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Feature Article on William Van Fossen. Topic: PEOPLE
Written by Jim Sayre in March, 1998


Were medals given for interesting lives, a 19th century Shelby County, Ohio boy, who lived a life of high adventure but returned to die peacefully at home in Sidney, would be among the first in line.

William M. Van Fossen answered the siren call of the 1849 Gold Rush to California, seized upon the "filibuster" adventures of a General bent on South American conquest, placed his life on the front lines of the Civil War, and, finally, returned to Shelby County for an honored retirement.

Van Fossen, born in Butler county in 1832, was brought by his family to Port Jefferson as a boy. He became a farmer and never had a day's schooling in his life. Van Fossen later pursued his education, but…"When twenty-one years of age he scarcely knew the alphabet, and could not write his own name" (Sidney Daily News--SDN, Feb. 6, 1906).

He gold rushed to California with his father in 1849, but they started home via Nicaragua the next year. He left his father on the way home and shipped on a schooner running on Lake Nicaragua. He served on that vessel for three months, according to Sutton's History of Shelby County, but then sailed to San Francisco, "where he enlisted under Captain Crabb as a filibuster for General Walker's expedition to Central America." He had fallen under the spell of the "Manifest Destiny" adventures in South America made famous throughout the 1850s by General William Walker.

Gen. Walker's filibusters believed that the "United States, following its destiny, would eventually annex the entire Western Hemisphere from the Arctic snows to Cape Horn" (American Heritage, Dec. 1957). As soldiers for hire or mercenaries, they were willing to undertake adventures in South America conquest that the United States government was unwilling or unable to do. "The men who followed this highly dangerous way were called filibusters--a term used then in its most masculine sense, meaning freebooters, and not, as now, windy and obstructive politicians," American Heritage author Edward S. Wallace said.

There was a pro-slavery angle to this adventure in which Van Fossen became caught up. Walker, rebuffed in his diplomatic overtures to the government at Washington, was casting his lot with the southern states in the impending Civil War. There is reason to believe that some of the southern leaders shared Walker's dream of a Latin American slave union as an ally in their own struggle" (Wallace). Van Fossen escaped the clutches of manifest destiny with relatively minor difficulty. He and his filibustering comrades were captured on the high seas on their way to Central America by a U.S. man-of-war ship and put ashore at Acapulco. They returned by land to San Francisco, where more adventure awaited Van Fossen.

"He then shipped on board a sailing vessel as cabin boy for Australia" (SDN). "After making this voyage he next went on board a steamship as steward. This ship was running between San Francisco and Rio (de) Janeiro…In 1852 he went to the mines where he worked until 1859. It was during this time, while blocked in the snow during the winter in his hut that he learned to read and write."

The calmer domestic life beckoned the young adventurer by the late 1850s. Van Fossen returned to Shelby County in 1859, married, and, after a yearlong visit to California, settled in Sidney. But, his "interesting" life was just getting started.

Enlisting as a private in the 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1862, Van Fossen was seriously wounded at the Battle of Nashville. He was discharged as an orderly sergeant after three years of service. "Mr. Van Fossen, through disability caused by service in the army, has been unable to perform much labor, but having a competence for himself and wife…they are living a retired life, in the enjoyment of the labor of the past" (Sutton's History). He was a charter member of the Neal Post of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Highly regarded by his fellow citizens followed Van Fossen through his retirement. He was a featured participant in the cornerstone ceremony for the Monumental Building. "Sergt. W. M. Van Fossen, who in the procession was color-bearer of the Ninety-ninth regiment, veiled the corner-stone with the flag, saying, 'Done in memory of the fallen heroes of Shelby county, in the State of Ohio and town of Sidney, June 24th in the year of our Lord 1875'" (Hitchcock's History of Shelby County). The old soldier passed away on February 6, 1906, and was buried at Graceland Cemetery.

Unlike Van Fossen, General Walker, the filibustering leader, did not live to "enjoy the labor of the past." After several unsuccessful attempts to invade Nicaragua, Walker surrendered to a British naval officer who turned him over to Honduran authorities. A firing squad performed its duty before an adobe wall on September 12, 1860, and Walker with all his ambitions was buried in an unmarked grave.

Jim Sayre would like to thank Shelby County Historical Society member Tony Fazzini for information on Gen. Walker.


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