aTHE RED CAPTAIN: When I was growing up near Philadelphia, my best friends were a raft of Maureens and Margarets and Marys, and sometimes Margaret Marys. My sisters are Mary, Kathleen, Anne Marie and Eileen. I'm Margaret Rose. My brothers are William, Michael, Paul and James.
The names tell the tale. I was raised in a thoroughly Irish- American culture, steeped in the lore of Irish ancestors, if not exactly in the political consciousness of England's wrongs toward Ireland. Out here in the Great American Desert, I've become the emigrant longing for home, just like my great-grandparents. The green green valley of Pennsylvania's Delaware River is my Old Sod, my lost homeland.
Like any lonely exile, I perk up at news of the Irish, or Irish-Americans, or Philadelphians, or any combination thereof. I wince at the typically history-lite newspaper articles on Ireland's troubles, which blithely, and wrongly, describe them as a mere generation old. But one local newspaper article that was published a few years back was utterly charming. It revealed that by some mysterious historical force an Irishman by the name of Hugh O'Conor, in service to the Spanish king, had actually founded Tucson in 1775. Never mind that the Hohokam lived along the Santa Cruz long before O'Conor arrived, or that the Pima and Tohono O'odham had succeeded them. O'Conor, rechristened Hugo by the Spanish, picked out the site for the Spanish presidio of San Agustín. The fort eventually evolved into the city of Tucson so O'Conor gets the founding credit.
How an Irishman happened to be serving the Spanish in America is a mystery that the annual St. Patrick's Day newspaper stories never explain. Now a Tucson historian by the name of Mark Santiago has unraveled the mystery in his new book The Red Captain: The Life of Hugo O'Conor, Commandant Inspector of the Interior Provinces of New Spain. There's a corresponding exhibition at the Historical Society Museum, Hugo O'Conor and the Apache Frontier. I rushed to get the book. Somehow, I thought, old O'Conor and I had a lot in common, having both ended up in the desert far from our green homes. His tale would make connections for me. It didn't exactly turn out that way.
The military title of Santiago's book should have warned me that Hugo's was not going to be a pretty story. But the book does relate the odd story of the Irishman in the desert to the political turmoil that had wracked his homeland for centuries. O'Conor was the second son in an Irish Catholic noble family, born in Dublin in 1734. Though his family apparently descended from the last high king of Ireland, Hugh, like other Catholics, had decidedly limited opportunities in life. To crush opposition to their rule of Ireland, the English had enacted the draconian Penal Codes, which prevented the Irish from holding onto any shred of political or economic power.
As a result, thousands of young Irishmen took wing from Ireland and fled to Europe. Most of these young men, poetically called the Wild Geese, or in Irish na Geana Fiadhaine, decided on military careers in the armies of England's enemies, such as the Catholic king of Spain. Many perished on European battlefields. Hugh left home at 16, never to return, destined to die without a family at age 44 in faraway Mexico.
With the help of a well-placed Irish cousin, O'Conor became an officer in the Spanish army. After some years of service, young O'Conor eventually was posted to Mexico. The far northern borders of Spain's colonial empire were in bad shape, with corrupt officers stealing from their own poorly paid troops, and Apaches relentlessly attacking the isolated settlements. O'Conor's job was twofold. He was to bring order and discipline to the remote presidios and, more importantly to Tucson's history, establish a new "presidial line." This string of strategically placed forts from the Baja to the Gulf of Mexico were to stamp out the Apache menace once and for all. O'Conor decided on the site of San Agustín after noting that water flowed in the nearby Santa Cruz and that the surrounding mesquite bosques and mountains would provide plenty of wood.
Here's where I start to lose sympathy for my putative Irish hero. O'Conor was a loyal officer, eager to carry out his duties, and he approached his Apache mission with vigor. So tenacious was he in his attacks on the enemy that they gave him the name el capitán colorado, the red captain. Santiagao notes hopefully that the name might indicate that O'Conor was a redhead. The more likely explanation is that colorado stood for blood.
There were slaughters and atrocities on both sides. O'Conor probably was enraged by the deaths of Spanish and Mexican settlers he was charged with protecting. But I suppose it's too much to ask of his 18th-century consciousness to see the parallels between what he was doing to the Native Americans in the New World and what the English did to his native country in the old. He didn't. There was no flash of conscience. He was a good soldier. He just did his job.
The tragedy of the O'Conor saga is that, oppressed in his homeland, he saw his only career opportunity in a trade that oppressed others. There are no innocents here. Just a sobering realization that despite his sad story--and his lovely Irish name--O'Conor was no Irish hero.
Hugo O'Conor and the Apache Frontier continues through August 31 at the Arizona Historical Society Museum, 949 E. Second St. Suggested donation is $3 for adults, 50 cents for children. For more information call 628-5774.
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