On January 2, 1933, the 5th Marine Regiment, United States Marines Corps, withdrew from Nicaragua. It trained and left behind a powerful National Guard in a country beset by struggle between liberal and conservative forces centered respectively in the cities of León and Granada.
Founded by the Spanish in the early 1550s, the two cities became competing poles of power. Their militant rivalry often left Nicaragua subject to outside interests even after the country gained independence from Spain in the early 1800s.
British and U.S. interests in Nicaragua grew during the mid-1800s because of its strategic importance as a transit route across the Central American isthmus. With the advent of the California gold rush, Nicaragua proved a popular interoceanic shortcut. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s steamship company transported supplies and prospectors from the Atlantic, along Nicaragua’s San Juan River, then across Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific.
John M. Letts wrote of his 1849 travels through Nicaragua:
…arrived at Lake Leon. The appearance of this lake as it opened to our view was peculiarly striking. It is shut in by lofty mountains, which tower up in innumerable peaks of volcanic origin…the smoke curls gracefully out, commingling with the clouds…
We passed along down to Mat[e]ares, a small town situated on an eminence overlooking the lake, and inhabited by descendants of the African race. We breakfasted on chickens, frijoles, tortillos[sic], eggs…and after an hour’s detention started for Managua. We passed through a delightful region of country, the soil, in many places, highly cultivated, bearing the impress of thrift and industry, I had not before seen in the country. Fruits grow in abundance, cattle had an unlimited range, and were the finest I ever saw; the country was broken, the mountains towering up to the clouds, and some covered with perpetual snow; but at their base were vales watered by mountain rivulets, and shaded by groves of orange and fig, seeming a retreat fit for the angels.
John M. Letts, California Illustrated; Including a Description of the Panama and Nicaragua Routes, pages 153-154. “California As I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900
In 1855, at the invitation of Nicaraguan liberals, a Tennessee filibusterer named William Walker invaded Nicaragua with a small armed force and the hope of extending the southern U.S. slave culture overseas. He enjoyed initial success, however, when he presumed to establish himself as president of Nicaragua, Walker was routed by the joint efforts of Nicaragua’s opposing political factions, Vanderbilt’s steamship company, the British government, and other Central American republics. Walker narrowly escaped their capture only to surrender himself to the U.S. Navy in 1857.
In 1897, President William McKinley appointed the Nicaragua Canal [first Walker] Commission to reexamine the logistics of a canal route through the Isthmus of Nicaragua. The commission estimated the cost of construction at $118,113,790 not including interest and administration. However, when Nicaragua’s President Zelaya invited both Germany and Japan to compete with the United States for construction rights, the U.S. built through Panama instead.
Beginning in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt framed the Big Stick policy to advance U. S. interests and to restrict European influence in the Americas. In 1909 this corollary to the Monroe Doctrine affected Nicaragua. Responding to the execution of two of its citizens, the U.S. landed four-hundred marines on Nicaragua’s shore. In a 1912 effort to retain power, conservative forces requested aid and the U.S. landed 2,700 marines. Thereafter, the U.S. maintained a presence in Nicaragua almost continually until 1933.
- Learn more about the role of Spain in the early development of Middle America, see the online exhibition 1492: An Ongoing Voyage.
- Search on the term Nicaragua in the collection “California As I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 to find travelers’ accounts of the area.
- Search on the term Nicaragua in the online Handbook of Latin American Studies to develop a bibliography on the nation. The Handbook is an annual bibliography on Latin America consisting of over five thousand works selected and annotated by scholars from around the world.
- Search on Latin America, Spain, Theodore Roosevelt, the Monroe Doctrine, steamships, Dominican Republic, or the Panama Canal in Today in History for relevant features.
- Search on the term spanish in California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties, 1938-1940 to find some 100 songs sung in the language.