly and the forgotten.
In the fall of 1853, an American adventurer and asshole named William Walker left San Francisco with a few dozen men to conquer the Baja California territory from Mexico. Fueled by dreams of Manifest Destiny and financed by promises of land, Walker’s forces captured the sleepy town of La Paz and made it the capital of a new Republic of Lower California. Declaring himself president of this free and independent state with laws borrowed from slave state Louisiana, Walker justified his claims to the American press by stating: The geographical position of the province is such as to make it certainly separate and distinct in its interest from the other portion of the Mexican republic. But the moral and social ties which bound it to Mexico have been even weaker and more deplorable than the physical. The territory, under Mexican rule, would forever remain wild, half-savage, and uncultivated, covered with an independent and half-civilized people, desirous of keeping all foreigners from entering the limits of the State. When the people of a territory fail almost entirely to develop the resources that Nature has placed at their command, the interest of civilization requires others to go in and possess the land.
The Mexican government resisted such declarations and characterizations, quickly driving Walker’s forces across the border. Back in San Francisco, he was arrested and put on trial for starting an illegal war. Tried in the court of public opinion, a jury of his sympathetic peers acquitted him after a few minutes of deliberation. Several years of failed revolution in Central America would follow, and on the eve of the Civil War Walker was caught, tried and executed by firing squad in Honduras. The dream of Republic of Lower California died with him.
Give tragedy a little time and distance and you have the makings of comedy. Man plans, God laughs, Baja sleeps, to “forever remain wild, half-savage, and uncultivated.” The peninsula rests on the periphery of our continent and our consciousness, if not unspoilt then at least un-American. A people outside of history, a landscape at the edge of the world, the tides of memory left to surfers and fishermen. A place to disappear into the sun.