An Irishman’s Diary on Hugh O’Conor and the first Mexican ‘wall’

Hugh O’Conor – or Hugo Oconór, as he was known in Spanish – the founder of Tucson, Arizona, and governor of the Spanish Colony of Texas

Hugh O’Conor – or Hugo Oconór, as he was known in Spanish – the founder of Tucson, Arizona, and governor of the Spanish Colony of Texas

 

Two hundred and fifty years before Donald Trump began talking about building a wall along the southern border of the United States, an Irish soldier was responsible for erecting a similar cordon to guard against unwelcome visitors in the same Mexican borderlands.

But rather than protecting the north from Spanish-speaking migrants to the south, this “wall” was designed to prevent English-speakers crossing into Spanish America from the north.

In the 1760s, following humiliating losses during the Seven Years’ War, the Spanish were increasingly determined to guard the northern frontier of New Spain, its vast viceroyalty which encompassed present-day Mexico, much of the modern-day western and southern United States and Central America. The threat came primarily from the British, but also the French, indigenous tribes such as the Apache and, later in the century, the United States.

Realising they could not hope to hold much of the territory they claimed in the far north and west of the continent, the Spanish government instead concentrated on protecting the silver-rich territories of present-day northern Mexico by creating a cordon of 24 forts, or presidios, stretching from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico. The presidios were located at 100-mile intervals, running roughly along the 30th parallel north, on a line close to that of the current border between the United States and Mexico.

Not for the last time in American history, an Irish immigrant was chosen to build this crucial piece of infrastructure. Hugh O’Conor – or Hugo Oconór, as he was known in Spanish – was born in Dublin in 1734 and, at 16, commissioned a cadet in the Hibernia regiment of the Spanish army.

His family had a long tradition of overseas service. His great-grandfather, Daniel O’Conor, had served in the Spanish army during the Cromwellian era and his uncle Thomas was an officer in the French army. But Hugh’s greatest debt was to his cousin, the Co Meath-born Alexander O’Reilly. One of the most influential Irish emigrants to Spain in the late eighteenth century, O’Reilly was responsible for rebuilding Spain’s defensive fortifications in the Americas in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War and for launching the careers of many young Irish officers in the Spanish army.

In 1765, O’Reilly recommended O’Conor to the viceroy of New Spain. O’Conor first earned a hawkish reputation in Spanish Texas where he acted as interim governor.

Where others preferred a policy of conciliation towards the indigenous people, O’Conor believed in the sword and the musket, leading military campaigns against the Comanche and the Wichita.

This attitude continued when O’Conor took charge of building the defensive cordon along the Rio Grande in the early 1770s.

O’Conor’s position as commandant-inspector of the Interior Provinces of New Spain gave him extraordinary military powers in the region along the present-day Mexico-US border. His zeal and belief in strict military discipline led him into direct conflict with the provincial governors who favoured a more conciliatory approach, especially in their dealings with the Apache.

As Mark Santiago writes in his book The Red Captain, O’Conor employed “vicious hyperbole” to describe the Apache, whom he regarded as “barbarians”. He deplored their “inhuman cruelties”, which included “ripping open the bellies of pregnant women and other barbarous actions to which I can not refer, without offending modesty and decency”.

All of which emotive language was no doubt intended to wring resources out of the colonial government. O’Conor was in constant need of funds to reposition and rebuild forts and pay garrisons along the defensive line.

O’Conor spent six years building the cordon: reconnoitring, introducing military reforms and campaigning in the territories which today form part of the northern Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila and the US states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Indicative of the Irish propensity to innovation in the field of guerrilla warfare, O’Conor also formed flying columns of troops which patrolled the mining territories and mounted counterattacks against the Apache.

All of which took a devastating toll on his health. By the time he took up his new assignment as governor of Yucatán, he was a seriously ill man.

He died in Mérida, aged forty-four, less than two years later, on March 9th, 1779.

O’Conor’s most tangible legacy is the city of Tucson, Arizona. It grew on the site of the fort O’Conor established near a Pima village called San Agustín de Tucson on August 20 th, 1775.

Not all Arizonans find this a serendipitous event, not least the residents of neighbouring Phoenix, which maintains a healthy rivalry with Tucson. When told about O’Conor founding Tucson, one Phoenix local pointedly remarked to this writer: “Oh, so we have the Irish to blame!”

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